On Native Ground
CENSORSHIP WITH BOMBS
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Given the intense hatred that the Bush administration has for journalists and independent reporting, the news that in April 2004 President Bush seriously contemplated bombing the Qatar headquarters of the Arab news channel al-Jazeera isn't surprising.
Censorship with bombs is certainly in keeping with the Bush administration's style.
The al-Jazeera story comes out of the latest "Downing Street Memo" from British Prime Minister Tony Blair's inner circle, reported by a London newspaper last week.
According to the Daily Mirror, Mr. Bush was talked out of doing so by Blair at a White House summit. Blair was smart enough to see that dropping bombs on a civilian news organization with a huge following across the Middle East would have been a deadly mistake.
All of this is detailed in a five-page memo leaked to the Mirror by a former member of Blair's cabinet. No one in the White House or on Downing Street has credibly rejected the memo. Instead, the British government invoked the Official Secrets Act and threatened criminal prosecution for any news organization that publishes any part of the memo.
The memo also raises doubts that two previous U.S. bomb attacks on al-Jazeera reporters - in the fall of 2001 in Kabul during the Afghan bombing campaign and in April 2003 in Baghdad - were purely accidental.
Thirteen journalists have been killed by U.S. forces in Iraq since the war began in 2003. Now, the accusations earlier this year by then-CNN head Eason Jordan that U.S. forces targeted unembedded reporters suddenly do not seem quite so outlandish. Jordan was forced to take back his statements and resign after considerable pressure by supporters of the Iraq war, but history may ultimately prove Jordan correct.
The timing of the President's desire to take out al-Jazeera was not a coincidence. When President Bush and Blair were meeting in April 2004, the first U.S. siege on the city of Fallujah was taking place. The pictures that al-Jazeera was sending out of the resistance in Fallujah and the extent of civilian casualties clearly made the Bush administration uncomfortable.
The Bush administration has long accused al-Jazeera's reporters of being propagandists for Muslim extremists. But 50 million people in the Arab world are watching al-Jazeera and it has become the Arab equivalent of the BBC in terms of depth and breadth of news coverage. Unlike the American media, al-Jazeera has shown the war for what it really is - a clumsy, ill-conceived and heavy-handed enterprise that is killing civilians and destroying cities indiscriminately.
The thought that Mr. Bush would censor al-Jazeera with bombs isn't surprising. Neither is the Blair government's overreaction to the leak of the memo. It's just the latest of a steady drip of embarrassing revelations about this war and the people that are running it.
It took weeks for the mainstream American press to pick up on the first batch of Downing Street Memos. It took weeks for American papers to pick up on the reports of the use of white phosphorous and napalm on civilian targets in Iraq. It will probably take weeks for them to write about this latest incident. But I hope that there's someone in the British press that has the courage to stand up the Blair government and publish the memo in its entirety, even under the threat of imprisonment.
It's ironic that this nation has more legal protections for its journalists than just about any other place in the world, yet it now has the most timid journalists. Britain, which has few of America's press protections and some of the worst libel laws in the world, has been far out in front of their American counterparts when it comes to honest reporting of the war. It's even more ironic that an Arab television station has more freedom to report on the war than American television.
I suppose that's what happens when you have a country run by people who care little for freedom of the press and other civil rights. You get wars built upon wishful thinking and lies and death threats against those that wish to point out those lies.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.