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Al Jazeera TV Draws Flak Outside -- and Inside -- the Arab World

January 05, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

DOHA, Qatar — When a top-ranking Al Qaeda operative was nabbed in the Pakistani city of Karachi in September, the rumor on the Arab streets was that Western intelligence agencies had traced him there with the help of Al Jazeera television.

Yet when associates of Osama bin Laden wanted to air a tape to show that the Al Qaeda chief was still alive, they arranged a James Bond-esque hand-over to the station's man in a Karachi market.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the world's most popular Arabic news source -- reaching an estimated 35 million viewers a day -- has become a strategic battleground in the global war on terrorism because of its powerful influence in the Islamic world.

Al Jazeera has been accused by some in Washington of being Al Qaeda's news channel: "All Osama, All the Time." But it has a different image in the Middle East, where the station often is accused of being a clever U.S. or Israeli implant in the region.

Now, as possible war with Iraq looms and with the U.S. command center for that war located only a few miles from where Al Jazeera broadcasts, the station again is feeling tugged. Editors here in the Qatari capital say the United States and Iraq will try to pressure Al Jazeera to report their versions of the conflict, and it will be up to the battle-tested staff to get it right.

"Al Jazeera does not have a policy vis-a-vis any development. We are just a channel putting out the news as it is," said veteran presenter Jamil Azar, 65, whose white hair and calm voice add an air of sagacity to reports. "And it seems to irritate a few people."

Al Jazeera's motto -- "The Opinion, and the Other Opinion Too" -- guarantees that some people will be angry at the station.

"It is strange, really, that they accuse us of doing too many stories about Al Qaeda," Azar said. "I think that any reporter -- if they got the material we had -- would have put it out."

The station presents a range of views that would be unpalatable to many Western audiences because of various guests' strong denunciations of Israel, America and the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. Vivid depictions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its programs have helped to galvanize the anti-Western anger in the region.

"The proof of our effectiveness is that we have been boycotted by so many," Azar said. "And Qatar takes the flak."

Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, founded the station in 1996 with a five-year deadline to support itself. (The station broke even -- barely -- last year.) He has suffered diplomatically for his steady backing of the station he still owns. In September, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Qatar, upset at criticism on the station of the founder of the modern Saudi state, Ibn Saud.

Kuwait and Jordan were so peeved with Al Jazeera that they closed its news bureaus in their capitals last year. News reports quoted Qatar's foreign minister as saying that an unidentified Persian Gulf state had gone so far as to offer $5 billion to have Al Jazeera shut down.

But to hear the journalists and managers at the station tell it, Western politicians who would like to silence Al Jazeera are being hypocritical because the station is putting into practice the West's ideal of a free and unfettered news media. And that makes not only Arab potentates uncomfortable, but some Americans too.

"I don't think Al Jazeera would agree to be the mouthpiece of anybody," said Azar, who like many of the station's staff members is a veteran of a short-lived BBC Arabic TV service. "We're not even the mouthpiece for the emir of Qatar, and he's the one paying the bills."

When Bin Laden, fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and operatives involved in carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks wanted to draw attention to themselves, they turned to Al Jazeera because of its huge following in the Middle East, not because the station was a mouthpiece, said Mohammed el-Nawawy, a journalism professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts who has co-written a book on the station.

"It is definitely shaping Arab opinion right now," said Nawawy, who tunes in almost every night and said the station's independence and adherence to free-press principles have won it a following. "The Arabs have been longing for such a station for a long time."

Despite the perceptions that Al Jazeera has a line to Al Qaeda, Mahmoud Sahlawi, the station's vice chairman, said his journalists have never been interrogated -- or even followed, as far as they know. But the journalists also are aware that the West's powerful eavesdropping technology may well be tuned in their direction by agencies trying to get a bead on terrorists. There is really no need for that, Sahlawi said, because the station puts any interesting information it gathers right on the air.

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