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Western, Middle Eastern networks offer different views of war

AMMAN, Jordan—Watch satellite TV stations of the Middle East after watching CNN and other Western media outlets and you wonder: Are they covering the same war?

At first glance, all the channels appear to offer a similar, fast-paced approach—maps and props, anchors introducing live reports and summaries of the headlines. But the Arab stations show bloodied and burned bodies of soldiers, grimacing prisoners and Iraqis talking in the streets.

The difference underscores how vastly different the war is presented in the United States compared with its coverage in the Arab world, where there is outrage about the conflict.

An example: the deadly explosion in Baghdad's marketplace on Wednesday, which Iraq claims was caused by a U.S. missile. U.S. officials said they weren't sure what happened but say an errant Iraqi anti-aircraft missile also could have been the culprit.

CNN and the BBC covered it, but only Al-Jazeera showed dead Iraqis. All three stations bounced between U.S. or British military officers in Qatar and scenes of coalition armor grinding through sandstorms.

But only Al-Jazeera and rival Abu Dhabi TV aired Iraqi video of two dead British soldiers sprawled in a street and two unsmiling British POWs.

Throughout the war, CNN and the BBC have aired Al-Jazeera or Abu Dhabi video, notably Iraqi officials' speeches. But neither showed the British war dead or POWs, instead leaving it to the anchors to inform viewers that Al-Jazeera was airing the tape.

With the U.S.-led war on Iraq in its second week, channel surfing has become somewhat of a passion in the Middle East, in part because there has been an explosion of all-news stations since the 1991 Gulf War gave CNN nearly exclusive access to the Iraqi side.

CNN calls its special coverage "War In Iraq." Al-Jazeera's, in Arabic, says "War On Iraq." The BBC's is simpler: "Iraq War."

In Egypt, the state-owned, all-news station has put an antiwar message in its title: "Life for Oil."

In Jordan, residents flip from Al-Jazeera to al Arabya, a 24-hour station that hit the air this year. One of the stations is on in nearly every downtown Amman restaurant. Jordanian officials worry that the gruesome photos of injured or dead Iraqis is evoking anger in the public.

"People gather around the television a lot, especially when Saddam Hussein or his government speaks," said one restaurant owner who works with Amman's Iraqi community.

In Israel, Haifa University communications professor Ron Robin, who has been monitoring the broadcasts, says the BBC and CNN are "broadcasting white noise, basically. Nothing. Junk. All we see are these photogenic pictures of soldiers and sandstorms and rifles firing from afar; the realities of war are removed methodically from the screen."

So he looks to Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, and Abu Dhabi TV for what he calls more balanced reporting.

"If you want to get an idea of the horrors of war, that is the only place you can see it. Nowhere else," said Robin, a Berkley-educated dean of students at the Israel university.

Al-Jazeera's news hour on Wednesday included three stories not aired on CNN—an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a story about U.S. training of Iraqi opposition forces at a NATO base in Hungary and gruesome footage of charred victims of the Baghdad market explosion.

"Washington claimed it was going to be a clean war," said the anchor, a carefully coiffed woman in Al-Jazeera's Qatar studios. Instead, she said, the strike was meant "to implant fear and break the spine."

Overall, the Arab station gave a heavy emphasis to Iraqi civilians—children and armed men dancing around a crashed British drone and a young boy shouting, "Saddam is the ruler of Iraq," as well as a report from marketplace eyewitnesses who said there was no military target there.

All three stations also reported about Thursday's meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss whether the United States or United Nations should lead a post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

But only the British report cast it as a controversy, focusing on how "the first oil-well firefighting contract has already been awarded to a unit of Texas-based Halliburton, the very firm which Vice President Dick Cheney used to run."

Veteran Al-Jazeera viewers say they detect sympathy for the Iraqis, though not particularly for Saddam Hussein or his Baath Party.

There are other differences of nuance, including about which sound bites the stations choose to use.

All three stations covered parts of President Bush's speech to American troops in Florida on Wednesday.

But the BBC focused on the president praising the U.S. forces and their coalition supporters, notably the British air force. "Coalition forces are skilled, courageous and we are honored to have them by our side," he said to rousing applause.

CNN included a segment with the president's pledge, "We will overcome every danger, and we will prevail."

Al-Jazeera included Bush's assessment that, although he did not know how long the war would last, "We are prepared for the battle ahead." It closed that segment with this: "There will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime and that day is drawing near."


(Knight Ridder correspondent Elise Ackerman contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.