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Ramzy Baroud: The War on Aljazeera

War on Aljazeera an Assault on the Collective Arab Aspiration

By Ramzy Baroud

While in high school, I used to write a weekly article. Pretending to use the school’s restroom, I would hide a scrap of paper behind a specified toilet and leave. A young man would follow me in, locate the paper, and fit it into his shoe and so hastily vanish. On the next day, the article, in its entirety would be inscribed on the walls of the school; hand-written with no names attached, except for a pen name: “Young Kanafani”. .

For years, I was Young Kanafani, whose articles, audio tapes of poetry were infused throughout the Gaza Strip, and later the West Bank. For years, aside from being terrified by an Israeli army raid on our house, I was, even more petrified of the thought that if only my dad knew that most of the Intifada graffiti that dotted the ailing walls of our refugee camp was mine, he would have grounded me for life.

Few feelings can be as intense as those evoked by oppression, except of the oppressed person’s inability to reflect on his torment. Freedom of expression, including the press, can be much greater than a political or ideological mantra, or a reflection of the health or fragility of any democracy. One’s incapability of conveying his emotions, his aspirations and his defiance is sufficient to turn one’s surroundings into a boundless prison; not as if Palestinians didn’t find many ways to defy their prison guards, in a real and figurative sense: the intellectual work produced by Palestinians prisoners, throughout the years exceeded that produced outside prison walls. Many Palestinian bookstores had a special, often large section dedicated to Adab al-Sojoun, or “The Art of Prisons”.

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One must also admit that many Arab countries have turned the pen of the censurer, to a sword, unleashing wrath upon those who would dare question the ruling elite. When an Algerian intellectual writes: “We are a nation that only practices freedom at the walls of public restrooms and prisons,” then we must agree that no pretext is sufficient enough to excuse the lack of freedom that Arab peoples endure.

Nonetheless, banning freedom of expression or delimiting the flow of information is not only the outcome of a ruthless occupation or a misguided, self-absorbed regime. In countries recognized for unmatched democratic experiences, the highly commercialized flow of information has also proved to be containable, restricted even, although using different roles, and much more ambiguous ones.

For decades, each of these carefully designed media control schemes worked so well, in fact, relying partly on one another to continue to thrive: Israel maintained that its crackdowns on freedom of the occupied Palestinians was part of its attempt to wipe out terrorism by stamping out those who incite violence, and unlike its Arab foes it’s “the only democracy in the Middle East”; Arab governments, in turn, argued that dissent serves Israel because its reflects a lack of unity at a time that such a value was needed the most; The United States government, as always, turned a blind eye to the flagrant violations of human rights and freedoms by Israel, employed the rightful criticism of such violations in the Arab world to maintain a racist image so ingrained in American psyche that Arabs cannot be trusted and that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that embraces the adored principals of democracy, and therefore, it is our “moral duty” to support the state of Israel, even though such support has required the subjugation of an entire population, the financing of an illegal occupation, ceaseless settlement construction, occasional drives for war, etc ..

It’s from within and as a result of these carefully knitted control mechanisms that Aljazeera was born and flourished.

And because Aljazeera displayed a shockingly balanced narration of the news and provided an equal platform to all, it was hated and loved; it was an Islamist, a socialist, a radical, a conservative, a reactionary, a progressive, a demagogue, a liberal, democratic, pro-Saddam, pro-Shitte, pro Kurds, anti Israel, infiltrated by the Israeli Mossad, by the CIA, by Osama bin Laden, by everyone, by no one, all at once. In short, it was even-handed.

But it was not until September 11, 2001, that Aljazeera became a full-fledged enemy of the United States, for it began shifting its news coverage to allow uncensored platforms to all parties concerned: US experts, intellectuals and officials, Taliban leaders and ambassadors and even the frequently aired messages of Osama Bin Laden.

Needless to say, regional players scrambled to silence the increasingly annoying channel; not one Arab nation, including the Palestinian Authority, has failed to exert pressure on Aljazeera, directly, through the detention of journalists or shutting down offices, or indirectly through pressuring the Qatari government. Israel on the other hand, shut down Aljazeera’s offices repeatedly, confiscated its equipment, and besieged its staff in their offices in Ramallah and elsewhere as early as last month.

A branch of the war on terrorism suddenly evolved to become a war on independent media that dared provide a platform to any one who disagrees with the “official” narration of the news.

But instead of muting Aljazeera, the aggressive campaign against it flared sympathy and raised questions:

“Isn't that the first thing dictators do -- shut down broadcast outlets and newspapers?” Helen Thomas from the Boston Channel wrote.

She continued: “For those in power, tolerating a free press is difficult, even in a democracy. As a foreign occupier in Iraq, we are proving that it is intolerable.” “The terrible irony here is that we pride ourselves in offering a model to the rest of the world on how to design -- and live by -- our constitutional freedoms.”

There are increasing rumors that Aljazeera is finally falling under pressure, is compromising on its editorial line, is firing individuals who are reviled by the US for their anti war stances.

I am not certain how truthful these reports are; one thing I am sure of however, is that the fall of Aljazeera, or pressuring it to compromise on its independence and journalistic integrity shall please many dictatorships in the Middle East and the region’s only two occupying powers, Israel and the United States.

A great American thinker once said: “A free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society.”

Aljazeera must not be the ill-fated end of a failed experiment, but the beginning of a valiant journey where Arab people can reclaim their humanity, their freedom and their greatness, which they have been so unjustly denied.

- Ramzy Baroud is an American Arab author, editor-in-chief of the PalestineChronicle.com

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