Arab journalists argue over Iraq war, freedom of press in Middle East

Four members of prominent Arab news sources debated Middle-Eastern opinion on the Iraq War and what it means to be an Arab journalist during Monday night’s “Kalb Report” at the National Press Club.

“The Kalb Report” is a public affairs debate program hosted by notable journalist and former “Meet the Press” host Marvin Kalb and is aired on radio and television. Opinion on the U.S. war in Iraq dominated the panel discussion, which is jointly sponsored by GW, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center and the National Press Club.

The panelists represented the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, the leading Arab television network Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera’s main competitor, Al Arabiya. The journalists disagreed with each other on most issues, and the discussion became heated at times with the guests yelling over each other.

Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, criticized the Iraq War as a “quagmire.” He said most Arabs sympathize with the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, contrary to the U.S. picture of him as a cruel tyrant.

“The majority of the Arab world did not see Saddam in a negative light,” Foukara said.

Al Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham, the only female participant in the discussion, agreed with Foukara. She said the overwhelming opinion in her region is that the U.S. invasion was unwelcome.

“Our public never trusted American intentions behind this war,” she said.

Salameh Nematt, also an Al Hayat columnist, disagreed with Foukara and Dergham, his colleague. He said Hussein deserved his fate of losing power and ultimately being convicted of crimes against his people.

“It was a good thing to overthrow such a dictator,” he said.

All four guests said the Western world has a false perception of Arab news sources. They said the journalists are freer from political censorship than commonly believed.

A woman in the audience asked Dergham how she dealt with being a woman in a field dominated by men and in countries where women face prejudice. Dergham responded that the number of women joining the profession – especially on television – is growing, but there are still proportionally few female columnists.

The audience included many students from D.C.-area universities as well as University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

Trachtenberg said the discussion was “nuanced and forthright.” He said this was an accurate description of the problems in the Middle East, where “there is never a simple answer.”

-David Ceasar contributed to this report.

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