Al Jazeera TV Draws Flak Outside -- and Inside -- the Arab World

Times Staff Writer

When a top-ranking Al Qaeda operative was nabbed in the Pakistani city of Karachi in September, the rumor on the Arab streets was that Western intelligence agencies had traced him there with the help of Al Jazeera television.

Yet when associates of Osama bin Laden wanted to air a tape to show that the Al Qaeda chief was still alive, they arranged a James Bond-esque hand-over to the station's man in a Karachi market.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the world's most popular Arabic news source -- reaching an estimated 35 million viewers a day -- has become a strategic battleground in the global war on terrorism because of its powerful influence in the Islamic world.

Al Jazeera has been accused by some in Washington of being Al Qaeda's news channel: "All Osama, All the Time." But it has a different image in the Middle East, where the station often is accused of being a clever U.S. or Israeli implant in the region.

Now, as possible war with Iraq looms and with the U.S. command center for that war located only a few miles from where Al Jazeera broadcasts, the station again is feeling tugged. Editors here in the Qatari capital say the United States and Iraq will try to pressure Al Jazeera to report their versions of the conflict, and it will be up to the battle-tested staff to get it right.

"Al Jazeera does not have a policy vis-a-vis any development. We are just a channel putting out the news as it is," said veteran presenter Jamil Azar, 65, whose white hair and calm voice add an air of sagacity to reports. "And it seems to irritate a few people."

Al Jazeera's motto -- "The Opinion, and the Other Opinion Too" -- guarantees that some people will be angry at the station.

"It is strange, really, that they accuse us of doing too many stories about Al Qaeda," Azar said. "I think that any reporter -- if they got the material we had -- would have put it out."

The station presents a range of views that would be unpalatable to many Western audiences because of various guests' strong denunciations of Israel, America and the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. Vivid depictions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its programs have helped to galvanize the anti-Western anger in the region.

"The proof of our effectiveness is that we have been boycotted by so many," Azar said. "And Qatar takes the flak."

Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, founded the station in 1996 with a five-year deadline to support itself. (The station broke even -- barely -- last year.) He has suffered diplomatically for his steady backing of the station he still owns. In September, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Qatar, upset at criticism on the station of the founder of the modern Saudi state, Ibn Saud.

Kuwait and Jordan were so peeved with Al Jazeera that they closed its news bureaus in their capitals last year. News reports quoted Qatar's foreign minister as saying that an unidentified Persian Gulf state had gone so far as to offer $5 billion to have Al Jazeera shut down.

But to hear the journalists and managers at the station tell it, Western politicians who would like to silence Al Jazeera are being hypocritical because the station is putting into practice the West's ideal of a free and unfettered news media. And that makes not only Arab potentates uncomfortable, but some Americans too.

"I don't think Al Jazeera would agree to be the mouthpiece of anybody," said Azar, who like many of the station's staff members is a veteran of a short-lived BBC Arabic TV service. "We're not even the mouthpiece for the emir of Qatar, and he's the one paying the bills."

When Bin Laden, fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and operatives involved in carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks wanted to draw attention to themselves, they turned to Al Jazeera because of its huge following in the Middle East, not because the station was a mouthpiece, said Mohammed el-Nawawy, a journalism professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts who has co-written a book on the station.

"It is definitely shaping Arab opinion right now," said Nawawy, who tunes in almost every night and said the station's independence and adherence to free-press principles have won it a following. "The Arabs have been longing for such a station for a long time."

Despite the perceptions that Al Jazeera has a line to Al Qaeda, Mahmoud Sahlawi, the station's vice chairman, said his journalists have never been interrogated -- or even followed, as far as they know. But the journalists also are aware that the West's powerful eavesdropping technology may well be tuned in their direction by agencies trying to get a bead on terrorists. There is really no need for that, Sahlawi said, because the station puts any interesting information it gathers right on the air.

But suspicions were aroused by the arrest in Karachi of Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the alleged coordinators of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, about the time an audio interview with him was broadcast by Al Jazeera on Sept. 11, 2002.

Sahlawi insisted that the timing was only a coincidence. The interview had taken place three months earlier, in June, but was aired to coincide with the anniversary of the attacks. Even Al Qaeda had put out a statement excusing Al Jazeera of any blame, he said.

Chief newsroom editor Ibrahim Helal acknowledges that the station has its biases. But he said it is mainly toward the "humanitarian" side of any question.

Sometimes in a crisis, shedding light on one side is more important, he argued. During the initial U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, Al Jazeera's unique position as the only television news organization in Kabul and Kandahar gave it a duty to illuminate what was happening to Afghans -- while the world had access to the U.S. side.

"It means you clarify more on the Afghan side because it is affected more by the crisis," he said. "But when Sept. 11 happened, in the beginning, it was very important to understand more what was going on inside New York and Washington -- how the Americans felt. So at any point of a crisis, you must decide, really, which side you must do more work in."

As for the potential Iraq conflict, Al Jazeera is on a war footing -- ready to do battle with the big global TV networks. It has 60 correspondents stationed around the world and in recent months has been adding reporters in Washington and Baghdad. Editors say they want to be the best TV network in the world.

"It is to get to the top of the mountain, but how long can you survive to lead?" Sahlawi asked. "In Baghdad at the moment the competition is very strong. But we want to be something different.

"That means we will have more reporters, more equipment to help our reporters get the footage and the sound as fast as we can before the others," he added. "And we have to have the more accurate information."

The Al Jazeera station in this small but rich emirate is utilitarian and unprepossessing. Visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak famously remarked: "All this noise from this little matchbox?"

The low, white building is set in an empty sandy expanse trimmed only with a verge of irrigated grass and palm trees. Past the guard is a large, open newsroom filled with banks of computers. On the wall opposite the entrance, between two banks of a dozen TV screens each, is a map of the world as it was known in the 16th or 17th century, and the teardrop-shaped symbol of the station -- Al Jazeera written in classical Arabic calligraphy -- that has become familiar to viewers around the globe.

In contrast to state-run Arabic stations, it could be called Al Jazzier. Female anchors appear without veils, wearing makeup and even exposing a bit of skin around the neckline in the style of female anchors in the West.

Each hour starts with a fast-paced montage of news clips. The 24-hour-a-day news format means a short bulletin every hour, filled out with longer news and sports shows throughout the day, and talk shows and viewer participation programs. On a typical day, the news agenda is not much different in emphasis from that of CNN or BBC. Of late, the lead stories mostly have been about Iraq and the U.N. weapons inspections there, but sometimes a nonregional story tops the headlines.

And virtually alone among Arab news channels, Al Jazeera sometimes has Israeli guests on the air.

"I think to be really honest and to be respected, you have to tell the truth," Sahlawi said. "The truth is that Israel is there. The clashes, when they happen, are between two parties. Who is participating? Palestinians and Israelis. If we bring only Palestinians on the air, they will have only part of the picture. They will have only part of the truth."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. officials spoke about being more proactive in getting their message to Arab audiences. But Al Jazeera staffers say for the most part they have been given the cold shoulder by the Bush administration.

In the early stages of the war with Afghanistan, high-ranking U.S. officials granted Al Jazeera interviews intended to deliver a U.S. perspective on the crisis. But the level of engagement quickly dropped off.

Nawawy argues that U.S. officials should take greater advantage of the station to reach Arabs.

U.S. officials, he said, "just need to explain where they are coming from, emphasize the shared interests between them and the Arab world, ... [and] melt the ice."

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