U.S.: Don’t Step on Freedom of the Press Abroad
September 13, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry recently met in Jidda, Saudi Arabia to mobilize Arab nation support for the U.S.-led effort to destroy the Sunni extremist group that is known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The result was a joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and 10 Arab states that supports several strategic activities. These include coordinated military efforts, along with measures aimed at stopping the flow of money and volunteers to ISIS. Humanitarian aid to those who have been brutalized by ISIS also is called for in this statement.

Behind the scenes, however, an unusual request apparently was part of the planning leading up to this public pronouncement. According to The New York Times, a senior State Department official speaking before the meeting with Arab foreign ministers said Kerry planned to not only ask the Arab states to increase their public condemnations of ISIS, but also to “ask them to use their state-owned media, too.” The Times said the official specifically mentioned two prominent news channels in the Middle East—Al Jazeera in Qatar and Al Arabiya (owned by the Saudis but based in Dubai) as potentially part of this strategy for combatting ISIS through nationally owned media.

Although media clearly are part of modern warfare, perhaps even more critical in an era of stateless terrorism and social media fluency, the U.S. should not be advancing the notion of having these news organizations slant their coverage to suit a particular foreign policy outcome, however admirable.

The U.S. represents a beacon to the world for its stalwart protection of unfettered journalism. We proudly are a nation committed to the First Amendment. Free press without government intrusion is a cornerstone of the democratic values that we vigorously project to all corners of the world.

Traveling thousands of miles to articulate a message that undermines what we stand for cannot help but create blowback in a number of ways. First, it raises the unwanted image of Western infiltration of Arab media, which may enhance anti-American sentiment over time, perhaps even creating greater sympathy for ISIS.

It also undermines the dedication that these two channels have shown in recent years to shed their early reputations as mere state propaganda machines. In particular, over the past decade, Al Jazeera has emerged as a credible news organization both throughout the Arab world and more recently, in the United States. Al Jazeera America, launched last year to millions of U.S. cable and satellite viewers through the acquisition of Al Gore’s Current TV network, has assembled a stellar group of reporters and editors from ABC News, CBS News, CNN and other prominent organizations. They rightly pride themselves as serious journalists. Only a year old, this New-York headquartered network already has received professional accolades such as two Peabody Awards and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

But if the U.S. advice on combatting ISIS is adopted, putting a thumb on the reporting scale, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would take Al Jazeera in America very seriously anymore. That would be detrimental here at home, where in-depth sober reporting of developments in the Arab Middle East has been anemic, though sorely needed. Our citizens deserve exposure to unvarnished accounts of what is happening there, as painful as some stories may be. We also need such information to interact as voters and constituents with our elected representatives, who are making life-and-death decisions as part of the end game to defeat ISIS.

Letting the world know that we are encouraging other governments to skew coverage in their own media outlets also undermines the credibility of the various foreign news services that the U.S. funds, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and perhaps most importantly, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. We rely on these media as part of our nation’s vital public diplomacy; if word gets out that the U.S. is urging others in the region to adjust their reporting, it only will be a matter of time before the reputation for journalistic integrity of these services is called into question.

Let’s continue to strengthen our resolve against ISIS, and encourage others to mobilize significant resources in that worthy battle. But the U.S. also should be resolute that media, especially outlets already controlled by authoritarian governments, continue to report directly what is happening. Our nation’s unique principles must be reflected if we are to really succeed in this initiative.

Stuart N. Brotman teaches at Harvard Law School and is the author of Communications Law and Practice, the leading treatise on telecommunications and electronic media regulation, now in its 36th edition. He served as Chair of the American Bar Association’s International Communications Committee in its Section of International Law.