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[infowar.de] AT 04.05.06: Al-Jazeera International is to go on air by mid-2006
A new weapon in the 'war of ideas'
By Ehsan Ahrari
A global war of ideas is set to begin and Anglo-American dominance of
international TV news about to end. Arab and Muslim perspectives will get
wider play after Al-Jazeera introduces a global television channel that
will telecast news in English.
Al-Jazeera International is to go on air by mid-2006, beamed from its
headquarters in the Qatari capital Doha, with regional broadcast centers in
London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur.
When Al-Jazeera was established in 1996, no one had even heard the phrase
"war of ideas" in the context of the world of Islam. It was established to
give the Arab world Arab perspectives on major global issues. That idea
became quite profound in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the
United States on September 11, 2001.
A lot has been written in the post-September 11 era on the war of ideas.
However, a big chunk of it has been created in the US. Now this war will
acquire a global dimension, with Al-Jazeera establishing a global
"battlefield" of ideas.
When the Bush administration went into Afghanistan, it got a taste of how
an Arab information medium, Al-Jazeera, would spin the coverage of the
battle in that country. It did not like the coverage, which was instantly
dubbed "anti-American", "heavily biased", and even "pro-Taliban or al-Qaeda".
Everyone likes to talk about the globalization of the information
revolution, but that revolution has been slow in coming to news coverage,
especially the television version. The world thus far has been under the
oligopoly of the British Broadcasting Corp and the Cable News Network in
terms of international coverage of news.
According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, BBC World reaches 279 million
households in 200 countries, while CNN International reaches 200 million
households in 200 countries. Al-Jazeera International, to be funded
initially by the Qatari government, expects to reach 30 million to 40
million households around the world on its launch day.
The monopoly English-language news coverage from the United States and the
United Kingdom has provided an inordinate amount of leverage in news
selection and, more important, in propagating government spin on issues of
global import and interest.
The standard line underlying the coverage of news in the US and the UK is
that it is free from the control of government. That is certainly true.
However, governments in both countries have a huge say in what news items
are covered and how much time is allotted to them daily, because when
governments hold hearings, conferences and issues analyses, those news
channels are forced to cover them because it is news.
Consequently, long presidential or prime-ministerial news conferences or
lengthy coverage of major news events present the US and British
perspectives to the American and British and even world audiences. But the
foreign perspectives on those very same events are offered on a summarized
basis. What is also not stated is the inordinate amount of tilt that is
wittingly or unwittingly provided for the US or UK perspectives, simply by
covering them so extensively. That automatically creates a bias in the
reporting of news.
In the coverage of news, the notion of objectivity requires that the views
of both sides be presented. However, by presenting "both" sides of a story,
there is still ample room for editorializing by the journalist who is
covering the story. Besides, being in the US or British news media, there
is a natural inclination to be sympathetic to your own country's
perspectives. That is a human predilection.
That reality was never clearer than it has been since September 11, and
especially during the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The US
Department of Defense required that journalists should be "embedded", which
became a euphemism for attaching them to various military units and making
sure they didn't talk about things that would jeopardize military
operations. At least on surface, that is a reasonable rule, but the
military used it to present predominantly the US perspectives during both
The controversial aspect of that entire issue was that Al-Jazeera
journalists could not be forced to abide by those rules in Afghanistan, at
least until the dismantlement of Taliban rule. However, during the Iraq
campaign, especially after the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein,
the Al-Jazeera coverage could not remain that independent.
One correspondent from Al-Jazeera made an interesting observation about the
Bush administration's decision to embed journalists. By doing so, the US
military provided reporters good coverage from the front side of a military
operation, but never from its back side, he said. What he was saying was
that the frontal coverage never presents viewers the destruction, blood and
gore related to war that the back-side coverage of it does.
In embedding the journalists with military units, the US military could
also ensure that the US version of what was transpiring could be provided
not only to the American but to the global audience. Al-Jazeera changed all
that, if not that much from the military theaters, certainly from a wider
angle inside Afghanistan and Iraq.
From the perspectives of the Bush administration, the most troubling part
of Al-Jazeera's coverage was that the US audience became increasingly aware
of the "anti-American bias" of that channel, and how much US officials felt
constrained and frustrated about not being able to counter it. The only
difference was that most Americans did not get Al-Jazeera coverage
first-hand. Now they are about to get that coverage in their living rooms.
Consequently, the international coverage of battlefields will
unquestionably undergo profound changes.
Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya, another Arab channel, were determined to
provide the Arab and Muslim perspectives on the news. So the coverage of
the intifada (uprising) that started in September 2000 was done with a keen
interest in underscoring the Palestinian suffering. Al-Jazeera seems to
have a corner in terms of getting the propaganda tapes from al-Qaeda. At
first, it televised those tapes in their entirety. However, under severe US
criticism that Osama bin Laden might be sending secret messages, Al-Jazeera
decided to air summaries of the tapes.
Meanwhile, there's likely to be a global Islamic channel in the near future
from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia or Indonesia. Such a channel would couch the
entire debate of the war of ideas in the Islamic context, as opposed to
Al-Jazeera, which will maintain its Arab slant on the news.
Now there is ample reason to feel optimistic that the Arab and Muslim
audiences will have an opportunity to compare daily news, perspectives and
slants from the East as well as the West. Through such comparisons they
should learn a lot about how much substance there is when the US says it
has no quarrel with Islam. By the same token, they would be exposed to
inadequacies of the tyrannies under which they have been living. Such a
visualization on a daily basis is likely, in the not-too-distant future, to
bring an end to those systems that should have been thrown into the dustbin
of history decades ago.
The globalization of the war of ideas would pose the same type of
challenges to the United States as the onslaught of democracy in a
non-democratic polity. The US will have to compete hard on a global scale
to promote its own version of reality and truth. Now the war of ideas will
be truly democratic in the sense that there is likely to be an open
competition between those who are packaging their information well but
lying and those who are telling the truth, which might be ugly though still
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria,
Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at eahrari -!
- cox -
- yahoo -
His columns appear regularly in Asia Times
Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.