Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Al-Jazeera in the current conflict

Hezbollah's propaganda ministry
By Rafik Halabi

A month before the war in Lebanon broke out, the Al Jazeera channel began filming documentary programs, which have not yet been broadcast, about life in Israel and, among other things, the Hebrew press. In an interview that a reporter for the channel conducted with me, she read out questions that had been dictated by the office in Amman and the editorial desk in Qatar. I told her the Israeli press reflects, in many cases, the opinions of the government and the public's wishes. The Hebrew press has for the most part moved to the center and is even moving rightward. I asserted that the role of the media is not to join the cheerleading squad of the government and the street. To my mind it is natural and good that in Israel different approaches be represented and criticism of the press's functioning be expressed. Al Jazeera wanted to depict the ills of the Israeli press with respect to its attitude toward the Arab population in Israel, the Palestinian problem and the approach to Islam. However, the directors and editors of the channel need to examine their consciences with respect to their part in Lebanon War II.

I will begin by saying that it is to Al Jazeera's credit that it has changed the journalistic and cultural values in the Arab world. On its news and current affairs programs harsh criticism of their regimes is heard from Egyptian, Jordanian and even Moroccan and Saudi intellectuals. Al Jazeera is the Hyde Park of the Arab world. However, during the Lebanon War the channel set aside its journalistic values and enlisted on behalf of Hezbollah. Right during the first week Ghassan bin Jado - the director of the office in Beirut and Hassan Nasrallah's darling - was granted an exclusive interview with the chairman in his hideout. The field reporters for Al Jazeera, most notably among them Abbas Nasser, had no hesitations about describing the Israel Defense Forces' actions as a "barbaric attack." In their opinion, the air force was only seeking out "the weak" civilians, "the children, the old people and the women."

The claim that Hezbollah fighters were concealing themselves in underground hideouts beneath the homes of the miserable civilians did not interest them. They broadcast shocking, vivid descriptions and chilling footage of the killing at Qana, the likes of which have not been shown in the West for years. The Al Jazeera journalists wanted to provide a victory for Hezbollah in the psychological war. In a number of cases, when they invited an Israeli interviewee they treated him like a punching bag, as though they saw it as an obligation to insult him and in this way make their contribution to Hezbollah's war effort. When their Israeli interlocutor expressed criticism of the war or of the government, I felt the Al Jazeera people did not understand the freedom of expression and the democracy in Israel. The matter of the IDF spokesman's representative who in the interview with him evinced arrogance and insensitivity - merits investigation by the IDF. Nevertheless, he and all the other Israeli spokesmen were invited in order to "get hit on the head" more than to voice what they had to say.

At the end of last week, when television crews were permitted to go down south, Bin Jado was accompanied by a Hezbollah fighter whose entire function boiled down to holding a microphone in front of the man who gave extravagant descriptions of his heroism in face of "the Zionist soldiers, who wept like women."

He acted like a spokesman and not like a journalist, in a way that only reinforced the sense that Al Jazeera was functioning as the Hezbollah's propaganda ministry.

Al Jazeera apparently has two distinct codes: The one relating to the Arab world is based on journalistic values of fairness and search for the truth; the other has to do with Israel. All of the commentators who appeared in the Al Jazeera studios in Egypt and in Beirut saw only Israeli failures. And what about the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees whose world had come tumbling down on them? In Lebanon are they not mourning the hundreds of dead, the dozens of destroyed villages? Is it reasonable to assume that the $12,000 dollars that Islamic resistance activists are handing out in front of the cameras will be greeted with cries of "Long live Nasrallah?"; the impression emerged that Al Jazeera has an ideological line that is nourished by "the Arab nationalists" and "the Islamic resistance."

Al Jazeera, my favorite channel, severely disappointed me during the Lebanon War when it fled from fulfilling its journalistic obligation and preferred to serve as a bulletin board on which the Hezbollah hung its statements.

The writer is a journalist and lecturer in communications.

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