The blast scene on 28 February in al-Hillah, where more than 130 Iraqis died.
Iraqis took to the streets this week in three days of protests against an 11 March article published in Jordan's "Al-Ghadd" newspaper that claimed the family of an alleged Jordanian suicide bomber celebrated their son's "martyrdom" in Iraq.
The article claimed that Ra'id al-Banna was responsible for the 28 February suicide bombing in Al-Hillah that killed more than 130 Iraqis, and contended that Ra'id's father, Mansur al-Banna, "proudly accepted congratulations on the martyrdom of his son" after it was learned that he carried out the attack. Al-Banna later denied those allegations, saying his son was killed in Mosul on 1 March.
The "Al-Ghadd" article also falsely claimed that "most" of the dead in the attack were Americans. In a correction issued on 12 March, the daily retracted the claim. International media reports indicated that the victims were mostly Iraqi Shi'ites.
The incident, however, goes beyond bad journalism and raises wider questions about the responsibility of Arab media in accurately covering the events taking place in Iraq, and the responsibility of those governments in helping to bring stability to their neighbor.
The Arab media influenced the region's discourse on the war in Iraq by largely framing it in the context of "invasion" and "imperialism." Two years later, much of the Arab world has bought into this discourse, propagated over satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera. The broadcasts have no doubt contributed to the influx of foreign fighters to Iraq. One Tunisian insurgent arrested in Iraq said he was prompted to seek "jihad" after watching Al-Jazeera. The most-wanted fugitive in Iraq, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, is a Jordanian.
Conversely, Arab media outlets have largely failed to accurately report on the discourse inside Iraq, where Iraqis have repeatedly called on neighboring states to keep foreign fighters out of the country and allow Iraqis to build a democratic state. The Iraqi interim government took steps against Al-Jazeera last year, banning the satellite news channel from broadcasting from Iraq. The decision was not enforced, however, and Al-Jazeera broadcast daily reports from Iraq using freelance journalists. By not properly enforcing the ban, the Iraqi government sent a message to media outlets that their reportage, however inaccurate and inflammatory, would not be penalized.
The Iraqi Shi'ite group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was quick to condemn the "Al-Ghadd" article in a 12 March statement on its website (http://www.sciri.ws), and criticized the Jordanian government, the media, clerics, and civil organizations for not taking "a clear and open stand against these crimes." "The Iraqi people are stunned and perplexed at the indifference of our brethren in Jordan about the bloody massacres that are being perpetrated against the sons of our people." The statement called on the Jordanian government to investigate the matter and to "prevent the exportation of murderers" to Iraq. It also called on the Iraqi interim government to "take the necessary measures against Jordan if the Jordanian government fails to deal seriously with this issue of exporting and honoring murderers of the Iraqi people."
Rather than issue an apology, Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khadr called the SCIRI statement "unjustifiable, harmful remarks [against] the Jordanian government and people." The Interior Ministry then summoned the journalist responsible for the article for interrogation on the grounds that he "published alleged news," and Khadr said in a 13 March statement that the journalist could face legal action.
Jordanian King Abdullah II visited the newspaper on 13 March, and spoke about the need for media outlets in the Arab world to take greater responsibility in their reporting. "Journalism should hold its monitoring role as a fourth authority within a responsible freedom and a high professionalism," he said. King Abdullah's statements, however, made no direct reference to the "Al-Ghadd" article. King Abdullah was cited in "Al-Dustur" on 5 March for comments he made expressing dissatisfaction with the Jordanian media. According to the daily, Abdullah "expressed his resentment and disappointment" with the way the Jordanian press covers events.
The incident could have major repercussions on Iraqi-Jordanian relations when a Shi'ite-dominated government takes power this month. While the Jordanian government quietly aided multinational forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom and has played a key role in the reconstruction of Iraq, its citizens, by and large, take a wholly divergent view on the war. But the media is only part of the problem
Support for deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein runs deep in Jordan for a myriad of reasons. Jordan benefited from relations with Hussein under sanctions, buying oil at subsidized, below-market prices. Hussein also supported the Palestinian cause, reportedly giving money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers -- an act not lost on Jordan's large Palestinian refugee community. On a trip to Jordan last fall, Jordanians -- from taxi drivers to educated professionals -- expressed support for Hussein while cursing the "American occupation." A mainly Sunni-populated country, Jordan has also expressed concern about a Shi'ite-led government being next door.
"Al-Ghadd" finally published an apology on 15 March, but rather than taking full responsibility for the inaccurate article, instead it blamed international media for the report, saying: "International news agencies and some satellite channels rushed to circulate the report without ascertaining the truth. 'Al-Ghadd,' like other media outlets, made this big mistake. U.S. and Iraqi satellite channels attempted to blow the matter out of proportion and portray the al-Banna funeral as a celebration."