‘Terror TV Bill’ Raises Questions about Freedom of Press

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Congress’ overwhelming support of the bill reflects a perception that Arab television news is not accurate because these stations are mainly state sponsored.

New America Media – The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed Bill 2278 two months ago, which according to its author Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., “would label certain Middle Eastern satellite providers of incendiary television programming as terrorist organizations, in an effort to prevent radical anti-American propaganda from hitting the airwaves.”

He told Bay News 9, “This is not a freedom of speech issue; this is a terror issue. And they are inciting violence; they are inciting anti-Americanism against our soldiers. And we got to do something about it. It is part of the war on terror.” 

Bilirakis’ bill specifically named Al Manar (Hezbollah in South Lebanon), Al Aqsa (Hamas in Gaza), Al Zawraa, which used to broadcast videos of attacks on American troops in Iraq accompanied by nationalist songs and Nasheeds, and Al Rafidain, which broadcasts the weekly “Harvest of the resistance”, a list of attacks on American troops with actual videos taken by various armed Iraqi groups.

Arab journalists, however, see the bill as a blatant attack on freedom of the press, aimed at silencing more widely-watched Arab television stations, such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which have been critical of Israeli policies and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steven Livingston, professor of international affairs and media and public affairs at George Washington University, told Al Jazeera, “The bill has many problems. For example, who can be considered as terrorist organizations? It may be clear when it comes to Al Qaeda and other groups who commit violence against civilians. But how can a clear distinction be made?” 

Livingston argued that mainstream American media in fact could be accused of inciting violence. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he said he found “blatant examples in the New York Times and the Washington Post pertaining to their biased coverage which was very supportive of Bush’s plans for the Middle East. Their coverage can be considered as incitement to violence considering that the war in Iraq in 2003 was based on false assumptions such as the position of weapons of mass destruction and alleged relations between Saddam and Al Qaeda.”

Misha’n Al Jabouri, an Iraqi national who owns television stations Al Rafidain and Al Zawraa, which now operates as Arrai, goes further by demanding that the American mainstream media be held accountable for going along with former president Bush’s false justifications for launching the war in Iraq instead of investigating them.

“The media that should be punished is the one that mobilized the American army for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he told Al Jazeera. “The media distorted the truth and paved the way for killing children and women.” 

Al Jabouri even questioned the journalism code of ethics of mainstream American media. He told Al Jazeera, “The duty of the American media is to report about the crimes committed by the occupation and invasion and encourage people to resist the invaders who come from behind the sea to invade and occupy another country.”

Arab journalists, however, acknowledge that some Arab media also violate journalistic ethics by demonizing Jews. For example, Al Jazeera aired a video clip of a cartoon program that was aired on Al Aqsa television depicting Jews as people who love to drink Palestinian blood.

In the clip, an older Jewish man with a beard tells an armed Israeli man wearing a hat with the Star of David: “Go son, drink their blood.” 

However, this phenomenon is not exclusive to Arab media; some American media also demonize Arabs and Muslims. Washington-based political analyst Khaled Safouri told Al Jazeera that it’s “not just Fox News. Radio stations in the U.S. transmit on a regular basis distasteful talk that is hostile to Muslims and incites violence against Muslims. You have to listen to, not only to Glenn Beck on Fox News, but also the Levin Show and other programs on the radio that are spread in the entire country and millions listen to them.” He added, “So, if Congress is interested in the issue of the language of inciting hatred, then it has to start on working on this issue inside the US.”

To illustrate this point, Al Jazeera aired a video clip of television evangelist Rev. Pat Robertson in which he said, “Islam is not a religion; it is a political system bent on world domination. Religion is a mask, used to extend their influence on the world and make it adapt to its way of thinking.” He added, “It is every bit as insidious as communism, perhaps more so.”

Congress’ overwhelming support of the bill reflects a perception that Arab television news is not accurate because these stations are mainly state sponsored. While it is true that Arab governments sponsor these television channels with the objective of promoting their foreign policies, a number of satellite television channels have emerged since the late 1990s, revolutionizing news coverage in the Middle East.

After satellite dishes became available, Arab audiences were no longer forced to watch only their own state-run television channels; they were able to see hundreds of satellite television stations offering different accounts of regional and international news. 

Providing better news became the vehicle for Arab governments to establish legitimacy among their people, which created a healthy competition between Arab television stations. 

The Qatari-based Al Jazeera television station is a prime example. By providing in-depth, reliable news reporting, Al Jazeera has managed to establish itself as the most-watched Arab television station, bringing legitimacy and pride to the Qatari government. The success of Al Jazeera compelled Saudi Arabia to launch Al Arabiya, which became the second most-watched Arab television station. Many other Arab countries have followed suit.

While the proliferation of satellite television stations has created a more competitive marketplace between state-sponsored Arab television channels, it has had little effect on news coverage in the United States. 

Perhaps instead of going after Arab TV, Congress should enact new laws to create a more competitive market for comprehensive news in America. 

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