Uday’s Oil-for-News Program

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Weekly Standard
May 16, 2005

From the May 16, 2005 issue: Was Al Jazeera on the take?

On January 6, 2005, the U.S.-funded Arabic satellite network Al Hurra broadcast an explosive exposé detailing the financial links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Arab press. Al Hurra’s documentary–so far overlooked in the West–aired previously unseen video footage, recorded by Saddam Hussein’s regime during its murderous heyday, of Saddam’s son Uday meeting with several Arab media figures and referring to the bribes they had received.

Recipients of this Baathist largesse appeared to include a former managing director of the influential Qatar-based government-subsidized satellite network Al Jazeera, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali. The videotaped meeting between Uday and al-Ali occurred on March 13, 2000, when al-Ali still worked as Al Jazeera’s managing director. Their conversation makes clear that this was not their first meeting, but that they had met on prior occasions–and that Al Jazeera had put into effect the directives that Uday had proffered in those previous meetings.

Referring to how his advice had affected changes in Al Jazeera’s personnel, Uday states, “During your last visit here along with your colleagues we talked about a number of issues, and it does appear that you indeed were listening to what I was saying since changes took place and new faces came on board such as that lad, Mansour.”

This “lad” is Ahmed Mansour, an Al Jazeera journalist who has been criticized for his pro-insurgency reporting. In particular, Mansour came under fire in early 2004 for his coverage of the U.S. attack on Falluja, which pointedly emphasized civilian casualties.

Uday goes on in his videotaped conversation with al-Ali to mention that some people have relayed to him al-Ali’s comment that Al Jazeera is the station of Iraq’s Baathist regime “both literally and figuratively.” Thus, Uday says, “It is important that I share with you my observations about the station.”

In response, al-Ali never denies saying that Al Jazeera was Saddam’s station. Instead, his cloying remarks provide Uday every reason to believe that this is so. Al-Ali gives Uday his “unequivocal thanks for the precious trust that you put in me so that I was able to play a role at Al Jazeera; indeed I can even say that without your kind cooperation with us and your support my mission would have failed.” Al-Ali also tells Uday that, in his mission at Al Jazeera to serve Iraq, “the lion’s share of the credit goes to you personally sir, yet we would be remiss not to mention our colleagues here who constantly strive to implement your directive.”

Al Jazeera isn’t the only Arab media outlet implicated in the Al Hurra tapes. It was recently discovered that Hamida Naanaa, a Syrian writer based in France who was known for her pro-Saddam slant, had received coupons under the Oil-for-Food program in exchange for her favorable coverage. Al Hurra alleges that Saddam’s regime would hand out two types of oil coupons to Arab media figures: silver coupons that entitled their holders to a maximum of 9 million barrels of oil, and gold coupons that were good for even more. Naanaa had received a gold coupon.

Bribery evidently yields its privileges; in its exposé, Al Hurra showed new footage of a meeting between Naanaa and Uday that reveals her obsequiousness and sycophancy toward the dictator’s son. After Uday greets Naanaa, she gushes, “Hello to you, the dear son of the dear and the precious son of the precious. Hello, is kissing allowed?” Kissing was indeed allowed.

During their conversation, Naanaa refers to a “beautiful and sweet letter” that Uday had written to her, telling him, “I was so always looking forward to seeing you.” Naanaa also expresses concern about the 1996 assassination attempt on Uday, saying, “We got worried about you, you know. . . . I just lost it when I heard the news.”

Al Hurra was launched on February 14, 2004, and is a part of the Bush administration’s effort to improve public diplomacy throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Today, it reaches 120 million people in 22 countries. The chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Middle East Committee, Norman Pattiz, has estimated that the network may have 20 million regular weekly viewers.

Mouafac Harb, Al Hurra’s director of network news and executive vice president, explained in an interview that, for security reasons, he couldn’t say who had provided Al Hurra with the footage of Uday’s meetings. However, Harb made clear that the network had received the footage from an Iraqi source, not from the U.S. government. With the hubris characteristic of dictators, Saddam and his sons made it a practice to videotape their meetings.

While Al Jazeera initially alleged that the tapes were part of a conspiracy against it, it has not mounted a challenge to their authenticity. In fact, Al Jazeera may have attempted to preempt the issue altogether by firing al-Ali shortly after the Baathist regime collapsed–without providing any reason for his termination. Yet despite al-Ali’s sacking, there was no marked shift in Al Jazeera’s coverage of Iraq. What had been pro-Saddam reporting before the U.S. invasion soon became pro-insurgency. Notes Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and one of Al Hurra’s “review experts” for the January documentary, “Al Jazeera cooperated with the regime, which was the target of the international coalition. Even after the regime was gone, they continued to support the jihadists.”

Given the continuing anti-U.S. slant to Al Jazeera’s coverage, Phares believes the exposure of the kind of backroom dealings in which the network has been engaged ought to mark a “watershed” in understanding behind-the-scenes corruption at the network. The tapes might also prompt reflection on the representations of the “Arab street” seen on Al Jazeera and other media in the region. We now know that the same network that assured us Arab opinion uniformly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq also apparently served as a paid shill for Saddam’s regime.

Moreover, Phares intimates that the dealings captured by the Al Hurra tapes may be only the tip of the iceberg. “How many other regimes have been paying these media?” he asks. Harb agrees, noting that it is a “widespread practice” for Arab leaders to intimidate or bribe leaders of media outlets, or even individual journalists.

This kind of corruption confirms the need for unbiased media in the Arab world. Some writers–including Reuel Marc Gerecht in these pages–have called for the creation of an Arab or Iraqi C-SPAN, a station that would broadcast unfiltered political debate of interest to the Arab world, and so serve as a means of education about the democratic process. Harb, on the other hand, thinks U.S. efforts should concentrate on creating a more vibrant media market in the Middle East. It is the lack of a viable independent media industry in the region, he notes, that leaves Arabic networks dependent on governments and opens management and journalists up to alternative revenue streams–like bribery.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is an international terrorism consultant and an attorney with Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Eric Stakelbeck is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East in Washington, D.C.

See the original article here.