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[] 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 wars.

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 reflecting reality.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at eahrari -!
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His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: