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Al Jazeera Web site struggles to cover war

The English-language site's managing editor -- her dad is from Texas -- seeks to provide 'a less Western-centric' view.

March 29, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

Joanne Tucker is on her cell phone in Qatar, long after midnight, still fielding calls from reporters. It's been a long day, indeed a long week for the managing editor of the new English-language Al Jazeera Web site.

When http://english.aljazee was launched Monday, hackers attacked. At first, they brought down the site. By mid-week, they had stolen the domain name and redirected visitors to another site, featuring the American flag and the words, "Let Freedom Ring."

"As long as you don't see triple X-rated films on the site it's fine," says Tucker, 32, from Doha, home of the Al Jazeera newsroom, a half-hour drive from Central Command.

Tucker speaks with an English accent -- clipped and, on this night, a little tired after a week during which the network itself became news. Following U.S. criticism of Al Jazeera for showing images of killed and captured American soldiers, the New York Stock Exchange kicked the network off its trading floor, and Nasdaq refused to credential it.

"Obviously, to have anyone die is upsetting," says Tucker. "But it's equally distressing for the Iraqis to see it. This is a war, people are going to die. American soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi civilians. Surely people want information. If it's an ugly war, not a clean war, you want to know what's going on."

Born in Lebanon to a "totally Texan" father and a Lebanese mother, Tucker lived in Saudi Arabia until moving to Britain at 5, and later became a naturalized citizen. She studied at Cambridge University before joining the BBC in London, first in radio and later as a TV producer for BBC Arabic Television, a partnership between the BBC and a Saudi company. After the broadcast of a documentary on executions in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis pulled funding, and the service was shut in 1996. Six months later, Al Jazeera -- backed by the ruling family of Qatar -- was launched, with many reporters from the earlier BBC venture.

Tucker was hired last year as part of the network's English-language expansion. (Al Jazeera plans to launch an English-language satellite TV channel soon.) The newsroom is a melange of nationalities. Tucker hopes well-written, accurate stories in English by people with "not necessarily Anglo-Saxon sounding names," will provide readers a better understanding of the region and its people. "We're less Western-centric in our news scope," she says. News will be tailored to a global, English-speaking audience.

The Al Jazeera satellite channel reaches an estimated 45 million people in the Arab-speaking world. Since the war began, the network has signed up 4 million more subscribers in Europe. Although some U.S. officials have called Al Jazeera "all Osama, all the time," they have courted the network lately. Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Donald H. Rumsfeld have granted interviews. A few of its reporters are "embedded" with the allies.

Tucker takes criticism of the network in stride: "We're given flak because we're not a cheerleading brigade for the war."

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