Control Room was a very powerful documentary made by Al Jazeera television in 2004 about the early phase of the Iraq War and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Almost off of it takes place in the Coalition Forces Media Center for Central Command (CENTCOM), where the journalists are attempting to get real information about what was happening in the war. One problem with the film is that some parts are in Arabic and not translated or given subtitles, so English-speakers can only guess at what they are saying. Its point of view was clearly opposed to the war and the American invasion, as well as any statements by President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In turn, most of the U.S. officials were openly hostile to Al Jazeera and accused it of favoring Saddam Hussein. Near the end of the film, right before the U.S. tanks entered Baghdad, the Al Jazeera offices were bombed and all of its reporters and producers believed that this was a ‘message’ or a warning to them for having been too critical of the United States. After the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled—not by Iraqis but by people brought in from outside the country—one of the Al Jazeera journalists warned that Iraq would turn into another situation like Somalia. This was just as the massive looting was getting underway in Baghdad, so the reporter was more prophetic than he knew. According to the head of Al Jazeera, it is also the most controversial network in the Arab world, and its purpose is educational, to encourage free debate with nothing taboo, to support openness and democracy, and to shake up rigid Arab societies and tell them to wake up. They also intended to present the other side of the war that the Western media was not covering, including civilian casualties and the real opinions of the Iraqi people.
In the documentary, they do show many video clips from the war and interviews with civilians, soldiers and government officials. One of the most frequently interviewed people is Lt. Rushing, a Marine public information officer whose job is basically to handle the media and appear sympathetic. At the very start, Al Jazeera also interviews an Arab cab driver, who says that Bush and the American invasion have made Saddam Hussein a big hero, which he thought was “amazing”. In the Coalition Media Center, American officers say there are “a number of suspicious sites around Iraq” that have weapons of mass destruction, and that they are there to bring them freedom. 23 million people in Iraq. Then Lt. Rushing explains that Iraq has nuclear weapons and has the will to use them on the U.S., although the Al Jazeera reporter is skeptical that Saddam ever threatened the United States. In fact, many Arabs think the U.S. is there to control the oil in Iraq or control the region, and that the U.S. government has hijacked the media to frighten the population and make them feel under siege.
Regularly during the war, Donald Rumsfeld goes on TV to denounce Al Jazeera for its supposedly biased coverage, showing pictures of dead and wounded Iraqis, or dead Americans. In response, the people from Al Jazeera state that although the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and can crush everyone, it should not “ask us to love it”. Army officers express “regret” for the loss of civilian lives, but blame it all on Saddam Hussein. They also say that Al Jazeera is “biased” in favor of Iraq, showing pictures of dead and wounded children, but it never shows any pictures of Iraqis committing atrocities. It also shows American and British troops rounding up Iraqis, killing and brutalizing civilians, but never any of Saddam’s atrocities. Saddam has killed many Arabs and Muslims but Al Jazeera does not report it, according to the American military officials. On one occasion, Donald Rumsfeld denounces them for playing “the same propaganda over and over and over again”, and showing fake pictures of the U.S. bombing children. He thinks they lie all the time and should lose all credibility, but Al Jazeera says that the human costs of the war should be shown. Rumsfeld does not really care what happens to the Arabs but they do. At this time, one American reporter keeps urging an Arab reporter to smile more and be nice to the American Army officers, but the man replies “how can I smile when my people are being killed.” Bush and Rumsfeld were also particularly upset when dead and wounded American POWs were interviewed by Al Jazeera, and repeatedly asked where they came from and why they were in Iraq. The Americans just say they were ordered to go to there and that they only shoot people who shoot at them. Rumsfeld said that showing these pictures was a violation of the Geneva Convention, while the British called it “deplorable, but for Al Jazeera the U.S. was violating the Geneva Convention every day.
Al Jazeera admitted all along that it was not ‘objective’ about the war, but then again none of the Western media outlets were either, since they were biased in favor of it. All of the journalists complain that these CENTCOM officers do not have much information to offer, and they will say only that the U.S. troops are in Baghdad, but the Americans want to talk about the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Even CNN said that the military was trying to “manage the news” and that they were very good at “burying the lead”. Many of the Western reporters could not speak Arabic, though, and had difficulty reporting any other side of the war but the press conferences and handouts they received from the military, which also preferred to keep all journalists in the field “embedded” (and censored) by its own troops. For example, a BBC reporter thought Iraqis were cheering Bush but they were swearing at him, and since he did not speak Arabic he never knew it.
Al Jazeera did not go along with embedding and its opposition to the war frequently angered the U.S. military and civilian officials. The end of the film shows that its offices were bombed in Baghdad and Arab journalists were killed after being systematically bombed three times. The Americans claimed they were taking fire from those buildings, which was not true, since they were really bombed very deliberately to send a “message”. This was a day before the American tanks arrived in Baghdad, with the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down. Then they brought in people to cheer the tanks, but they were not from Iraq, all part of a show for the media to tear down the statue. Then Bush appeared on an aircraft carrier to announce that it was Mission Accomplished, but of course it was far from over. It was all staged like a Hollywood movie, complete with the good guys and bad guys. Very soon afterwards, the massive looting and violence started in Baghdad, since there was no longer any government or civil order, but the Army only cared about raising the American flag in the center of town.
Control Room. Al Jazeera Documentary, 2004.