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In Iraq, Al Jazeera Navigates Minefield of Press Freedom

July 31, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The videotapes arrive by courier at the information desk in the shadowy lobby of the Swan Lake, a fading hotel in Baghdad's battle-pocked downtown that now serves as the Iraqi headquarters for the television channel Al Jazeera.

Chillingly similar, the grainy videos of frightened hostages have become a defining image of Iraq's new violence: tearful pleas for life and masked kidnappers, swords held aloft, laying out their demands.

For Al Jazeera's journalists, who wrestle with how to use the exclusive and often bloody footage, the tapes pose the latest in a string of credibility tests. The current rules go like this: Show the hostages. Don't show beheadings. The slaughter of two Pakistani hostages this week, for example, was deemed too gory -- Al Jazeera broke the news, but kept the pictures to itself.

"It gives me a headache every day we receive a tape," said Ahmed Sheikh, the organization's editor in chief.

Iraqi officials charge that Al Jazeera is colluding with kidnappers by giving them an international platform. The criticism is nothing new: U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have complained that the station has incited violence against U.S. troops by erroneously blaming the soldiers for attacks on civilians. And Al Jazeera reporters have been accused of getting tips before bombing attacks and becoming unprofessionally close to insurgents.

Alongside the conflict in Iraq, Al Jazeera's viewers are witnessing a second drama. The Arab channel is coming of age and struggling for respect while covering a war opposed by the Arab world -- and fending off a round-the-clock blitz of impassioned criticism from all sides.

In the midst of the mayhem, the young, influential and controversial Qatar-based news organization is setting its sights beyond the Middle East, breaking into English-language news and striving for a place among international institutions such as the BBC and CNN.

"My country is collapsing, and my job is to watch the collapse," correspondent Audday Katib said. A government engineer under Saddam Hussein, Katib landed a job with Al Jazeera months after the U.S.-led invasion.

"Do you buy this idea that the U.S. came to bring freedom to Iraq? I don't buy it, but it's not our job to say that," Katib said, lounging on a couch in the Baghdad bureau on a 115-degree day, an air conditioner humming behind him and a Cameron Diaz movie playing on the television. "We let the people say it, but we never say it, because we are neutral."

The stakes are high for Al Jazeera because its reach is extensive. Washington is watching, along with the interim Iraqi government, which threatens to ban the satellite channel. An estimated 35 million viewers tune in, including just about everybody in Iraq, from the Kurdish mountains to the Sunni Triangle to the Persian Gulf coast. Viewers include foreigners who can't understand the broadcasts, and even the people who hate it.

Sabah Kadim, an Interior Ministry official, sat in his Baghdad office in suit and tie this week and railed against the station. "They should be with the Iraqi people in their hour of need, and not against them," he said. "And if they can't see [their bias], they're blind."

The television set in the next room was tuned to Al Jazeera. "Of course, we're always watching it," Kadim said with a shrug. "I have to see what they're up to."

The creation of Al Jazeera by the Qatari government in 1996 was a revolutionary moment: A region in which rulers have long controlled the flow of information to the public was suddenly treated to an experiment in relatively unrestricted -- albeit government-funded -- news coverage.

From a group of squat offices and trailers in Doha, the capital of the sun-blasted Persian Gulf state, Al Jazeera has revolutionized Arab discourse with its vigorous political debates, willingness to criticize some Arab policies and insistence on including Israeli and American guests in the mix.

Al Jazeera quickly drew the wrath of Arab governments and the consternation of U.S. officials, who accused the station of fanning anger against the West and serving as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden, who has communicated with the world via tapes sent to the channel.

In Iraq, the organization has been forced to learn on the fly. After Al Jazeera quoted supposed witnesses who claimed they'd seen U.S. soldiers tie up Iraqi men and shoot them point blank, a U.S. military spokesman phoned the Al Jazeera bureau, Katib said.

"He said, 'You just messed up. You accused us of a war crime -- and it never happened,' " Katib said, shaking his head. "So we have a lesson: You can't listen to the eyewitnesses. Unless you have pictures, you keep your mouth shut."

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