08 August 2004
The lead story yesterday on the English-language website of al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television news channel, was not about the closing of its office in Baghdad for 30 days by the interim government in Iraq. It focused instead on new Iraqi legislation to grant amnesty to minor criminals in the country.
What is telling, however, is how the story begins: "The US-installed interim Iraqi PM, Iyad Allawi ..." The phrasing is just one fragment in what American critics of the station say is a pattern of deliberately slanting its presentation of the news against Western and American interests, notably in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq.
Sometimes, the complaints are more forceful. In April, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, accused al-Jazeera of "consistently lying" and "working in concert with terrorists". The same month, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, acknowledged he had had "intense and candid" discussions with the Qatar government about al-Jazeera's reporting standards.
The attention that the station garners in this way is in some ways flattering to it. When the organisers of the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month ordered an al-Jazeera banner to be removed from its sky-box just to the side and above the speakers' podium, the publicity it created helped only to burnish the network's reputation as being unfairly put upon. Its status among its 40 million Arab-language viewers will only be enhanced by the Baghdad ban.
Since going on air in 1996 with generous funding from Qatar's monarchical government, the legend of al-Jazeera in the Arab world has grown with every passing controversy and reporting coup. It made its name reporting the US invasion of Afghanistan. Most memorably, it broadcast an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
That interview and subsequent airings by the station of tapes delivered to it by al-Qa'ida intermediaries has led the US to accuse it of acting as a mouthpiece for the terror organisation. In similar vein, al-Jazeera, with its motto, "Opinion and Opposing Opinion", stands accused of abetting insurgents in Iraq. In recent months, it has also often been the first to air messages from hostage-takers.
Such has been the concern about the impact of al-Jazeera on Arabic opinion that last year the US government put in place its own Arab-language satellite news network. Called al-Hurra (the Free One) it beams a 24-hour news service to the Middle East from a studio in Virginia, with a budget provided by Congress.
Unquestionably, al-Jazeera strives to show events in Iraq from an Arab point of view. Its broadcasts and websites emphasise the suffering brought upon the civilians of Iraq by the war there, often with pictures of wounded children and mothers standing before bombed-out homes.
But many analysts of journalism argue that al-Jazeera should not be silenced but allowed to blossom. It has sprung, after all, from a tradition of Arab journalism straitjacketed by autocratic regimes determined to use the airwaves for their own purposes. Al-Jazeera is the region's first mass-audience vehicle for uncensored - if sometimes sensational - journalism. Its defenders argue that if it is biased towards an Arab perspective, then so what? Aren't the American networks guilty of overlaying their coverage of Iraq with barely disguised patriotism and pride for US soldiers?
Al-Jazeera "no more than other news organisations, has a slant", Kenton Keith, a former US ambassador to Qatar, acknowledged recently. "Its slant happens to be one most Americans are not comfortable with ... but the fact is that [it] has revolutionised media in the Middle East. For the long-range importance of press freedom in the Middle East and the advantages that will ultimately have for the West, you have to be a supporter of al-Jazeera, even if you have to hold your nose sometimes."
Nor has al-Jazeera been entirely deaf to its critics. If it does not attempt to deny that it has a political slant, it does recognise the need to defend itself against suggestions that it ignores or distorts the facts. Thus last month, it announced it had created a new code of ethics to keep its journalists within certain boundaries of honesty.
It was a step that prompted the New York Times recently to assert in an editorial that al-Jazeera is the "the kind of television station we should encourage". It is one of the larger ironies of the post-war period that a conflict launched in the name of freedom should lead to the banning of one the region's most significant media.