Arab TV station on front lines

SUN JOURNAL

News : Al Jazeera broadcasts uncensored information on the conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, its independence annoying both the United States and some of the Arab world.

October 09, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Like most Palestinians, Basel Ibrahim learned of America's attack on Afghanistan from Al Jazeera television, a 24-hour satellite news station dubbed the CNN of the Arab world.

The 19-year-old university student was home flipping channels when the story broke. He was among the first in the world to see the Afghan sky light up with tracer fire as American fighter planes pounded targets in the promised war on terrorism.

Ibrahim stayed tuned to Al Jazeera, eager for more news and gratified that it broadcast a videotaped statement by his hero, Osama bin Laden, Sunday. But he has mixed feelings about the station.

Providing one of the region's first uncensored sources of news, it has irritated both the Arab world and the United States with its tenacity, quick airing of breaking news and seemingly easy access to bin Laden.

Without Al Jazeera, Ibrahim and the rest of the world might not have seen bin Laden's videotaped interview that was broadcast as bombs fell on Afghanistan. For that reason, the Al Quds University student kept his TV tuned to Al Jeezera.

Dissatisfaction

What annoys Ibrahim, however, is that when the station shows a map of the Middle East, Israel has a place on the map. Other Arab news shows label the area "occupied Palestine." That, Ibrahim says, makes Al Jeezera "pro-Israeli."

The controversial station, whose name means Peninsula in Arabic, was begun in 1996 by Qatar's liberal emir, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani. It is financed with $30 million a year from the state, but retains its independent status.

Al Jazeera puts its worldwide audience at 35 million people. It has more than 50 correspondents in 31 countries. And while it is admired by many, it is still struggling to find its way in a world where information is carefully guarded and some are uncomfortable with public dissent.

Ibrahim complains that Al Jazeera is too much like CNN. "It is more straightforward news," he says with dissatisfaction. "It doesn't give you opinions like the others."

The Middle East is a world with constantly shifting viewpoints, but where people still like to speak with one voice. Arguments over politics and life, while an essential part of daily life to the people of the Middle East, are expected to be sanitized by the time they hit the mass media.

In an interview earlier this year, Mahmoud Gaafar, press counselor for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, said that "any Arab TV channel should be committed to the criteria prevailing in the Arab world."

Television, he says, should "respect the values of the Arab people. Al Jazeera should not be an exception to that."

The station's workers say the criticism from people with different points of view illustrates the fairness of the reporting.

"Al Jazeera has a margin of freedom that no other Arab channel enjoys," Hafez al-Mirazi, chief of the station's Washington bureau, says. "Our logo is: `The view and the other point of view.'"

One of Al Jazeera's most controversial shows is The Opposite Direction, a weekly talk show in which two guests square off. Many guests have stormed out of the studio instead of participating in some of the discussions.

The sensitive subjects usually involve sex, polygamy and government corruption.

Al Jazeera, which concentrates much of its coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was the first station to beam uncut, live pictures of the deadly yearlong conflict into the living rooms of Palestinians.

This has produced criticism from all directions. Several Arab states have refused its reporters visas, complaining that the station promotes its host nation and funding source, Qatar, an oil-rich Persian Gulf state.

Several days ago, U.S. officials complained that the station was giving too much airtime to bin Laden and implied that only someone with close ties to the suspected terrorist mastermind could get such good access to the Taliban.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell even visited with al-Thani and discussed his concerns. The station had repeatedly run an exclusive interview with bin Laden taped in 1998.

The beginning of yesterday's war has thrust Al Jazeera into the spotlight again. It is one of the few news organizations to have a reporter in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.

It was the station that received bin Laden's extraordinary video testament and broadcast it to the rest of the world.

Even Israeli TV aired the tape and credited Al Jazeera.

In the tape Al Jazeera showed Sunday, bin Laden warned that "neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine, and not before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad."

The tape was the second from bin Laden the station has aired since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Regular interviews

Thursday, it broadcast what it said was a new 30-second video of bin Laden. He regularly grants the station interviews and gives it videos when he has a message to relay to the world.

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