Do as we say, not as we do

February 07, 2005

JUST AS President Bush is suiting up for his mission to spread liberty and democracy throughout the world comes word that his administration is trying to silence one of the most independent journalistic voices in the Middle East.

Al-Jazeera, the scrappy, Qatar-based satellite news channel that has set the standard for comprehensive - if often controversial - reporting to the Arab world, may soon lose its financial support from the emirate, due in part to pressure from U.S. officials, who complain Al-Jazeera is biased against them.

But an independent press is a cornerstone of freedom, and it can't be limited only to those who report what authorities want to hear. If Mr. Bush seeks to lead by example, he's setting a bad one in this case.

Al-Jazeera, which probably first attracted the notice of most Americans by broadcasting messages from Osama bin Laden, is considered to have an Islamist agenda that infuriates some viewers. It also airs graphic reports that critics charge incite hostility.

But it's the only major voice in the Arab world that doesn't kowtow to the Saudis, who have sharply limited its advertising, thus making Al-Jazeera a poor candidate for survival as a private venture.

Beyond that, during the nine years since Al-Jazeera was first launched, it has revolutionized journalism in the region, spurning government censors to send reporters into the field and broadcast independent accounts. The wildly popular channel, which now boasts 40 million viewers, has opened a window on the world that wasn't available before. The competition has forced other news organizations to grudgingly try to match Al-Jazeera's reporting, for the benefit of all readers and viewers.

In a democracy, government authorities don't decide which journalists are reporting the truth. The truth emerges from a cacophony of voices, viewing the same scenes and facts from many perspectives. Al-Jazeera has played a vital role in developing that cacophony.

Perhaps a buyer will come along who is willing to underwrite its costs without dictating its message. Perhaps the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, will have second thoughts about selling the operation.

The United States would not only be hypocritical but unwise, though, to snuff out the brightest candle illuminating turmoil in many of the world's hotspots. Keeping people in the dark is not the path to freedom.

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