The U.S. has looked at the media it can't control as the "enemy."
President Bush's alleged threat to bomb Al Jazeera shouldn't surprise us.
Ever since the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, the U.S. has looked at the media it
can't control as the "enemy."
IF THERE were any doubts about the authenticity of the Daily
Mirror story on President George W. Bush wanting to bomb the head offices
of Al Jazeera, the British government would appear to have cleared them up by
editors with prison if they publish the text of the confidential memo from
which the London tabloid sourced its account.
After all, if the White
House's line about the story being "outlandish" were really true,
why on earth would Tony Blair — whose conversation with the American President
last April is the subject of the memo — invoke the Official Secrets Act
to prevent its publication? I can think of only two reasons, neither of which
does Mr. Blair or Mr. Bush any credit. Either the American President did threaten
to blow up the Qatar-based Arabic news channel because he was upset at its coverage
of U.S. counter-insurgency operations in Fallujah. Or he did not, in which case
the British Prime Minister wants to suppress the memo because it records Mr.
Bush admitting — or threatening — something even more terrible.
Tempting though it is to dismiss the alleged threat against the Arabic broadcaster
as a "conspiracy theory" (as
Mr. Blair is suggesting) or a "joke" on the part of the U.S. President,
there is the unsettling coincidence of Al Jazeera having been hit by American
bombs twice before.
In November 2001, the channel's Kabul
office was hit by a U.S. missile and in April 2003,
a `smart' bomb terminated its Baghdad operation with extreme prejudice,
killing a journalist, Tareq Ayoub. Even without reading the April 2004 memo,
we know from an earlier outburst by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the
Bush administration just doesn't like the upstart broadcaster. They move about
on their own in Iraq and refuse to be tied down as `embeds'. They speak the
local language. And the footage they show has rather more shock and awe than
what the Pentagon is comfortable putting on air. Does this mean the U.S. would
deliberately bomb journalists in contravention of the laws of war — and
the "freedoms" in whose name Iraq was invaded? Perhaps not, but what
NATO did to the Radio Television Serbia (RTS) studios in Belgrade in 1999 suggests
this military and moral Rubicon is more easily crossed than one would like to
During the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia, NATO
aircraft deliberately bombed the RTS station in Belgrade. Sixteen civilians
were killed in the attack that NATO and Pentagon spokesmen defended as an act
of military necessity against "enemy propaganda." RTS broadcasts may
have been propaganda and Yugoslavia, technically, was NATO's enemy. But RTS
was media and the people who worked — and died — for it were entitled
to the Geneva Convention's protections from armed attack both as civilians and
journalists. The bottom line, however, was that they broadcast things which
the U.S. military couldn't control and didn't like. Images of civilians killed
or injured by NATO bombings. The same sort of images Al Jazeera was showing
out of Fallujah. The only difference is that in those days, the Clinton administration
didn't have a Secretary of Defence who went around saying, "We don't do
Geneva Conventions here."
Unfortunately for press freedom, intolerance towards the media is a malignant
and contagious disease. One hostile act against journalists quickly begets another.
Mr Bush's threat against Al Jazeera quickly led to Mr. Blair's ultimatum to
the British media. Slobodan Milosevic did not go after CNN or the BBC, whose
NATO correspondent during the war went on to become NATO spokesman after it
ended. But had the Yugoslav leader done so and cited a dislike for their "enemy
propaganda" as justification, how different would he have been from NATO?
Similarly, threatening Al Jazeera makes the terrain in Iraq and elsewhere more
dangerous for all journalists because it tells Al Qaeda and their allies that
journalists are fair game, that it is okay to kidnap or kill foreign reporters.
The slippery slope doesn't end there. President Bush's dislike of Al Jazeera
is only an extreme manifestation of the antipathy governments around the world
feel towards media coverage that they cannot suppress, spin or control. In the
aftermath of 9/11 — and the extraordinary perversion of democratic norms
this has led to in almost all established democracies — this intolerance
is being kitted out with legal and even military teeth. Britain's new anti-terror
proposals and Australia's draft anti-terrorism legislation and proposed extensions
to the sedition law, for example, both aim to regulate what journalists can
and cannot report on pain of imprisonment. Under India's Prevention of Terrorism
Act — repealed under public pressure last year — the definition
of "providing support" to a designated terrorist organisation was
left so vague as to encompass even news reports or opinion pieces.
Moreover, as the recent British gag order shows, governments are quite capable
of dredging up old, anachronistic laws like the OSA to control the dissemination
of information when they find their backs truly up against the wall and when
anti-terrorism laws are of no help. Section 5 of the OSA — making it illegal
for an unauthorised individual to be in possession of official documents —
has rarely been used in Britain and never against journalists. Sometimes, governments
don't even need a `compelling' reason to act against the media other than the
very existence of laws that can be invoked. In India, the OSA was used by the
erstwhile Vajpayee government in 2002 to http://svaradarajan.blogspot.com/2005/02/my-foreword-to-iftikhar-gilanis-my.html"target="blank">imprison
a senior Kashmiri journalist, Iftikhar Gilani, on the flimsiest of grounds
in pursuit of a political vendetta against his father-in-law, the separatist
politician Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Jose Padilla, the White House torture memos and other
dystopic products of the post 9/11 world testify to just how corrosive the war
on terror has been for civil liberties and democratic values. We are some way
away from the point of no return but if the media were also to fall victim,
the prospects for collective recovery would be dim indeed.