War as a Game Scenario

Every day, we receive new and conflicting news and images from the war in the Gulf; and both in the West and in the Arab world, a media war is also afoot, in which the casualties often include free speech and objective reporting. "Embedded" journalists, in particular, have been accused of contributing more to the "fog of war" than to casting any real light on the conflict. For this reason, professor Kai Hafez, a scholar of the Islamic world, has called for extensive changes in media policy.

You say that the Iraq war has changed the way in which the German media report the news, and has therefore also changed the media culture as a whole. German journalism, you feel, has become more sceptical. Why is this?

Kai Hafez: In no other recent war – from the second Gulf War to the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo – have large numbers of journalists expressed criticism of a war’s media coverage during the war in question. In other words, this is the first time that journalists have pointed out the inadequacy of the information flow, the propaganda interests of those who supply the information, and the difficulty of acquiring access to the actual battlegrounds. This is without precedent. There have even been a few programme sequences from public-service broadcasters in which there was contentious debate, not about the war itself, but about the reporting of it. I find this capacity for (self-) criticism remarkable. It shows that a more critical culture of reflection has emerged in German journalism since the beginning of the second Gulf War. Of course, it’s more than questionable whether complete and reliable news coverage can be ensured merely by saying, "I know that I know nothing!"

The concept of "embedded journalists", reporting live from amongst the troops in the front line, has certainly come in for some very harsh criticism. What’s your opinion of this new form of war reporting?

Hafez: "Embedded journalism" brings no progress whatsoever. Such journalists are more or less subject to the military control mechanisms, and thereby, ultimately, to an interest in communicating propaganda. This becomes clear when we see what’s going on: journalists do get close to scenes of actual combat, they can see what’s happening and gain an impression of the destruction taking place; but, as a rule, they don’t make direct contact with the dead, with the actual unmediated misery of war. They are always at a semi-distance, so to speak. And when they work this way, the risk they take is – significantly - much smaller than the risk taken by the "non-embedded" journalists reporting freely from Baghdad. These "traditional" reporters, who visit the scene off their own bat, are in much greater danger – which also means that their reporting has greater authenticity. "Embedded journalism" is a lazy compromise. It doesn’t bring us one millimetre further, and it also increases the likelihood that wars will be regarded as game scenarios. If you look at CNN, the war is presented as a kind of competition or sports event, where the home team is expected to win, and the other lot should, if you please, have the decency to lose. This certainly increases the risk that viewers will be encouraged to lose certain inhibitions; that war will come to be regarded less as a miserable mess than as just one more kind of competition.

Isn’t it true to say that this "embedded" journalism is tolerated or even encouraged by the German media when they include images of American and British "front-line reporters" in their programmes?

Hafez: Certainly. But, as I said, the amount of critical self-reflection by German journalists during this war is worthy of a positive assessment. Moreover, I see an improvement in the transfer of local Arabic news and media to our system here in Germany. A lot has been achieved here. Think of Al-Jazeera – the emergence of an independent Arabic television medium. This also shows that the German media system in particular did well to make cooperation treaties with broadcasters such as Al-Jazeera. Much of this has of course only taken place since September 11th 2001. We are witnessing the end of the monopoly enjoyed by such one-sided media as CNN. There is a downside to all this, however: whereas previously we had to deal with propaganda, we are now confronted with propaganda and counter-propaganda; for Al-Jazeera is also subject to massive Iraqi propaganda interests.

Is there any chance at all of overcoming this dilemma, a dilemma facing both the Western and the Arab media, in order to guarantee more balanced reporting in future conflicts?

Hafez: There has to be a third way. Western democracies depend on receiving independent information; and in the final analysis, this means information that is free from control by the propaganda interests of either side. As a consequence, certain demands have to be raised regarding media policy. The first requirement is: unhindered access to satellite reconnaissance information. All satellite images of the Iraq war have been bought up by the Americans. We no longer have independent access to what is actually civilian technology. If we had, we would also have more insight into the true number of civilian casualties in this war. Secondly, in my opinion the military should be brought up before committees after the war is over. I think that members of the military apparatus should be forced to answer questions from a democratic government, from the United Nations or from the International Court about the falsification of information, which has of course been a feature of this war, too - on both sides. And naturally, this demands the involvement of those who determine media policy - above all, the unions and journalists’ associations. Yet, as far as I know, they haven’t even begun to think effectively about these matters.

What’s your judgment of the reporting done by the Arabic media? During this war, isn’t it the case that journalists have been subject to tighter controls or censorship by the powers-that-be in each of the Arab states?

Hafez: One has to distinguish between the national TV stations, some of which are privately-owned (though subject to state control), and the press media, which enjoy a somewhat greater measure of freedom in many countries. Usually, the press is actually the link that connects the governments to their respective populations. And in such exceptional situations as these, this is in fact how the rulers see things. In other words the press also articulates the views of the population – even when their own government is perhaps on the side of the Americans.
Egypt is a typical example: Mubarak is, more or less, a supporter of the USA - he is passive – while at least 95 percent of the population is on the side of the Iraqis. Under this kind of pressure, any government has to supply certain outlets, at least in the media – and a similar phenomenon could be seen on the streets, where certain demonstrations had to be permitted. Insofar, I don’t feel that the Arabic press is now subject to tougher restrictions. But there’s no doubt that certain limitations do apply. For example, in these days of war, it will not be easy to find any profound analyses or speculations in the Arabic press regarding the possible destabilisation of Egypt or Jordan. People will only talk about this kind of thing in private. So the press is positioning itself somewhere between an absolute loyalty to the state and a certain liberalisation as regards the anger amongst the population. And this compromise presumably suits the purposes of the national leaders.

Prof. Dr. Kai Hafez is professor for Communications Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

Interview: Arian Fariborz, © 2003 Qantara.de

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