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control-room

Control Room (film)

Control Room is a 2004 documentary film about Al Jazeera and its relations with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), as well as the other news organizations that covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Made by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, the film was distributed by Magnolia Pictures (owned by 2929 Entertainment).

People featured in the film include Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a press officer from US Central Command, David Shuster, an NBC correspondent, and Tom Mintier, a CNN correspondent. Al Jazeera was represented by Samir Khader, a senior producer, Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese journalist who attended American universities and headed the BBC Arab News Service before joining Al Jazeera, and Deema Khatib, a Syrian journalist and a producer at Al Jazeera. Samir Khader later became the editor of Al-Jazeera Josh Rushing has also started working for Al Jazeera.

Topics

Al Jazeera's role in Arab society

Control Room documents the spectrum of opinion that surrounds the Qatar television news network Al Jazeera. Throughout the film, Donald Rumsfeld appears at press conferences, complaining about the propagandist nature of Al Jazeera. Paradoxically, another clip shows Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf himself accusing the television organization of transmitting American propaganda. The contrasting views between the documentary’s central figures are not so clear cut. Early in the movie, press officer Lt. Rushing remarks that Al Jazeera bias leads it to focus exclusively on American tanks and Iraqi casualties, yet he later confides that agencies such as Fox News also appear to hand-pick their material, and he sees what both sides leave out. Samir Khader, a senior producer of Al Jazeera, claims the network's purpose is to shake up the rigid infrastructure of Arab society, which he believes has fallen behind, culturally and technologically, because of its social intolerance to other cultures and perspectives.

Objectivism vs. perspectivism

Several times, the journalists at Al Jazeera and CENTCOM press officer Lt. Rushing collide in a debate which often stems from the different ways these parties view the problem of war coverage. The journalists often display a perspectivist viewpoint, focusing on the perception of arguments from various audiences, while the press officer, being objectivist, focuses on facts which justify his viewpoint during this war. Rushing states, 'I am not stepping down from my conviction,' in defense of the U.S.'s liberating purpose in Iraq. However, when asked how the purpose might appear to the average Iraqi viewer to be the Western occupation of an Arab capital, he softens: 'I can see how it can be perceived as that.' While his conviction may be well justified, given many facts, Hassan Ibrahim, an Al Jazeera journalist, illustrates the counterpoint: regardless of the truth, George Bush's presentation — an ominous, 48-hour ultimatum — has managed to 'galvanize the Iraqi people to Saddam'. In the beginning of the film, in a coffee shop, we see a number of Egyptian men discussing the impending humiliation of the Saddam Hussein regime; they were clearly unhappy.

At one point during Control Room, Rushing reflects on Al Jazeera's transmission of images of American POWs and casualties, an act severely frowned upon and reprimanded by coalition forces and western governments as being in breach of the Geneva Convention. Rushing notes that, though he was filled with dismay by images of his countrymen dead and wounded being displayed on Arab television, the previous day had seen the transmission of dead and wounded Iraqis on western news networks, to which his reaction was comparatively slight. Such images, Rushing admits, would doubtless have had much the same distressing effect on Arabs as the images of dead and wounded Americans had on himself; he admits that he is upset that he himself did not feel as much when witnessing the images of dead and wounded Iraqis as when he saw images of similarly injured US troops.

Hassan Ibrahim notes cynically that few remarks were made upon the applicability of the Geneva Convention, in the cases of transmitting images of Iraqi wounded and prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Upon witnessing the statement delivered by Donald Rumsfeld, concerning the images of US dead and captives, he exclaims, 'Now there's a Geneva Convention?' Thus the film also focuses upon the limitations set upon objectivity by group affiliation, and also the related process by which apparently universally recognized laws might be viewed as being applicable only to those outside the bounds of that group.

Bias in the media

Rushing laments about Al Jazeera's bias, and speculates why the network shows no photos of alleged Iraqi military atrocities, such as soldiers holding families hostage. Abdallah Schleifer, an American reporter, counters that no such pictures exist. He has no doubt these atrocities occur. However, he explains that hearsay filtering down through CentCom is not convincing to skeptical Arab viewers; 'That's why pictures of these things are so vital.'

A crucial point in the documentary comes with Lt. Rushing's realization that Fox News displays that same lack of objectivity which he accuses Al-Jazeera of perpetuating - his conclusion drives home the point that media bias is institutionalized on both sides.

Given the subject of this film, pictures are so important because they transcend language. Unless there is concern that they have been contrived, they give useful information to all perspectives. This is what a producer for Al Jazeera claims was the motivation for showing dead American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. As for objectivity, she discards it as 'a mirage'. The film concludes that war is something that makes emotionless involvement impossible for any involved party.

Freedom of the media

One of the central focuses of Control Room is on the alleged friendly fire attack against the Baghdad headquarters of Al Jazeera, on 8th April 2003. The film shows footage possibly of the attack, including the firing of a "missile," which appear to be in fact defensive flares, by an American A-10 'tankbuster'; the film reports that the alleged target was a group of insurgents who opened fire on coalition forces from within the Al Jazeera building, thus justifying retaliatory fire. Some doubt is expressed within as to whether such an explanation is viable. During the attack, one correspondent working for the news network, Tareq Ayyoub, was killed; the film records one subsequent episode during a press conference, when Ayyoub's widow beseeches journalists to 'tell the truth' concerning her husband's death, for the sake of those innocents already killed during the war.

The same day that witnessed the attacks on Al Jazeera also saw attacks on other news networks: a strike by US troops on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad killed a Spanish TV cameraman and a Reuters cameraman. Claims that US troops were returning fire upon a sniper were 'greeted with incredulity by reporters on the ground, including Sky News reporter David Chater, and at Central Command in Qatar.' On the same day, Abu Dhabi TV was also hit, 'which means the US forces [had] attacked all the main western and Arab media headquarters in the space of just one day'

The aftermath of the attack saw a number of allegations: Al Jazeera claimed to have sent the Pentagon details of their staff's position via GPS co-ordinates, as did several other news networks. At the time, sources from the BBC noted with alarm that 'the Pentagon did not seem to pay heed to information they had been given by al-Jazeera and every other TV organization based in [Baghdad]' The overwhelming majority of opinion amongst the Arabic media seems to be that the US acted in order to prevent the reporting of war crimes perpetrated by American personnel ; the attack on Al Jazeera was thus deliberate, a theory which seems to have support from Robert Fisk In Control Room, the situation is remarked upon by a senior member of Al Jazeera, who remarks that a small news network cannot hope to combat the forces of the United States; in the face of such an apparent censure by so mighty an opponent, he laments, what may one do but 'shut up'?

Special features

The special features that accompany the DVD contain further interviews.

  • In one, Hassan Ibrahim states his belief that Bush's actions are just as much terrorism as Bin Laden's, and that any use of violence is terrorism. The unidentified person speaking with Ibrahim retorts "So there is no such thing as terrorism?"
  • In another segment Deema Khatib states that her personal views do not colour what Al Jazeera presents, because "Al Jazeera just presents information".

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