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Of slants, lies and half-truths

In this televised Iraq war, the lesser known channels have struck the right balance. BBC, after some stocktaking, has now come up with more credible versions. But for CNN, the bosses in Atlanta decide the spin of the story, observes ZIYA US SALAM.

OPERATION IRAQI Freedom, as CNN so guilefully cloaks America's invasion of Iraq, is being covered by news channels across the world on a war footing. And the world is watching, somewhat perplexed, somewhat stupefied by the sheer pace of events overtaking us all.

Probably the first televised war, it has got reporters struggling to make sense out of the "sensitised" despatches often handed over to them. Hence, one day we find many news channels declaring, "Allied forces are in control of Basra" and the next day, there are reports of "slow down" and "stiff resistance." Just as Rumsfeld's claims of "a peaceful war" with "precision targeting" fly in the face of rising civilian casualties and reports of bombing of the Red Crescent Maternity Hospital. Meanwhile, the spin-doctors, back in Atlanta and London, have got into the act, giving just the `right' slant to news reports pouring in every minute.

A war which has had almost the entire world against it — BBC's Dateline London pointed out as much recently as did our own Aaj Tak with an in-depth report on peace protests even in the Arab world — has seen the claims of the Western media being free, honest and objective torn to shreds by their own news capsules. While there have been some shining examples, particularly those of Tim Sebastian, Rageh Omaar and Jonny Dymond on BBC, it's some of the less seen, lesser known and often unavailable channels which are doing a yeoman service. Not all of them may fall in the alternative journalism category, but they have often been able to prick the American balloon of "short and swift war" with the U.S. being ready to "accept no outcome but victory."

When the CNN has gone overboard with despatches of the American forces making inroads into Iraq, they have told us that war has not gone the way the U.S. anticipated. So much so, that the BBC which started the war under the shadow of the CNN, soon did a stocktaking and came up with more credible versions of the events unfolding in Iraq.

Just take some time out to have a look at what our own Doordarshan is doing. Or for that matter, Kairali, Jain and Sahara back home. Or Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV and ARY abroad. At a time when a large section of the Western media has failed in its duty, it is these lesser luminous stars of the electronic media, which have been able to strike the right balance. They have gained in glimmer in this war, while some have lost just a bit of their shine.

The unsung Doordarshan has taken a few strides forward over the past fortnight. Calling it "Gulf War-II" as opposed to CNN's "Operation Iraqi Freedom" or ARY's "Belligerence Towards Iraq", it has been able to bring out the facts in a dispassionate manner. Seasoned Saeed Naqvi has held his own in World View while Suneet Tandon has been able to do his bit in the morning shows.

However, it is Rakhi Bakshi who deserves accolades for her reports from the war region. She has been precise and dispassionate in her despatches, just like a non-participant observer. Of course, DD has been helped by the backroom boys in the studios who have not sought to give any tint to the reports coming in.

It was on Doordarshan this past week that international law expert and a Rajya Sabha member, Ashwani Kumar, pointed out: "The Iraq war is a flagrant violation of international laws, against public sentiment, it is an illegal war. In 1991, the world was united for war, now it is different."

The balance to this willy-nilly pro-Saddam stance was struck when V. R. Raghavan drew attention to the fact that all Arab League States, even those who supported immediate ceasefire, wanted Saddam Hussein to go. And the cameramen did their bit with some fine pictures of the Iraqi President in a swimming pool even as the Iraqi women queued up to get water, a precious commodity in the desert.

BBC did as much in its own, more technically savvy, way thanks to its fleet of nearly 30 correspondents and support staff in the region. And subtly exposed the CNN's reports of "precision warfare" with minimum "collateral damage."

Paul Wood reported from Baghdad, "Despite precision attacks, Iraqi TV is functioning," adding, "there is a tide of emotions... funerals all around. In the campaign to win the hearts and the minds, it does not help."

Ben Brown, reporting from Southern Iraq admitted, "British troops treat everyone with suspicion in Basra." And acknowledged "resistance maybe stubborn" and it may not be "so simple to dislodge Saddam Hussein despite the inferno of war." BBC conceded — "Iraqi defiance makes them heroes... there can be echoes even in Palestine."

However, the best discussion came through in Dateline London where George Bush's Iraq strategy was called into question by a panel of four carefully chosen experts, two obviously pro-American, the others, equally obviously anti-America. Even as Ann Leslie, a panellist, pointed out the "infighting within Washington," Riad Taher of Friendship Across Frontiers gave a different perspective to the Iraqi resistance. "People will fight every inch of the way. You have to give the patriotism of Iraqis its due. It is a moment of truth." He contended that the coalition forces and their media supporters were less than willing to give credit to Iraq and its citizens. "It is part of a discrediting strategy. Every time somebody is killed among the U.S.-led forces, it is attributed to a friendly fire." A claim buttressed with the CNN's reaction to the shooting down of a Black Hawk. Seven of the 11 aboard lost their lives. In the face of grim evidence, CNN called it "allegedly" shot down by Iraqis! Surely, no American forces could have done that. However hard Taher tried, anti-Americanism does not translate into pro-Saddam feelings. Earlier in the war, both BBC and Aaj Tak spoke to Muslims across the world. Even Muslims back home in Delhi, though united in attacking America, did not fully support Saddam Hussein on BBC.

In London, Iraqis themselves did not come out openly in support of Saddam Hussein when the Aaj Tak team caught up with them. Caught in the crossfire between Saddam Hussein and the American forces, they feared to say anything against Hussein knowing that their "families could be targeted, tormented." It immediately brought back memories of Saddam Hussein's terror-filled days when as the dictator since 1979 he even stripped his top military officers to bare essentials before starting a dialogue and unleashed a chemical warfare against the Kurds.

Incidentally, Aaj Tak, which has some real silly captions such as "Bush Pareshan, Jung Nahin Aasaan" did a good job of covering the peace protests. The point was later taken up by BBC with Jonny Dymond reporting that "anti-Americanism runs high in Turkey." However, the most effective questions were put forward by Tim Sebastian in Hard Talk. Speaking to David Owen, former British Foreign Secretary, Sebastian exposed the U.S. handing over the oil well contract to a private party and reminded Owen that there was a dichotomy between his actions and words. "We must win the battle of the minds, first," Owen had reportedly said in 2002. And Sebastian was quick to home in on that comment, gently telling him, "you are asking for unconditional surrender and nothing short of it," not telling him in so many words that it is no way to win the minds and hearts!

CNN, on its part, while referring to the Iraqi President, did away with the customary `Mr.,' used as an address of respect before the name of any Head of the State. As far as CNN was concerned, Mr Hussein had been pronounced guilty without trial. Not just by the U.S. or Britain but even by CNN. They shoot and report selectively. They see what they want to see, show what they want you to see.

However, in the early days of the war even BBC was floundering. Its team did not know when the Iraqi President went on air to address his fellow citizens even as CNN wondered if he was injured in the Presidential Palace attack on March 21 and recovering in some obscure hospital! Here Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi with their relatively skeletal staff and inferior technology did a David to their Goliath, getting President Hussein's footage, getting the pictures of the Iraqi civilians being moved to hospitals after the "precision war" had gone awry.

However, the icing on the cake, so to say, was provided by the little known ARY which exposed from its London studios what our guys and those from the Allied nations failed to do.

Dr. Shahid Masood, anchoring the Middle-East Crisis programme, nailed the lie of possible Iraqi rebellion against Hussein. Almost every other night, it showed pictures of the bodies of the Iraqi martyrs for the cause of freedom being carried by hundreds of civilians.

Incidentally, ARY exposed the U.S. lie of waging a war for Iraqi freedom not just with pictures of Iraqis fighting the Allied forces but also by telecasting President George Bush's `I care not for UN' comment, "If we need to act, we will act and we do not need the UN's approval for doing so," before almost every programme on the Iraq developments.

Even in reports on humanitarian relief, there was the usual slant. Nobody except Kairali told us that Iraqis did not need food. Not from the U.S. Nor from Kuwait. As Kairali's John Brittas, who spent 15 days in Iraq in the run-up to the American assault, stated, "Iraq is an affluent country, Baghdad is one of the cleanest cities. People are cordial and hospitable. There is high literacy rate and in Rs.11, an Iraqi can buy a month's provision, including meat. Petrol does not come for more than 50 paise per litre."

While Aaj Tak and Star News were busy with analysing the route map of America's operations in Iraq, only Kairali TV told us about another facet of Saddam Hussein with focus on an orphanage. It revealed that Hussein had invited Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity to open an orphanage in Baghdad for children left without parents after the Gulf War. A claim buttressed by John Brittas: "We found Indian nuns from Kerala running an orphanage for over five years in Baghdad. They had been called by Saddam Hussein."

Incidentally, at this point Zee News scored over the rest with pictures of the devastation caused by the U.S.-led forces in the name of freedom of Iraq. What is more, it borrowed freely from Al Jazeera to give a balanced account of the developments in Iraq, never mind that it started late. Apparently, the channel had initially struggled to send its team through due to visa problems. This at a time when just before the war, five busloads of journalists from across the world were driven down to Baghdad. It included only the Kairali crew among the Indian channels.

However, the slanted presentation in the latest war is not happening for the first time. At least not on CNN. They did it in the case of Israel-Palestine too. A Red Crescent ambulance was shot at by Israeli troops and the reporter said as much.

It was aired for a while and promptly taken off before a modified version was presented with the claim that the ambulance was shot at in crossfire in Palestine. It did not matter that the local people could not have shot at their own ambulance!

To be fair to them, the CNN reporters may file factual despatches but it is the bosses sitting in Atlanta who decide the spin of the story. And that is where truth becomes the first casualty at the altar of approved journalism. `Approved scripts' are nothing but a rehash of what the White House and the Pentagon would have the world see.

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