It is no simple matter for the United States to apply its cherished press freedom principles in its Middle East policy, as recent experience with Iraq and Qatar illustrates.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ended Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted control over that country's media, the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)—composed of officials from the United States and other countries that are proud of their press freedoms—quickly chose to establish a free and independent indigenous media network. The CPA outsourced the implementation of that task to a private American firm, the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), which specialized in supplying the Pentagon with advanced technologies but had no experience in the media field. SAIC created the Iraq Media Network (IMN), which included FM radio, a TV station, and a newspaper, Al Sabah.
But the IMN was hardly independent because the CPA, through SAIC, kept a close watch over its content. The project quickly ran into difficulties. When the television station went on the air on May 13, 2003, the Iraqi public, expecting great things from the Americans, was disappointed with the programs and eventually many Iraqi and even American staff resigned because of heavy-handed CPA influence. The CPA’s own surveys showed that Iraqis preferred to watch Al Jazeera or even the Iranian channel Al Alam because the style of IMN television resembled a government-owned station. One report described it as "America’s Pravda."
In January 2004 the Pentagon switched from SAIC to the Harris Corporation of Florida (a communications equipment company) to manage the IMN, and Harris in turn hired the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation to help out. The content of the TV station, by then renamed Al Iraqiyya, improved somewhat, using mostly material purchased outside Iraq, but it seemed to have a Lebanese tone and it still could not compete with non-Iraqi broadcasters.
In the meantime, the CPA allowed private Iraqi newspapers to emerge, and dozens did. But it also decreed that all broadcasters must be licensed and that licenses would be revoked for incitement and other political acts. It established a commission to draft media laws and issue licenses. The CPA shut down or suspended some newspapers and broadcasters for violating CPA standards, a practice that has been continued by the interim Iraqi government after the CPA was disbanded in June 2004.
U.S. ambivalence toward the idea of more open Arab media did not begin with the occupation of Iraq. While loudly championing the cause of Middle East freedom, the Bush administration has displayed great concern over Qatar's Al Jazeera satellite television station, the most free in the region. Washington took little notice of the channel, founded in 1996, until after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when Al Jazeera carried statements by Osama bin Laden that were rebroadcast by American commercial networks. In October 2001, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell complained to Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, that the station was helping bin Laden by broadcasting his messages uncritically. Sheikh Hamad deflected the complaint, saying it was misdirected because Al Jazeera was a private station. While this is technically true, he could have influenced Al Jazeera if he wanted to, because he subsidizes it. Because Al Jazeera has helped put Qatar on the global map, and because the station has rebuffed complaints about its bold coverage from virtually every Arab government since it went on the air, Sheikh Hamad could not simply cave into American pressure.
Tensions increased after the U.S. intervention in Iraq, and Washington again complained to Qatar. Powell told the Qatari foreign minister in April 2004 that Al Jazeera was inciting Arab audiences to violence against American troops, and that its news coverage was undermining good U.S.-Qatari relations. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Al Jazeera of "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable reporting," and other officials echoed these charges. The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), appointed by the CPA, also denounced Al Jazeera and other Arab broadcasters operating in Iraq for their newscasts, some of which featured statements by Saddam before his capture and aired insurgents' messages. The IGC closed down their offices temporarily and banned their reporters from some press conferences.
It seems ironic that although the United States stands for freedom of expression, it often behaved like an authoritarian government in Iraq and it pressured the Qatari government to crack down on the region’s most popular television station. Moreover, many who have watched the new U.S.-run Arabic language satellite television channel Al Hurra report that it resembles many state-run Arab television channels that carry only pro-regime propaganda.
These disconnects, which Arabs regard as evidence of an American double standard, illustrate that policy makers take many factors into account when making decisions. The application of a single principle—no matter how lofty—does not always work in practice. Press freedom has limits everywhere, and foreign policy goals combined with local conditions help determine the extent of those limits.
William A. Rugh, former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, is the author of Arab Mass Media: Newspapers, Radio, and Television in Arab Politics (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).