Published September 29, 2003
The Iraqi Governing Council (search) -- the national authority created to represent and empower Iraqis until new constitutional arrangements and free elections can be effected -- recently caused a stir in Arab and Western circles.
In one of its first official actions, it announced a temporary ban on the Al Jazeera (search) and Al Arabiya satellite television channels in Iraq.
"Censorship!" cried the networks involved and sympathetic critics. Some warned darkly that this measure confirmed fears that an American occupation of Iraq would create a new puppet authoritarian system, not a Western-style liberal democracy rooted in freedom of the press. Even the United States government and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (search) felt compelled to distance themselves from the decision, although neither wanted to direct its reversal.
This American and allied attitude is preposterous. For one thing, the Governing Council's initiative was an exceedingly mild shot across the bow to the two "independent" Arab media outlets. The ban is, by its own terms, supposed to expire in two weeks' time. Even during that period, it is not altogether clear whether -- absent active measures (such as jamming) of which the Iraqi interim government is clearly incapable -- such a ban would have any practical effect on what is shown about and from inside Iraq, other than to prevent the networks' credentialed crews from covering official activities.
(It is a bit rich that self-annointed champions of international press freedoms are so incensed about this modest Iraqi action when there has been scarcely a peep of protest about the crushing of virtually all independent media in "democratic" Russia, accompanied by Vladimir Putin's increasingly brazen exploitation of the state-controlled outlets for a new cult of personality.)
More to the point, the Governing Council had ample grounds for denouncing Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Both have been steady purveyors of enemy propaganda since well before Sept. 11. In its aftermath, they have routinely transmitted calls-to-arms via tapes purporting to feature the likes of Usama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, under the pretext that doing so is not a nakedly hostile act of incitement against the West, in general, and the United States, in particular. Instead, ironically, they justify such actions by the almost-exclusively Western tradition of free expression, claiming to be merely covering the "news."
During a just-concluded trip to Iraq -- including visits with senior commanders, Iraqi officials and others in Baghdad, Tikrit and Mosul -- I learned firsthand of the further reasons for the Governing Council's action. It turns out that the two Arab networks have made a fetish of broadcasting murderous attacks on Americans and their Iraqi and coalition allies, often accompanied by commentary or "news analysis" that makes no effort to conceal that the speakers' sympathies lie with the perpetrators.
Al Jazeera has also been observed arriving at the scene of a roadside bombing or other attack before it occurs. While the network has claimed that this was because it had been misinformed that the attack had already taken place and innocently wound up getting to the scene first, this strains credulity. At the very least, the attackers are waiting for the sympathetic Arab TV to show up before causing their carnage, knowing that it will feature prominently on subsequent broadcasts and be picked up by other networks around the world.
It seems unlikely to be any coincidence, either, that crowds are often on hand as well. Increasingly, some on hand for the attacks erupt -- as if on command -- when the cameras are on, offering fervid denunciations of the United States, President Bush, so-called Iraqi collaborators in the occupation of an Arab country and similar, highly charged visuals.
More to the point, elected Iraqi officials and U.S. commanders advised our delegation of retired senior military officers and civilian defense experts that there is evidence that Al Jazeera is actually paying for such attacks. If confirmed, this would make the network and its associates enemy combatants and subject to appropriate responses.
For too long, the U.S. government has ignored less materially harmful forms of Arab media collaboration with our foes. (A similar charge of incitement could -- and should -- be leveled practically daily at the state-owned media of Muslim nations, including those of putatively friendly states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan.)
To some extent, this has been justified by a hope that so doing would allow American officials to use these vehicles to communicate the United States' wartime public diplomacy messages to their audiences. Pursuant to this strategy, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and others have appeared from time to time on Al Jazeera's shows. (So, in fact, on occasion has this author.)
Unfortunately, these episodic, and usually fleeting, appearances do not begin to match -- let alone to counteract -- the incessant drumbeat of Muslim victimization, anti-Western vituperation and approval for acts of violence thus justified when perpetrated by terrorists. The Iraqi Governing Council is confronting the reality of this danger every day and has responded appropriately, within its limited means.
Under present wartime circumstances, though, the United States has the ability -- and, indeed, an urgent responsibility -- to take more comprehensive action against Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Unless the two networks adjust their behavior so as no longer to act as the propaganda arm of our enemies, they should be taken off the air, one way or another.
To those who will decry this as censorship, they should be reminded of President Bush's injunction shortly after we were attacked two years ago: In the War on Terror, you are either with us or with the terrorists. It would be no more sensible for us to construe the masquerading of enemy propaganda, the communication and amplification of its calls to jihad and the legitimacy that attends transmission of such messages and images via television than it would be for us to regard bin Laden's messages, or Saddam's, as mere "news."
If we are serious about this war, we need a totally revamped information policy -- replete with much more concerted and effective efforts to win the hearts and minds of people who have no reason to fear us, let alone to attack us, but are being told to do so by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. A place to start would be to rapidly start up a satellite television service of our own, capable of reaching millions of currently unserved viewers in Iraq.
In the meantime, it is imperative that enemy media be taken down if they insist on using their access to the airwaves as instruments of the war against us and our allies.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.