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Special Report: The Role of Arab Media in Iraq War


Coalition forces now control Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit. This week, Kuwait University held a seminar to discuss the role of Arab media during the war in Iraq.

Arab television has a huge impact on Middle Eastern audiences, primarily because of its broad reach. This is the first time for these stations to invest so many resources on reporting a conflict. Their role during this short war was discussed by the experts from the Arab world, in a meeting at the Kuwait University.

Inside a meeting hall, Ali al Turah, dean of social sciences at Kuwait University, says that, when the war started, Arab-language television stations would often suppress facts, as they attempted to project a victorious Saddam rather than his impending demise. Mr. Turah thinks Arab-language television stations thus ignored their responsibility to the Arab people.

Out in the corridor, Fayek al Ali, a well-known opponent of the ousted regime, says the amount of self censorship in the Arabic media results from their being for so long part of a government-run media system. He predicts that, after several weeks, many Arab-language television stations will switch sides. He says the change will be an expression of the wishes of the governments of those countries whose television stations for 35 years ignored the suffering of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, choosing, instead, to portray him as a national hero and a leader of the Islamic world.

Professor Shamlan al Easa, of Kuwait University, blames Arab governments. He says Arabs should be rid of government-controlled media. He says the region's totalitarian governments are afraid of the reaction of the Arab people to the real democracy coming to Iraq.

The professor says the media may be a powerful tool of government and is easy prey for governments which seek to control public opinion. He says that, over the past 40 years, many Arab countries achieved independence, but none of them has taken the road towards democracy.

"You know that, yesterday, the people [of Iraq] for the first time demonstrated against Americans. [This has] never happened before against the [Iraq] government. No demonstration against the government. They would shoot them. No demonstrations in the past 25 years," says Professor Easa. "That is what scared the Arab regime and Arab media; that genuine democracy would be in the Arab world. No surprise to me to see everyone against the Americans, because they are scared of democracy."

Professor Easa says the Arab media is most influential among working-class people. The middle class has access to Western media, so he views their knowledge of social developments as being more objective. The professor says the problem is that, in the Arab world, the middle class is the minority and autocratic authorities use the working class to stifle them.

"The media may influence very much -- play a role -- the people in lower-middle class. But the intelligentsia in the Arab world, they know very well the facts, but they want to delay the change in the Arab world," Mr. Easa says. "The people who control the media, all those people, they don't want change because they know democracy will dissolve their regime. They are trying to delay the process of change in Iraq and [in] the Arab world. That is what is happening today in Arab media…looks like they influence everyone but the influence [is] very small, majority of people in lower classes."

With the fighting subsiding, many people note a change in the tone of Arab television towards more neutrality and objectivity. Will the war be a catalyst for an improved Arab media? Abdullah Beshara -- president of the Diplomatic Center of Strategic Studies in Kuwait -- says it all involves pragmatism.

"Well, I don't think it is a change of heart. Victory is the answer to all criticism. So it is victory and fait accompli and the situation in Baghdad, all these elements prompted the Arab media to change. They didn't change their hearts," says Mr. Beshara. "They owe the Iraqi people a big apology for their behavior. They were not impartial. They were not objective. They wanted to prolong the Saddam Hussein era at the expense of the Iraqi people. If I were the Iraqi people, I would demand an apology."

Mr. Beshara says the speed at which the coalition forces captured Baghdad forced the Arab media to change their slant faster than they had expected, revealing even more starkly the contrast between their coverage before the war and now.

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