The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Channels fight continent wars

Washington, March 23: If you are living in the US and following the military operations in Iraq, there are two wars being fought in Iraq — actually three.

For those tuning into American news channels, the war is a picnic. Everything is going smoothly, better than clockwork, if it was possible.

Switch to British, French or German television and you see another picture. Their reporters express unconcealed surprise that the resistance from Iraqi forces has been much more than expected — even from the poorly equipped, badly trained conscripts left to defend the south.

Now, move to Arabic channels, which are about the only ones watched in Arab enclaves like Dearborn in Michigan.

For al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV or the Syrian state broadcasters with big viewership in these enclaves, everything else is dwarfed by the anti-war protests.

If these channels had their way, the world ought to have been taken over by protesters by now. It is a reflection of how American TV channels are competing with each other in jingoism that when Saddam Hussein’s top aide and foreign minister Naji Sabri arrived in Damascus today, driving all the way to the border, it did not even find a mention in the saturation coverage of the war here.

But for European news organisations, Sabri’s unexpected crossing of Iraq’s borders was a strong sign that Saddam Hussein’s regime had far from collapsed.

Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo had no expectation that Sabri would be able to travel to their conclave.

But the Iraqi regime was able to organise his safe drive through a country in the middle of war. When US bombs and missiles knocked out electricity to most of Baghdad, it was repeatedly noted on European news that the authorities in the city restored power supply with unexpected speed. Yet another sign that Baghdad was still running. Someone said, with greater efficiency than at normal times!

But American TV channels kept mentioning in one sentence that air raids had cut power supply to residents in most of the Iraqi capital.

Even when defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. Richard Myers acknowledged this morning that about 10 US soldiers were missing in southern Iraq, several TV channels began the report colouring it with a description that “fewer than” 10 Americans could not be accounted for in the war.

And when Qatar’s al Jazeera TV showed footage of Iraqi TV interviews of alleged American prisoners of war (PoWs) shortly before noon today, Washington time, American channels refused to play the tape, at least till the time of going to press.

Instead, there was a barrage of patriotic propaganda on how Saddam Hussein’s regime was violating the Geneva Convention by parading the alleged PoWs before TV cameras.

This was accompanied by pictures of Iraqi PoWs in US and British custody with commentaries on how well they were being fed and treated. On the fourth day of attacks on Iraq, it was becoming clear that the Pentagon’s novel idea of “embedding” journalists with units on the field was a brilliant strategy of controlling the flow of information. On the one hand, it was keeping TV crews busy in meeting the demands of their channels for reality TV on the war. It was also keeping viewers back home occupied with images that the army wanted to put out.

As the al Jazeera episode with PoWs showed, there was little possibility that any disturbing footage such as the brutal execution of US soldiers in Somalia a decade ago would be aired on American TV under this arrangement. The “embedded” journalists, especially Americans, for the most part are beholden to the army for actually being able to witness the battles.

At the first press conference by Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander in charge of the war in Doha, a big gap in questioning by reporters was striking.

American reporters asked soft questions. So much so when an al Jazeera correspondent finally asked the general if Iraqi resistance was stiffer than expected, he was ruffled.

Gen. Franks was briefly at a loss for words when a Chinese journalist asked how the Americans could tell the Iraqis that they were an army of liberation when the US was subjecting residents of Baghdad to such intense bombing.

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