"This is the first time the Arab media have had the upper hand on the western media," he told the Mirror, a London newspaper.
He was right, of course. On Tuesday, when al Jazeera fired its director general, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, the world was reminded once again of one significant reason--Saddam Hussein's regime infiltrated media outlets throughout the region, including al Jazeera.
According to a dispatch from Agence France Presse, hardly a pro-American outlet, al-Ali was canned after the Sunday Times of London reported earlier this month on documents uncovered linking him and two other al Jazeera employees to Saddam's regime. Al Jazeera has confirmed the report of Al-Ali's dismissal, but denies that he was let go because of suspicions about his ties to the Iraqi regime.
On May 11, 2003, the Mirror's Marie Coyle wrote: "A document headed 'Presidency of the Republic, Mukhabarat Service,' indicates apparent contact between the intelligence agency and Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, the station's managing director." While Coyle reported that there was not yet evidence that al-Ali had been paid off, the documents directly implicated two other al Jazeera employees.
According to one document, authored by an Iraqi operative working in the regime's embassy in Qatar, an al Jazeera employee Iraqi intelligence referred to as Jazeera 2 passed letters from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. "[Jazeera 2] has a distinguished stand in the co-operation with us, continuously providing us with the information we request. I made him aware of the appreciation of his efforts. He has been presented with a set of gold jewelry for his wife."
The documents also stressed the importance of keeping quiet the contacts between al Jazeera and the regime for fear that any disclosure of the relationship could cause Iraq to "lose [Al-Jazeera] as an instrument employed by us."
These revelations support claims in a CIA document first reported by The Weekly Standard earlier this month. That report, "Baghdad's Propaganda Apparatus," offers a detailed analysis of the regime's efforts to co-opt Arab journalists with cash and gifts. It also named Rahim Mizyad, a close associate of Uday Hussein, who coordinated Iraqi media, as one of the agents working for al Jazeera:
"Saddam's son Uday . . . assigned a writer, closely associated to him, Rahim Mizyad, as the correspondent to the al-Jazirah satellite television channel. Mizyad also is head of several weekly newspapers in Iraq and General Press Coordinator of all Iraqi governates, but Uday oversees his work."
The efforts of the regime to win propaganda were hardly limited to al Jazeera. The CIA report, along with firsthand accounts from Arab journalists, paints a troubling picture of the Arab media coverage--or, as important, lack of coverage--of the Iraqi regime.
The Iraqi Ministry of Information, under the guidance of Uday and Tariq Aziz, "focused on determining the stories to be pushed, and assigning Iraqi resources overseas to conduct media operations." The Information Ministry coordinated its efforts with the Iraqi Intelligence Service (the Mukhabarat), which, according to the CIA report, "participates in the internal decision-making process, recruits media and other assets, delivers propaganda material and instructions to them, and provides payoffs. A variety of reporting indicates that journalists in the Middle East and Europe have been recruited to assist Iraq."
Some of the transactions were obvious--like cash handouts to journalists at the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, Jordan. Others were hidden. Saddam "would award big contracts to newspapers in Jordan to publish all sorts of stuff, like Iraqi schoolbooks and other things," says Salama Nimat, a Jordanian journalist who investigated connections between the Iraqi regime and politicians and journalists in Jordan. "The contracts were worth millions, and no one ever found out if they ever printed the books. No one cared."
These practices are not new. They were covered both before and after the first Gulf War. "For years, the Iraqi leader has been waging an intensive, sometimes clandestine, and by most accounts highly effective image war in the Arab world," wrote Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Geraldine Brooks in an exposé published on February 15, 1991. "His strategy has ranged from financing friendly publications and columnists as far away as Paris to doling out gifts as big as new Mercedes-Benzes."
Curiously, as the American press struggles with questions about its own credibility, editors here have taken a pass on what one might think is a major story overseas. The New York Times ran a 98-word item on the al Jazeera firing on May 28, and it got a brief mention on MSNBC. It may be that the news about the dismissal broke too late to include it in newspapers out Wednesday. But the broadcast networks have largely skipped the story and only a handful of reporters followed up on the previous reports of collusion between the Iraqi regime and al Jazeera.
Will this time be different?
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.