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U.S. Airs Critical Views of Arab TV

Powell talks to Qatari official about Al Jazeera, which is seen as inciting viewers to Iraq violence.

April 28, 2004|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Stepping up the Bush administration's campaign to counter what it considers incendiary coverage of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met Tuesday with Qatar's foreign minister for "intense discussions" about the government-funded Al Jazeera satellite TV station.

Powell said after the meeting with Sheik Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thani that news coverage by the world's most popular Arabic-language television station has "intruded" on relations between the United States and the tiny Persian Gulf state.

Although he declined to discuss specific remedies, Powell said he expected the discussions to last several days with the Qataris, among the most important U.S. military allies in the gulf region.

The administration has become increasingly incensed at the station's coverage, which it contends incites Arab audiences to violence against U.S. troops and their allies in the Iraqi government.

The U.S.-led coalition has begun systematically monitoring the station and compiling its objections to the reporting, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has denounced as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage conveyed U.S. unhappiness to Qatari officials during a visit.

The effort to curb Al Jazeera is evidence of the increasing importance the Bush administration attaches to influencing the flow of information in the Middle East at a time when anti-American sentiment is soaring. The U.S. government has launched a television channel and a radio station to try to win over Arabs.

The move against Al Jazeera also comes as the administration has struggled with other information and media issues, some posing serious problems for its Mideast strategy.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq has faced criticism for closing down a newspaper published by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr last month, a move that set off an armed confrontation with Sadr's militia.

At home, the administration has been forced to defend its decision to bar the media from photographing coffins carrying the remains of troops back to the United States.

U.S. officials contend that Al Jazeera has falsely reported that American troops are attacking civilians and are using controversial weapons, such as antipersonnel cluster bombs that disperse deadly pellets across a large area.

Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that Al Jazeera had incorrectly reported April 9 that "children are being killed, and women cut to pieces in Fallouja."

"We have very deep concerns about Al Jazeera's broadcasts, because again and again we find inaccurate, false, wrong reports that are, we think, designed to be inflammatory ... that make the situation more tense, more inflamed and even more dangerous," Boucher said.

U.S. officials have complained that Al Jazeera has repeatedly broadcast unedited tapes by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda deputies at length, so that the broadcasts become propaganda.

Al Jazeera officials have said their reports simply reflect the attitudes in the region. Some officials of the TV station have contended that their broadcasts are no more charged than some U.S. news shows with strong points of view.

"We continue to cover all viewpoints with objective integrity and balance," says the website of the station, which was launched in 1996 ago by journalists who formerly worked on the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Arabic-language service.

Hafez Al-Mirazi, chief of Al Jazeera's Washington bureau, did not return calls seeking comment.

Qatari officials have said that although their government subsidizes the station, they have no control over it, because it is run by an independent board.

Asked by reporters what Qatar could do to influence Al Jazeera, Foreign Minister Hamad Jassim declined to respond. An official at Qatar's embassy in Washington said diplomats were unable to comment.

The issue at stake is not media freedom, U.S. officials said. Al Jazeera has crossed from reporting to "screaming 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," Boucher said.

Nevertheless, some analysts said it was awkward for the U.S. to be campaigning against the station that has been cited in U.N. reports as an example of the new generation of Middle Eastern media that are not state-controlled.

"I'm not saying [the Bush administration] shouldn't be doing this -- there's some appalling stuff on there," said Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute. Nevertheless, it was "awkward," he said, at a time when the administration had been declaring its interest in spreading freedom to the region.

The U.S. effort may be influenced to some degree by the fact that "this is a very thin-skinned administration, especially over at the Pentagon," he said.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the administration would probably find it difficult to influence Al Jazeera in any case.

Though the station's management may respond to its audience or those it considers its peers, Alterman said, public criticism by the U.S. government "in a way may give them more credibility with an audience that's hostile to the United States.... It's hard to use diplomatic means to get Al Jazeera to do what you want."

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