A pressing case for Arab journos

NEW YORK — The war for the hearts and minds of the Mideast is almost as fierce as the military battle.

The Bush administration certainly thinks so, as evidenced by its persistent targeting of Iraqi TV. Night after night coalition forces have tried to take out the state-run broadcaster in downtown Baghdad in hopes of severing Saddam Hussein’s most potent link to his people. So far the station has been able to dust itself off, the new blackouts in Baghdad signal that the station’s days may be numbered.

But while Iraqi TV is clearly not a beacon of freedom, nor perceived as such by most Iraqis, new — and more compelling — outlets have popped up around the region and are shaping public opinion from Riyadh to Rawalpindi.

Satcasters like Al-Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Abu Dhabi TV and LBC are beaming images of the war — including civilian casualties — to millions of Middle Easterners.

Although Al-Jazeera, the brashest of the lot, may have been tasteless in its recent airing of footage of American POWs and dead soldiers, there is no denying that a freer form of journalism has taken root in the area — and it should be encouraged.

If America really wants to “liberate” Iraq and support democratic regimes throughout the region, then it must also tolerate a less-hampered press in that region.

After all, fundamental to any true democracy is defending the rights of those who disagree with us. That, unfortunately, is a principle oft dispensed with in time of war.

In any case, watching the thoughtful analyses of certain journalists associated with these fledgling services — like Al Jazeera’s Omar Al Issawi or Abu Dhabi’s Jazim Al Azzawi — I am definitely more hopeful about the long-term prospects for the region.

In the near term, it’s bracing to see that the American nets and round-the-clock cable newsies, including their embedded reporters, have to measure themselves against, or jostle with or otherwise counter, reports from their sometimes better-placed or better-sourced Arab satcast brethren, especially in Baghdad itself.

This can’t but be more eye-opening for all concerned — and provide for a more comprehensive historical record of this conflict than was available of the 1991 Gulf War.

Thus I can’t help but think it was shortsighted to ban Al-Jazeera reporters from the New York Stock Exchange recently and to freeze others out of briefings at U.S. Central Command in Qatar because of their ill-advised images or their lines of questioning.

To the extent that the American public is exposed to the very different perspective of commentators who can shed light on what the Iraqis and the Arab Street are thinking, the better for us all.

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