Citizens of Western democratic powerhouses cherish their rights of free speech and freedom of expression.
They are free to engage in open debate on just about any topic under the sun including the policies of their own governments; they can criticize their presidents and prime ministers in books, newspapers and on TV. They can watch salacious movies and videos, play violent computer games—but there’s one subject into which they’re discouraged from delving—the Middle East.
The US—and, to a lesser extent, Britain, France and Germany—has long been engaging in a subtle propaganda battle via a compliant media to rewrite the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict in order to indoctrinate the American public with one side of the story.
As a slew of polls have indicated, most Americans haven’t a clue that Israel is the occupier. In their minds, the Palestinians are interlopers, or worse, terrorists bent on throwing Jews into the sea. Many, who have neither the time nor the inclination to browse political sites on the net, opting instead for Fox News’ sound bites, still believe the White House party line that the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were worth so much blood and treasure and are convinced that Iran is close to having nuclear bombs capable of incinerating American cities.
Western powers found it relatively easy to keep a lid on unsavory truths before the information age when the world shrank to a global village and WikiLeaks was just a gleam in Julian Assange’s eye. That was an era when Arab-owned news channels posted little threat to Western constructs because their Arabic language broadcasts were tailored for regional audiences, although in 2001 the Kabul office of Qatari-owned Al Jazeera was bombed and one of its cameramen was packed-off to Guantanamo. The same happened in 2003 when the station’s Baghdad office was targeted by a US missile killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. Al Jazeera and other Arab networks were being threatened by the US military for being “anti-American” due to their unvarnished coverage that ripped open America’s preferred term ‘collateral damage’ to expose the ashen bodies of infants.
Al Jazeera was sold to the US public as a virulent anti-American terrorist-supporting network, whose very name elicited shudders in American hearts. So, horror of horrors when in 2006, Al Jazeera’s English-language channel was born with studios in Western capitals, never mind that its political coverage has sought to be balanced, permitting Western politicians and Israeli spokespeople to offer their perspectives. Never mind that it was staffed by highly professional international journalists or that it fast built-up a reputation for in depth documentaries and lively talk shows.
Washington stopped short of banning Al Jazeera outright but the climate was such that US cable providers refused to carry it. Its demonization as a dangerous tool of extremists and jihadists had been effective even though that slur had no basis in fact. Al Jazeera had been shut out . . . until now.
Former US Vice-President Al Gore has chosen to sell his Current TV network to Al-Jazeera for $500 million, permitting the Qatari station’s access to some 10 million American homes after rebuffing an offer from former Fox News pundit and right-wing conservative Glenn Beck. But Al Jazeera’s success won’t be an easy ride.
Al Gore is being slammed by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly for profiting from America’s enemies. Right-wing talks show host Rush Limbaugh is scaremongering asserting that prominent American female anchors will “now have to wear burkas and veils over their faces.” Cable provider Time Warner has indicated that it might not renew Current TV’s contract when it comes up for renewal.
The loudest condemnation of the sale unsurprisingly comes from the pro-Israel lobby that fiercely guards its narrative. Head of the Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman issued this statement: “Al Jazeera has a troubling record and history that is very disturbing, particularly in its Arabic language broadcasts. It has exploited and exaggerated the Arab-Israel conflict in a heavy-handed and propagandistic manner, and always at the expense of Israel, while giving all manner of virulent anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic extremists access to its airwaves.”
In reality, some of the most frequent guests on Al Jazeera are Israeli spokesman Mark Regev and Shimon Peres, who was recently interviewed by the mild-mannered Sir David Frost. I firmly believe that Americans viewing Al Jazeera for the first time will be astonished at its moderate, professional reporting. Foxman’s biggest fear is that it will gain credibility when other sides of the story that don’t get aired in the US might be taken seriously.
Iran’s English-language network Press TV, launched in 2007, has been treated more harshly than even Al Jazeera. To quote an article on Press TV’s website, “It was an interesting year on Press TV’s calendar. The channel was taken off the air in Europe, Asia and South America. If you think this happened in the censorship era of the 1960s, think again; it all took place in 2012.”
Writing in the Guardian, Geoffrey Alderman who characterizes himself as a proud Zionist condemned Britain broadcast regulatory body Ofcom for canceling Press TV’s license because Tehran had editorial control. Alderman calls Ofcom’s decision “deplorable.” He says he has been an infrequent guest on the banned-network which was aware of his Zionist affiliations but maintains that he has never been censored or pressured to “modify a particular view.” “Now this voice of balance has been silenced,” he says. Whether or not Press TV was “a voice of balance” is neither here nor there as long as it didn’t cross red lines or cause serious offence. Notably, its popularity was on the rise when it was taken off air. Is Sky News, Fox News or the BBC balanced?
The bottom line is this. The freedom of Westerners to gain access to information is politically-driven. Despicable attempts to gag Al Jazeera and Press TV are the proof, shattering the myth of so-called democratic freedoms that allow for the unimpeded production of anti-Islamic films and Qu’ran burning, while constructing a dam to keep out uncomfortable truths. What happened to “the truth can set you free”?
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.