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Iraq

Where you stand depends on what you watch

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 3, 2003


AMMAN, Jordan -- After a Baghdad market was destroyed March 28, purportedly by a U.S. missile strike, viewers of CNN saw nothing more jarring than a man lying on a gurney with a bandage around his arm.

But those watching Al-Jazeera, the world's leading Arabic-language channel, witnessed far more gruesome scenes. A young woman's severed head. A dead child with horrific abdominal wounds. A worker at the morgue displaying one lifeless form after another.

"I agree they are very ugly pictures but we have to see that -- sometimes the facts are ugly," says Adnan Friej, a Jordanian electrical engineer.

"If there are a lot of civilian casualties I can see them straight away on Al-Jazeera, but if I switch over to CNN I get nothing. They are selective -- they should show what's happening."

Unlike the 1991 Gulf War, when CNN had the only live coverage from Baghdad, viewers can now choose among dozens of channels with live reports from inside Iraq. But it often seems as if Arab and Western correspondents are covering entirely different conflicts.

On CNN, Fox and other Western channels, which have dozens of journalists traveling with U.S. and British soldiers, much of the coverage is devoted to tanks kicking up sand in the desert and reporters giving dramatic, if deliberately vague accounts of allied military activities. On Western TV, it appears to be a high-tech, low casualty war.

On Al-Jazeera and other Arab stations, meanwhile, cameras dwell on dead and wounded civilians, wailing relatives and frantic rescue workers, clawing through the rubble of ruined homes and stores. The impression is of innocent people being slaughtered by the dozens.

Some in the Arab world find the coverage on both sides distressing.

"Every day, I scan through 20 different Arab and American TV services," Rami G. Khouri, a respected Jordanian commentator, wrote in the Jordan Times.

"This is a painful exercise because the business of reporting and interpreting the serious news of war has been transformed into a mishmash of emotional cheerleading, expressions of primordial tribal and national identities, overt ideological manipulation by governments and crass commercial pandering to the masses in pursuit of the audience share need to sell advertising."

To most Arab viewers, the difference in TV coverage has only reinforced a widespread perception: that the United States and Britain are ruthless aggressors trying to control the entire Arab world.

"At the start of the war, I used to watch Fox News every day and I'd get frustrated and angry," said Iyad Kayyali, a Jordanian factory owner who attended college in Texas. "They give just one side of the story and are very prejudiced. It's like they are supporting the Jewish people and all Arabs are terrorists."

Kayyali also tried Britain's BBC, which he found "much better than the American stations. Most of the time they tell the truth." But now he watches Arab stations exclusively, convinced they are the only ones that show the uncensored suffering of the Iraqi people.

Until recently, Arab viewers wanting news in their own language had nothing but state-controlled media. Now there are three relatively independent channels -- Abu Dhabi and Al-Arabiya, both in the United Arab Emirates, and Al-Jazeera in Qatar, the Persian Gulf state from which U.S. Central Command is directing the allied war effort.

Of the three channels, Al-Jazeera is the oldest and most popular. Founded in 1996 by Qatar's progressive ruler, it claims more than 35-million viewers in the Arab world and some 175,000 who pay to see it on cable in North America.

Al-Jazeera's iconoclastic approach has angered both Western and Arab governments. Jordan and other Arab countries have periodically banned its correspondents for coverage deemed offensive to their regimes, and on Thursday Al-Jazeera said Iraq is expelling one of its reporters from Baghdad and barring another from reporting. During the war on terror, Bush administration officials accused it of being a mouthpiece for Osama Bin Laden by airing tapes of the al-Qaida leader.

And in the current conflict, Al-Jazeera has angered the administration by showing graphic footage of dead American soldiers and terrified POWs. Nonetheless, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other allied leaders have continued to give interviews on the channel because of the huge audience.

But Al-Jazeera's war coverage has hurt it in other respects. Hackers disabled its new English-language Internet site, and the New York Stock Exchange banned its correspondent.

"It was wrong because so many Arab people are investing in Wall Street and they have the right to know what's going on in their own language," said Kayalli, the Texas-educated factory owner. "America is supposed to have freedom of the press, but after Sept. 11, it's not the democracy I used to know."

Like their U.S. and British counterparts, the Arab channels feature military analysts, many of them retired Egyptian generals. Instead of focusing on Anglo-American military successes, as the Western stations do, the Arab ones highlight the setbacks.

"CNN says American troops are advancing here and here but it's all lies," says Al-Zabe, the produce dealer. "They couldn't even capture Umm Qasr for days."

Viewers think the Arab channels also are more credible when it comes to showing the war's toll on civilians. Scenes deemed too graphic for American audiences don't faze Arabs used to the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It's part of our life," says Waseem Tayeh, a graduate student. "Every day you open your newspaper or turn on TV and you see killing -- it's nothing new."

Many even let their children watch coverage of the war, though one young mother shields her sons' eyes from gruesome images. "I don't want to let hatred and filth build in their hearts," says Ranya Barghoot, a banker.

Like Barghoot, most adults interviewed here in Jordan watch the Arab channels almost constantly. They don't want to miss any news of the war, no matter how depressing.

"I watch until 3 a.m. and even while I sleep, the TV is on," says Friej, the engineer. "Most of us are taking either Valium or Elavil -- it's terrible."

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