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[] Hintergrund zu al-Jazeera,

Qatar TV Station A Clear Channel To Middle East 

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 9, 2001; Page C01 

LONDON, Oct. 8 -- For an upstart television station that has existed for only five years, and broadcasts exclusively in Arabic, al-Jazeera has a record of breaking exclusive news stories that many American networks might envy.

Yesterday, as American and British bombs began falling on Afghanistan, al-Jazeera broadcast the first video footage of Osama bin Laden since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. It followed up today with an interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair declaring war on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement. Other recent interview guests have included Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

What makes al-Jazeera's scoops all the more remarkable is that the 24-hour satellite news station is the creation of one of the world's smallest countries, Qatar, and broadcasts out of a region with little tradition of press freedom. During its short existence, al-Jazeera has succeeded in irritating just about everybody, from the U.S. State Department to Muslim fundamentalists to Saudi Arabia and the conservative Arab sheikdoms of the Gulf.

In the process, it has put Qatar (population 600,000) on the map in a way that it has rarely, if ever, been before. With its ability to reach 35 million viewers and its worldwide network of reporters, from Kabul to London to Washington, al-Jazeera is arguably better known than its host country. According to a joke going around the Middle East, al-Jazeera (which means "Arabian peninsula" in Arabic) is "a country with Qatar as its capital."

With their unrivaled access to bin Laden and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime, al-Jazeera staffers see the present crisis as an opportunity to cement the station's reputation as the Arab world's equivalent of Cable News Network. Just as CNN became compulsory viewing around the world during the 1991 Gulf War, so too is al-Jazeera becoming an indispensable source of intelligence on events inside Afghanistan, following the expulsion of most other foreign reporters from Kabul.

"During the Gulf War, CNN was in the right place at the right time," says Muftah Suwaidan, the Qatari-born director of al-Jazeera's London office, the station's foreign news hub. "Now it's our turn. We are the only channel with a reporter in Kabul."

Al-Jazeera's prominence in covering bin Laden and its privileged position in Kabul have opened it up to both praise and criticism. During a meeting in Washington last week with the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Thani, Powell expressed concern that al-Jazeera was fanning fundamentalist passions by repeatedly airing the same interviews with bin Laden and his supporters, according to U.S. and Qatari officials.

"We want to see balanced and responsible coverage," said a U.S. official, insisting that the Bush administration had no intention of pitting itself against press freedom.

The emir is accustomed to such complaints. Over the past few years, according to al-Jazeera staffers, the Qatari foreign ministry has received some 400 official complaints about the television station, mainly from Middle East countries. Both Kuwait and Jordan have temporarily closed down al-Jazeera offices because of "insults" to their rulers. From the other end of the Arab political spectrum, Syria has accused al-Jazeera of being too close to Israel.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog organization, has rushed to al-Jazeera's defense. Executive director Ann Cooper said it was "disheartening" to see U.S. officials adopt "similar tactics" to Arab regimes that have sought to influence the news station's coverage.

The dearth of independent television stations in the Middle East has certainly contributed to al-Jazeera's growing popularity. Anyone who can afford $200 or so for a satellite dish is now able to bypass the spoon-fed government propaganda that passes for news coverage in much of the Arab world and watch programs that their own state-run stations would never dream of broadcasting.

"Al-Jazeera is the only Arab language TV station that is relatively free from domination by the government," said Said Shehabi, a Bahraini scholar and journalist living in London. "It is not 100 percent free to do whatever it likes, but it publishes things that no other Arab media would dare to publish without clearance from the top."

The emir of Qatar has depicted his financial support for al-Jazeera -- some $10 million over five years -- as in keeping with his general efforts to modernize his tiny sheikdom. Since overthrowing his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995, Sheik Hamad has sought to project an image of Qatar as a haven of free speech and democracy. The presence of al-Jazeera contributes significantly to Qatar's overall diplomatic presence.

At the same time, observers say, there is also an element of Arab realpolitik in the emir's generosity. According to this view, subsidizing a relatively independent TV station is a way for the Qatar government to needle neighboring Saudi Arabia, with whom it has a long-standing border dispute. The Saudi interior minister has accused al-Jazeera of "serving up poison on a golden platter."

Ironically, the Saudi government missed a huge opportunity to sponsor its own Arab-language TV news station in 1996 when it withdrew financial support for a similar venture organized by the British Broadcasting Corp. because of various political disputes. When the BBC closed down its Arab-language service, its most experienced reporters found jobs with al-Jazeera.

The TV station's present reporting staff is a mixed bag. The core are former BBC reporters, steeped in Western news values. But other reporters are said to have links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic organization with ties to a member of the al-Jazeera board.

The most prominent such reporter is the station's Kabul bureau chief, a Syrian named Tayseer Allouni, who was known in the past for his pro-Taliban views. Over the past few months, and particularly since Sept. 11, Allouni has become one of the primary outlets for Taliban statements and denunciations of the United States. He is one of two al-Jazeera reporters in Afghanistan.

Al-Jazeera staffers say that the personal opinions of their Kabul correspondent are irrelevant as he is not permitted to express them on the air, and his reports are subject to rigorous editing by his superiors in Qatar. They argue that Allouni's Islamic beliefs help him win the confidence of a xenophobic government that is deeply suspicious of more conventional reporters.

"So what if he has a beard?" argues Yosri Fouda, al-Jazeera's London bureau chief and a former BBC reporter. "It's like Christiane Amanpour [CNN's chief international reporter] putting on a head scarf when she goes to Iran as a mark of respect to Islam."

Fouda says that al-Jazeera does not distinguish between statements from bin Laden and statements by U.S. and Israeli officials. "Bin Laden talks to us for the same reason that Colin Powell talks to us or Shimon Peres talks to us. He wants to get his message across to the Arab world."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company 

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