Washington Pushes Freedom – But Not for Al-Jazeera

When the U.S. state department shyly released a human rights report two weeks ago amidst an international outcry over U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners, it slipped in some tough talk on media freedom – against the practice, not for it as would be expected.

Lorne Craner, deputy assistant secretary for democracy and human rights, told reporters that Arab TV network Al-Jazeera was inciting violence against U.S. troops in occupied Iraq.

“Al-Jazeera, from what I understand from CPA (the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq) and others, is quite different in what they do. They go a lot further than New Yorker magazine or CBS. And that’s my point. We are extremely tolerant, we have been for over 200 years in this country, of criticism, but incitement of violence is something else.”

The accusations from Craner, the man whose job includes promoting media freedom worldwide, were the last in a series of high-level U.S. moves to muzzle the TV network, which has so far managed to outpace many U.S. news sources in covering the U.S.-led attack and occupation of Iraq, starting more than one year ago.

Although Al-Jazeera, which started broadcasting in 1996, irked both the U.S. media and the Bush administration even before Washington invaded Iraq as the first step in its plan to remake the Middle East on a “democratic” model, the attacks turned vicious after the channel aired lived coverage of civilian casualties of the U.S. military’s heavy bombardment of the town of Fallujah in April.

Al-Jazeera correspondent Ahmed Mansour was apparently the only reporter in the city when U.S. forces were enforcing a crippling siege.

According to medics in Fallujah, the U.S. offensive claimed the lives of at least 700 Iraqis, mostly women and children, and left up to 1,500 others injured.

The senior U.S. military spokesman, Mark Kimmitt, suggested that Iraqis who saw civilian deaths on Al-Jazeera, “change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that is lies.”

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went further. “I can definitively say that what Al-Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.”

“But you know what our forces do,” he added. “They don’t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That’s just outrageous nonsense! It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.”

Secretary of State Collin Powell, the outwardly dovish face of the administration, went further and earlier this month formally demanded that visiting Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani tighten the screws on the 24-hour network, which is based in his country.

Powell said in statements after meeting al-Thani in Washington that relations between the two countries were being harmed by Al-Jazeera’s coverage.

The channel has also taken some heat on the ground. On May 21, Rashid Hamid Wali, assistant cameraman and fixer for Al-Jazeera, was killed by gunfire in the Iraqi city of Karbala, the last in a string of journalists who been killed in Iraq.

On several occasions, the channel’s correspondents have also been banned from government offices and news conferences in Iraq.

Media analysts here say that Washington’s attack on Al-Jazeera, under the pretext of fighting the promotion of violence, has negative implications both for media freedom and for U.S. political strategy.

“To say that running false stories if they could inflame the conflict is grounds for ending the media outlets’ right to report is to say that no major U.S. media outlet should be allowed to report anymore,” said Jim Naureckas, editor of media watch dog magazine Extra.

The New York Times, for example, ran a story quoting Iraqi defectors saying the country possessed weapons of mass destruction, which was one of many articles published by the U.S. media that inflamed the conflict, he added.

Washington also risks losing more of its credibility over its attack on the Arab TV network.

“Officials in Washington keep saying they want to encourage democratization in the Middle East, but the Bush administration’s moves to throttle Al-Jazeera certainly indicate otherwise,” said Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

Others see the U.S. attack as emblematic of its political and military woes in the region.

“The U.S. is losing the war in Iraq and is increasingly isolated politically in the Arab world, so what’s its response? Blame the media. The U.S. media wouldn’t accept such an argument from Bush the candidate, so why accept it from Bush the commander in chief?” said Reese Erlich, a foreign correspondent who has covered the Middle East extensively for 20 years.

The best way to control Al-Jazeera and other media outlets that defy Washington’s control is to stop atrocities on the ground, analysts say.

“There are ways that the U.S. government could legitimately reduce the negative coverage it gets on Al-Jazeera. For instance, if President Bush wants Al-Jazeera to stop airing grisly footage of dead Iraqi civilians, as commander in chief he could order U.S. troops to stop killing them,” Erlich said.

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