Faisal al-Qassem is (in)famous for the provocative tyle of his Al Jazeera show, “The Opposite Direction”. The moderator of the “Politics, Media and Misinformation” panel warns him that the conference “framework doesn’t allow his usual confrontational style.” Perhaps he missed the memo – his talk is one of the most provocative so far, throwing bombs at the western media, or at his picture of it. He wonders, “Why are we still disagreeing on the role of western media in the third world? Western media is not interested in democracy except within its own borders… just as there is no democracy in international relations, there’s no democracy in coverage of international relations.”
Much of his argument focuses on Palestine. He quotes an unnamed American journalist who visited Palestine and came back reporting, “I saw hell with my own eyes.” al-Qassem said he was looking forward to his piece. He responded, “If I wrote a single sentence about what I saw in Palestine, I would not stay in my job.” The western media, he asserts, covers Palestine from Israeli eyes. We’ve heard thousands of voices in the western media singing the same chorus. How many voices dissented from the chorus in the run-up to the Iraq war – “you can count the dissenters on the fingers of a single hand.” Even respected voices have joined the chorus: “Thomas Friedman’s rhetoric makes us pray for George Bush.”
Abu Ghraib is “one of the biggest media tricks believed by the Arab media.” It’s only the tip of the iceberg, one tenth above the water, nine tenths below. “Abu Ghraib is nothing compared to the rest of US dictatorship and facism, in comparison to the millions of displaced Iraqis. Abu Ghraib is a tree covering the forest behind it.” He quotes Amy Goodman’s study which argues that 395 of 400 commentators on mainstream US stations before the Iraq war supported the invasion. “What integrity, what freedom, what independence” are we celebrating in the Western media?
In comparison to al-Qassem’s rant, many of the other speaker’s remarks are quite short. Michael Oeskes, executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, talks about “transparency and sin”. The biggest sin that journalists commit is oversimplification. It’s understandable, as the actual job of journalists is to simplify, clarify and explain.
Steve Clark, the news director of Al Jazeera, argues that “Doha is the epicenter of a seismic shift in journalism”, a “formidable, irresistable force” based in the developing world which seems to “reverse the flow of news from the South to the North”. The goal is to provide coverage of Africa that goes beyond AIDS, famine and war – Al Jazeera is doing this with eight bureaus in Africa, with a goal of having ten by year’s end. “We want to be in places where others are not”, like Zimbabwe, where Clark promises “the definitive interview with the President of that country a few days from now.” He notes that Al Jazeera is being welcomed in Latin America and Asia, that there’s a perception of Al Jazeera as “a campaigning, positive force”. One of the open questions for Al Jazeera is “why the West is wary, while the South is so welcoming.”
Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star offers some principles of the “reality of corporate-sponsored media”:
– All journalism is subjective and biased, and reflects the traits and biases of reporters
– All journalism is parochial, and can be more so in times of war. “Journalism can become jingoism, and this is even starting to happen in Canada” with national military involvement in Afghanistan.
– Terrorism is real, and it can’t be wished away/
– Most western media is pro-American and pro-Israeli because that’s what the public opinion is.
The dominant narrative in the West has been that of the West under siege from Muslim terrorists. “But Muslims have been under siege ever since 9/11”, with up to 600,000 innocent civilians killed in Iraq – “we don’t even care enough to count the dead properly” in Afghanistan. This is giving states a license to do what they will in places like Palestine, Thailand, Chechnya and other places where crackdowns on “terror” can be crackdowns on Muslims as a whole/
Siddiqui argues that more Muslims have died than non-Muslims in acts of terror in Madrid, the UK, the US, not even counting terror attacks aimed at fellow Muslims. There’s a laying of collective guilt on Muslims, he argues – he cites a quote from Anne Frank: “When a Christian does something wrong, it’s the fault of that Christian, but when a Jew does something wrong, it’s the fault of all Jews.” He argues that this now applies to Muslims: “The crazy act of one Muslim is th fault of all Muslims.” The west is in a hunt for “moderate Muslims”, but it’s hard to know how we define that group. “99.9% of Muslims oppose terrorism.” But 99.9% don’t agree with or trust Bush, Blair and Israel. So