The victor of the news war has been the internet

By Natasha Walter

10 April 2003

This war has brought home to so many of us that, although we live in a world with an endless deluge of information, that doesn't necessarily make us feel well informed. There are ever more urgent column inches to read and harrowing images to look at, but a sense persists that this war is being fought in places very distant from us, among people who cannot communicate freely with us and within corridors of power where we cannot go.

Although most people rely on television news for a rolling update of the situation, who hasn't felt impatient with the way that bulletins are being presented? British TV news has chosen to rely on journalists who speak no Arabic, wear battle fatigues, ride round on tanks and file uncontextualised reports on what war looks like from the winning side that it's quickly shaded into repetition and confusion.

The reporters based in Baghdad have been doing a far better job. It's not their fault that in most television news bulletins the civilian casualties are either sidelined or presented to us as objects for our generous charity, as has happened with Ali Ismail Abbas, the boy whose arms were blown off and who is now going to be the target for grandstanding coalition compassion after having been the target of grim coalition brutality.

Naturally, I tend to believe that journalists who file to the print media provide the best service for those of us who are trying to understand these brutal times. But I can also see why more people than ever are roaming the internet, looking for other sources of information. Certainly, if you've been using the internet during this war, you will know that there have been a couple of places where you could feel almost close to the hearts and minds of civilians in the country that we are invading. The famous Baghdad blogger, who wrote under the name Salam Pax, gave readers a better insight into what the bombs falling on Baghdad looked like to Baghdadis than any Western reporter. "As one of the buildings I really love went up in a huge explosion," he wrote early on in the war, "I was close to tears."

And you can always find places on the internet that give you a version of the facts that is rather different from the one preferred by mainstream British and American media. Take the recent deaths of journalists in Baghdad. Despite some heroically dissenting voices, such as that of Robert Fisk, mainstream media outlets in Britain and the US agreed that simple errors sent missiles flying into the Palestine Hotel, killing Taras Protsyuk of Reuters and the Spanish correspondent Jose Couso; and into the headquarters of al-Jazeera, killing their chief correspondent Tariq Ayoub. But if you are flipping through internet sites, you can run through a whole gamut of other opinion. You can visit crazy sites for conspiracy theorists, to read those who believe that the shells that killed the journalists must, in fact, have been fired by Iraqis, since the Americans would never, could never, have done such a thing deliberately or in error.

More convincingly, you can taste the flavour of the outrage in the Arab world. The assumption that the Americans are deliberately targeting journalists jumps out at you from Arab websites. You can visit the United Arab Emirates-based site for Gulf News, and read Arab journalists saying, "The Anglo-American forces are dealing brutally with the press so they will not show the true picture of what is happening in Iraq".

That is not to say that the internet is just about the free flow of unbiased information. On the contrary, as everyone knows, it's only as good as the website that you're in, and all over the place there are websites breeding crazy conspiracy theories and irrelevant rants. It is not even as free as one might like to think: while the Baghdad office of al-Jazeera has been struck by American missile attacks, its English-language website has been closed down by American opponents. A spokeswoman told The New York Times that companies were coming under "non-stop political pressure" to refuse to do business with the channel, while pro-war hackers have succeeded in shutting down the website completely on more than one occasion.

But at its best, what the internet is good at is providing a channel of international communication between people rather than governments. The anti-globalisation movement has been harnessing that facility for years, and the international flavour of the great protests against the war back in February would have been impossible without co-ordination through the internet.

Whatever its shortcomings, however hopelessly unreliable it can seem when you're trawling through it, during this war the internet has also shown us the overwhelming desire that so many people have to communicate, across all sorts of geographical and political divides. We shouldn't overestimate how far that desire is being met  since the internet is only useful to those who have access to the kind of technology that is beyond the reach of most people. But at their best, parts of the internet remind us of the ideal expressed by the Israeli man who hosted a copy of the Baghdad blogger's diary: "I'm Israeli, but I don't think it's weird that I'm mirroring an Iraqi guy's blog. We're all people, you know, we're not robots programmed with the official policies of our countries."