Arab TV network plays key, disputed role in Afghan war

Three of the most defining images of America's "war on terrorism" haven't come from CNN, the BBC, or any other Western network.

• A defiant Osama bin Laden flanked by his chief aides in an Afghan mountain hideout.

• A bin Laden spokesman delivering a chilling threat that the "storm of airplanes will not be calmed."

• Young children bruised and bandaged in Kabul hospital beds after US military bombing raids in Afghanistan.

All are the work of Al Jazeera, a pan-Arab satellite television news station based here in this tiny oil sheikdom. With 35 million viewers in the coffee shops and living rooms of the Middle East, in five years it has emerged as the most credible and lively source of news in the region. Now it is playing a pivotal role in shaping public perceptions of the US-led campaign in Afghanistan.

It is a role that had already prompted Washington to lean on

the emir of Qatar, even before the world-wide broadcast of calls for jihad by Mr. bin Laden and his supporters. Some analysts say the broadcast of such rhetoric in a volatile region should give journalists pause.

"This isn't playing with fire, this is using a flamethrower in terms of the potential impact on the governments in the Islamic world," says James Morris of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, in Britain. "This is Osama bin Laden's loudspeaker."

Others say it should be left to editors to decide how to handle bin Laden's prerecorded statements. They cite free press principles, noting that in dangerous times the public deserves to have full access to information about future threats.

Caught in the middle of this debate is Al Jazeera, the only television news station permitted to remain in Taliban-controlled areas in recent weeks. (In a shift of policy, the Taliban yesterday escorted a busload of Western journalists to Khorum, a village in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban maintains that a US air raid last week killed as many as 200 people there.)

In addition, Al Jazeera appears to enjoy the confidence of bin Laden, who has faxed statements exclusively to Al Jazeera, including one he apparently signed himself.

The situation is similar to the exclusive status granted to CNN in Baghdad during the Gulf War. At that time, CNN came under fire for allegedly being used by Saddam Hussein for propaganda purposes in some of its reports from Iraq.

Now, similar allegations are being leveled at Al Jazeera. These allegations are completely unfounded, says Al Jazeera chairman Hamad Bin Thamer Al Thani. "We think at Al Jazeera that this is a news event, and we have to cover it from a media point of view, not from a political point of view," he says. The chairman adds that the current situation is a test of the liberty of all journalists. "What's the use of freedom if you only use it in comfort and not in crisis?" he asks.

The station has been funded by the emir as part of a democracy-building effort. Subsidies are supposed to end shortly. But during its first five years, Al Jazeera ("The Island" in Arabic) has earned a reputation as an oasis of free speech in a region dominated by government censors. Its intrepid reporting, candid talk, and vivid documentaries are unlike anything most Arab viewers have seen. But it has also attracted the ire of many Arab governments - including Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia - unaccustomed to open criticism.

Al Jazeera gained exclusive access to Iraq in 1998, giving Mr. Hussein an opportunity to speak directly to the Arab world. But it also later aired a story about an extravagant birthday party thrown by the Iraqi leader for himself.

Many at Al Jazeera say it is highly ironic for the US, with its long history of a free press, to criticize an Arab television station famous for its free-speech approach. "They are adopting the official Arab strategy toward the media, which is censorship, censorship, censorship," says Maher Abdallah, host of the popular Al Jazeera program "Religion and Life."

"Who is teaching whom?" Mr. Abdallah asks.

Officials at Al Jazeera say that if the US and Britain object to the opinions they see expressed on the station's programs, they are welcome to equal air time in which to respond. Indeed, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Secretary of State Colin Powell have both appeared on the station. A request for an interview with President Bush is pending.

"This station has been established on a free and independent basis," says Abdullah Ibrahim al-Haj, Al Jazeera's assistant general manager at the modern but small building in Doha. He says editors and reporters seek to comply with the station's motto: "The opinion, and the other opinion." That is the approach editors say they intend to follow in their continuing coverage of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. "Why do we have to take sides?" asks Ibrahim Hilal, Al Jazeera's chief editor.

By obtaining exclusive access inside the Taliban-controlled majority of Afghanistan, Al Jazeera pulled off a major coup in the high stakes business of international news. How Al Jazeera wields its newfound power may firmly establish its credibility as a world-class news organization. Or it may confirm the station's harshest critics, who say the so-called Arab version of CNN is nothing more than a "nasty little propaganda channel."

Al Jazeera staffers - many of whom started their careers working for the BBC - deny charges of bias. Instead, there is a strong sense of pride at working for an organization that has broken more than its share of big stories in the past month.

"This is our chance now to be No. 1. CNN was No. 1 in the Gulf War, and now we are No. 1," says Tawfiq Taha, an Al Jazeera news anchor.

But it isn't just about scoops and access. Some analysts warn that bin Laden's carefully scripted televised statements are a source of inspiration for militant Muslims and could spark instability that threatens US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others.

Even the free speech protections of the First Amendment of the US Constitution do not allow someone the unfettered ability to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

But others say the dangers of such speech stem not from the content of the message, but from the current atmosphere. These analysts say that rather than trying to censor certain words, the US should be working for democratic reforms throughout the Middle East.

"The question should be why 90 percent of the audience is watching Al Jazeera," says Khaled Saffuri of the Washington-based Islamic Institute.

"I think Al Jazeera reflects the feelings on the street and whether those sentiments are reasonable or extreme reflects the people on the street," he says. "If there was a real democratic debate I don't think you would see much sympathy for radical ideas."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.