Bush administration's policies limit media coverage
October 17, 2001
President Bush insists that the U.S. military action to get Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies is not aimed at Afghans or other Muslims.
But public opinion in the Islamic world remains strongly anti-American, perhaps more so than before the "war on terrorism" began. The White House is worried that the United States is losing the "propaganda war" in the Islamic world.
The Bush administration has no problem with Muslims expressing support for the "war on terrorism." But when Muslims freely express deep ambivalence or anger toward U.S. policy and the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, they are met with suspicion, even scorn.
The administration's response betrays a terminal arrogance.
Consider the case of al-Jazeera, the maverick Arabic-language satellite TV channel that drew fire from the Bush administration for broadcasting statements from bin Laden and reporting on civilian deaths from the U.S. bombings.
In the world of straitjacketed Arab media, al-Jazeera has one of the only free hands. Its talk shows can legitimately claim to showcase the full range of Arab opinion -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- on global affairs. Their featured debates put our sleep-inducing Sunday morning talking heads to shame. And the channel's news reports are balanced. Al-Jazeera's on-the-spot investigation of the bombed Afghan village of Karam handled Taliban estimates of civilian deaths with caution. The channel is not an arm of this band of thuggish theocrats.
But Washington initially treated al-Jazeera as if it were the Taliban's Ministry of Information. Even though the channel's critiques of U.S. policy largely reflect what its viewers already think, the State Department lambasted al-Jazeera for its "inflammatory rhetoric." Secretary of State Colin Powell went so far as to demand that the channel's editorial chiefs "tone down" its guest commentaries.
The Bush administration has since changed its tune. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have both appeared on the channel recently.
But the White House is still trying to limit media coverage, especially in the United States. Rice spoke with members of the networks and the print media, advising caution when reporting the words of bin Laden. And CIA Director George Tenet prevailed on the Washington Post not to run a sensitive story.
Congress hopes to fund a Radio Free Afghanistan, to profess kind American intentions toward Afghans as U.S. bombs fall upon them. Congress would do well to remember that Radio Marti -- which has aimed for years to undermine Cuban President Fidel Castro -- has only bolstered Cuban nationalism. It's the clear message of the U.S. embargo that people in Havana hear.
In Afghanistan and the Islamic world, the U.S. propaganda war will ring hollow, at least as long as the bombing war continues.
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report in Washington, D.C. (www.merip.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.