Al Jazeera English Coverage Was the Best
By Siraj Wahab
The people of the Western world have been given a jaded perspective on Monday's unprovoked Israeli attack on an unarmed, six-ship relief flotilla on the high seas. The assault by marauding commandos has drawn condemnation from the United Nations, the European Union and NATO-member Turkey, but major US and British media outlets for the most part have opted to broadcast the Israeli government's official line, branding the foreign nationals as terrorists.
The Israeli naval forces disrupted maritime communication from the flotilla before the combined air-and-sea assault, and the less critical newsgathering organizations settled for handouts from the Israeli government. "They wanted to make a political statement," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said in a statement aired by American news media. "They wanted violence."
A good comparison is the coverage between the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera English.
At the Monday noon bulletin BBC ran the story as its lead and continued to air Israeli version of the gruesome attack. Not just that, it gave precious airtime to the Israeli spokespersons with little interruption or questioning from the anchor. One missed Nik Gowing in the newsroom. The Israeli spokesperson and Israeli sympathizers waxed eloquent on how the organizers of the flotilla were responsible for bringing the tragedy upon themselves. There was little or no mention about the fact that the attack had taken place in international waters.
Al Jazeera English brought in everything. In its 1 p.m. bulletin, the anchor led the story by mentioning that 14 people had died in the Israeli attack on the lead ship called Mavi Marmara. It then showed dramatic footage right from the ship that was under attack. Al Jazeera's Jamal El-Shayyal was on board the main ship — a sharp contrast to Tia Goldenberg of The Associated Press filing her reports from the Israeli missile boat INS Kidon, which took part in the attack.
"Two people have been confirmed dead," El-Shayyal reported. "The organizers of the aid flotilla have now asked all passengers to go inside. Israeli commandoes have descended upon the ship. The ship is still in international waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Marmara has been surrounded on all sides by armed boats. We can still hear shots being fired — even after the white flag has been raised. There are all civilians on this ship. They include women, children and the elderly."
El-Shayyal's reports and the dramatic, shipboard footage explained it all. It was there in images. Al Jazeera then took the viewers to Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon who was reading a statement.
"We were attacked by those on board the ship. We regret the loss of life but the responsibility for this tragedy lies with the organizers of the flotilla. We told them not to enter Gaza. We told them to deliver the aid through appropriate channels. The organizers of the aid flotilla are the supporters of Al-Qaeda and Hamas. They were armed and trying to lynch our soldiers, and that is why we acted in self defense," he said.
Al Jazeera then brought in Murat Mercan, chairman of the Turkish Parliament's Commission of Foreign Affairs. "Ayalon is a liar," he said. "The ships were cleared by the Turkish authorities. There were no arms on board. Only people. There were so many ways of stopping the ship. Obviously, Israel wasn't interested in merely stopping the ship. This will have consequences. No country has the right to attack any ship, armed or unarmed, in the international waters. This is a serious violation. In the coming days, you will see how Turkey will respond," he said.
Back in Palestine, Al Jazeera took the viewers to Ayman Mohyeldin in Umm Al-Fahm which is where Sheikh Raed Salah, a prominent theologian, came from. He was also on the ship and was shot in the head by the Israeli commandoes. Mohyeldin also gave a sense of the people's feeling saying, "All the images being shown from the activists on board those ships show clearly that they were civilians and peaceful in nature, with medical supplies on board. So it will surprise many in the international community to learn what could have possibly led to this type of confrontation."
Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Istanbul, was out in the streets of Istanbul gathering people's reactions. Turkish protestors carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags were swelling up in the town square to register their protest. "The Turks had a constructive military alliance with Israel and for many years they saw the issue of domestic terrorism as one they had to share information about," she said. "But since the Gaza war relations have nose-dived and it would be absolutely fair to say that this attack is the lowest point."
The best part of Al Jazeera coverage were the soundbytes from the erudite Palestinian leader Nabil Shaath. Very methodically, he called the Israeli bluff. "This is a murderous attack," he said. "All this talk about there being arms on the ship is absolute nonsense. One is reminded of the American drugs police who sometimes plant drugs on somebody just so they can arrest him. Nobody is going to believe Israel. Such excessive use of force indicates their nefarious designs. They went in to kill, and they did."
So far, mainstream American and British news outlets seem content to take statements and press releases from the Israelis; the rest of the story remains unreported.