Press Freedom or Freedom to Bomb the Press?
Press Freedom or Freedom to Bomb the Press?
The British Daily Mirror newspaper reported today that, in April 2004, President Bush planned to bomb the independent Al-Jazeera television network headquarters in US ally Qatar. Tony Blair reportedly talked him out of it. In case one doubts this report, the fact that the British government has already indicted a civil servant for leaking this document confirms its validity. In typical fashion, the White House press spokesman Scott McClellan issued one of his typical nondenials in an e-mail to the Associated Press, writing: "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response."
In evaluating this report, we should remember that on April 8, 2003, Al-Jazeera 's office in Baghdad was bombed by US forces, killing a journalist, Tarek Ayoub, an event movingly described in the movie Control Room. This attack was despite the coordinates of the office being given to US forces, and despite huge markings being placed on the roof. [On the same day, a US tank slowly aimed and fired in broad daylight on the Palestine Hotel, killing two journalists.]
The April 8th attack was not the first or the only time the US attacked Al-Jazeera. In November 2002 the US destroyed Al-Jazeera 's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, with a missile. Fortunately, no one was killed. As always, the US claimed the attack was an "accident." As the US launched its "shock and awe" Iraq invasion, it also launched a propaganda attack on Al-Jazeera. In July 2003, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz accused Al-Jazeera of "endangering the lives of American troops" in Iraq, while in November 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Al-Jazeera of cooperating with Iraqi insurgents. [When the American press do this, it's called "embedding."] In September 2003, the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council banned Al-Jazeera [and the Al-Arabiyah station] for two weeks, and in February 2004 they were banned for a month. Later in 2004, the US/UN appointed Iyad Allawi banned Al-Jazeera from working in Iraq.
The claim that Al-Jazeera was pro-Saddam was patently absurd, as was attested to by the fact that, during the war, the Iraqi Information ministry banned two Al-Jazeera correspondents, leading the station to suspend reports from Iraq. The station reiterated their independent position. As their spokesperson told the BBC: "We faced lots of things like that before from the Iraqi Government and from other governments in the Arab region, because this is a way they think. They think they can impose some conditions on Al-Jazeera or they think they can change the reporters, they can put their own criteria on our work."
Given the number of reporters killed by US fire in Iraq (eight as of May, 2005), and the systematic refusal of the US to hold anyone accountable, many have been suspicious that these deaths were not all accidents. The new report that Bush planned an attack on Al-Jazeera shows how central the destruction of independent reporting on the Iraq war was to the American administration. This new report strengthens suspicions that at least some of the attacks on media headquarters and deaths of journalists and other media personnel in Iraq were not accidents. Thus, there is an urgent need for an independent international investigation into those journalists killed by US forces in Iraq.
Also needed is an investigation into other American efforts to avoid independent reporting from Iraq, such as the seizure of the main hospital in Fallujah before the US attack in November 2004, so that doctors there could not report on civilian deaths. Now that reports on US use of White Phosphorous as weapons in the attack on that city have been verified, after a year of US denials, and it has been revealed that the US also used thermobaric weapons in that attack -- weapons which have been compared in their impact by some to tactical nuclear weapons -- we can understand why the US was so anxious to avoid independent reporting from that city. Given the extent of attacks on civilians that have characterized the US invasion and occupation in general, it is understandable that the US would want to make independent reporting from Iraq so dangerous that few will attempt it.
We cannot, of course, ignore the fact that many, perhaps a majority, of deaths of journalists in Iraq are due to the insurgents. The combined deaths from all sides make the Iraq the most deadly for media workers since Vietnam. Unfortunately, neither side respects the press and its vital functions of shining a spotlight upon the evils that inevitably accompany war. However, this fact in no way justifies barbaric or illegal acts committed by the US government, a government, after all, which claims to have liberated Iraq from despotism and to be fighting for the creation of a democratic Iraq. The evidence that suppression of a free press was a major strategy in this war is yet another nail in the coffin of the claims that liberating Iraqis had anything to do with US war aims. A country that enshrines press freedom into its constitution should not be allowed to suppress the press in other countries with impunity.
There is another aspect of Bush's plan to attack Al-Jazeera that bears commenting upon. According to Amnesty International, as they stated after the US bombed an Iraqi television station during its original attack, "the bombing of a television station, simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda, cannot be condoned. It is a civilian object, and thus protected under international humanitarian law." If an Iraqi station is protected, surely an independent and respected television network located in a nonbelligerent country could in no sense be construed as a legitimate war target. Thus, an attack on the Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar would inevitably be a criminal activity. If the US was seriously considering committing such a criminal action in a friendly country, there is no reason to believe that illegality of an activity plays much of a consideration for US war planners.
If concern for legality is a minor consideration for US officials, so too is concern for the truth. Just in the past couple of weeks, the US was revealed to have lied about its denial of use of White Phosphorous (WP) against people in Fallujah. It was further found that the US lied when it said classification of WP as a chemical weapon was ridiculous as the US had itself so classified WP when it was Saddam who used it. Also, the last couple of weeks saw the silly spectacle of the US shedding crocodile tears for victims of torture in Iraqi Interior Ministry dungeons while fighting to preserve the right to itself torture those incarcerated in its various secret dungeons around the world. We, of course, have the dozens and dozens of reports of torture throughout Iraq by US forces, all denied until they cannot any longer be denied, only to be blamed on the innumerable "few bad apples" that seem to plague unit after unit of the US occupation forces. Given this systematic pattern of denial, deceit, and outright lying, we can assume that the US response to this new report will continue in the same vein as Scott McClellan's initial comments.
Wars are always dirty. Those engaged in war seldom admit the truth about the brutal means they are using. Those conducting an unpopular occupation are tempted to use all possible means to suppress those who resist occupation. The press, to the degree that it functions as an independent force, serves as one factor providing disincentives to the use of the most barbarous techniques available. Given the extent to which the American corporate press has often echoed obviously false US claims long after their absurdity became apparent, the international press like Al-Jazeera plays a critical role in limiting US brutality. By suppressing the press in Iraq, the US has increased its ability to kill with impunity. Evidence that many tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died at US hands suggest that the US has actively seized the opportunity.
Stephen Soldz (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org) is psychoanalyst, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is a member of Roslindale Neighbors for Peace and Justice and founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice. He maintains the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page and the Psyche, Science and Society blog.