Arab Media Coverage of Saddam's Trial

Steve Inskeep talks to Ramez Maluf, journalism professor at the Lebanese American University, about how the Arab media is covering the trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Maluf says Arab television featured longer excerpts of the trial, which may have left viewers with a different impression of the proceedings.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Many people across the Middle East watched the trial of Saddam Hussein as it began yesterday. Despite technical difficulties and poor sound quality, television viewers caught a rare glimpse of the former Iraqi dictator and seven other members of his regime. They were seated within white metal barriers in the courtroom. Now from time to time, we listened in on the Arab media with the help of Ramez Maluf. He is a professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University.

Welcome to the program.

Professor RAMEZ MALUF (Lebanese American University): Well, my pleasure.

INSKEEP: Give us a sense, if you can, of how the Arab language media in general covered this trial in ways that was different from the American media.

Prof. MALUF: One thing that struck me, yesterday in particular, was that I had read earlier that Saddam Hussein had appeared in court and was very defiant and questioned the legality of the court. And if you just read that, you would get the impression that Saddam had the upper hand in these proceedings. But those of us on Arab television saw longer excerpts from the court trial, saw a very quiet Saddam Hussein listening to the prosecutor going on and on about the crimes he had committed. And I think this left us with a very different impression of how the trial, that first day went.

INSKEEP: And across the Arab world, you could get full coverage?

Prof. MALUF: Well, long excerpts from the trial were aired on a number of television stations. One of them, for example, was Saudi satellite television which very rarely does that sort of thing. I think a lot of stations owned by governments that have traditionally been unkind to Saddam Hussein made a point of running these long excerpts from the trial.

INSKEEP: What's some of the commentary that you've heard or read about the trial, either in Arabic language newspapers or on Arab television?

Prof. MALUF: Well, there's a very strong undercurrent of cynicism towards the trial. Remember that this is happening against a background of people in the region being suspicious of court trials, of political court trials as a rule. The separation of the judiciary from the executive power in most of the countries in the Arab world is not very clear. People tend to look at any trial that has political implications with a lot of skepticism. Al-Hayat newspaper yesterday had a cartoon showing Saddam sitting at the trial but the chair that he was sitting on was actually an electric chair with a wire connecting him to the judge where he could just press the button and have him electrocuted. And the chair had a sign on it saying `Gift from George Bush.' So I think even Al-Hayat, which is a rather moderate newspaper showed that skepticism. A vote on aljazeera.net in Arabic asking people to vote whether Saddam would receive a fair trial or not. This morning, out of about 32,000 people who voted, 81 percent said he would not get a fair trial.

INSKEEP: That's not a scientific result, we should say, but it is the result of thousands of people...

Prof. MALUF: Right.

INSKEEP: ...writing in.

Prof. MALUF: My guess is that it pretty much reflects, you know, popular opinion. Now this was not to say that people do not think that Saddam is guilty of his crimes. I think there was a lot of footage yesterday on Kuwait TV, for example, about the crimes he had committed against Kuwaiti citizens during his invasion in 1990, '91. There was a lot of footage about mass graves, so there's no love lost between Arab public opinion of Saddam Hussein, but the legality of the trial, the fact that it's happening under a regime that not yet has a constitution, this is not lost on people, that this was a trial that's happening by a government that was put in place by an occupation.

INSKEEP: Is there any sense of, well, appreciation for the fact that a man is being put on trial who is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of Muslims?

Prof. MALUF: I think this is the key issue here. Will this be a learning experience for the Arab world? I think it will all depend on how this trial is actually perceived, how it's played, how public it is and so forth. There was a piece in Al-Hayat to that regard that this was an opportunity that should not be lost, to make a point that criminals can be brought to justice in the Arab world.

INSKEEP: We've been speaking once again with Ramez Maluf. He's a professor of journalism at Lebanese American University in Beirut. Thanks.

Prof. MALUF: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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