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[] Guardian 20.11.01: Al-Jazeera TV / How smart was this bomb?,

How smart was this bomb? 

Did the US mean to hit the Kabul offices of Al-Jazeera TV? Some journalists are convinced it was targeted for being on the 'wrong side'. Matt Wells reports

Matt Wells
Monday November 19, 2001
The Guardian

When World Service correspondent William Reeve dived under his desk in Kabul to avoid shrapnel from the US missile that had landed next door, some think it marked a turning point in war reporting. 

The US had scored a direct hit on the offices of the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera, leading to speculation that the channel had been targeted deliberately because of its contacts with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. If true, it opens up a worrying development for news organisations covering wars and conflicts: now they could be targeted simply for reporting a side of the story that one party wants suppressed. 

Nik Gowing, a presenter on BBC World, was determined to get the issue raised at last week's News World conference in Barcelona. While news executives spent most of the four-day event beating themselves up over how they had covered the September 11 disaster and its aftermath, Gowing and a number of fellow journalists wanted to alert their bosses to what they felt was a disturbing shift in US policy. 

Gowing's argument was that Al-Jazeera's only crime was that it was "bearing witness" to events that the US would rather it did not see. Indeed there is no clear evidence that Al-Jazeera directly supported the Taliban - simply that it enjoyed greater access than other stations. Certainly, Al-Jazeera reflects a certain cultural tradition: but only in the same way that CNN approaches stories from a western perspective. 

Gowing demanded that the Pentagon be called to account for the destruction of Al-Jazeera's Kabul office. Journalists now appeared to be "legitimate targets", he said. "It seems to me that a very clear message needs to go out that this must not be allowed to continue." 

It has to be stressed that the Pentagon denies the charge. Indeed, few senior news executives were prepared to go on the record and give credence to the theory. But it is not the first time journalists have been deliberately targeted: Serb television was bombed during the Kosovo conflict because it was seen as an agent and advocate of state terrorism. 

The situations are somewhat different (although not by much, some would argue). Al-Jazeera is not an agent of a state, and few (except perhaps the US military) would claim that it is an agent of Bin Laden. But the fact that Al-Jazeera has reported in such depth the other side of this conflict is troubling to the authorities. "Al-Jazeera has been providing some material that has been very uncomfortable," Gowing said at News World. 

He believes that the western military forces are prepared to target journalists if they get in the way. He said that representatives of the British special forces had told him: "When a war is not declared, journalists are legitimate targets where they are inconvenient." 

Ron McCullagh, of the independent production company Insight News, was another of those exercised by the implications of the incident. Other news organisations, by treating Al-Jazeera in a semi-detached fashion, had not helped: at the start of the war the BBC had described it as a "pro-Taliban broadcaster", McCullagh said. "This was a very dangerous thing to do. It could be used as an excuse for bombing them." 

Al-Jazeera certainly believes it was a target. Speaking on the telephone to News World from Qatar, its chief editor, Ibrahim Hilal, said he believed that its Kabul office had been on the Pentagon's list of targets since the beginning of the conflict, but that the US did not want to bomb it while the broadcaster was the only one based in the city. By last week, however, the BBC had reopened its Kabul office under Taliban supervision, with the correspondents William Reeve and Rageh Omar. 

On Monday, Al-Jazeera executives in Qatar called their correspondent in Kabul and told him to leave, because they feared for his safety after the Northern Alliance took over. But after assurances from the Alliance that he would be safe, the reporter, Tasir Alouni, decided to stay. He did not tell Qatar of his decision - that night, his office was bombed. At the time, Reeve was being interviewed on BBC World from his bureau in the same street. Pictures of him diving under his desk to avoid fall-out from the blast have been widely shown on BBC TV. 

Hilal said he believed the attack was deliberate and long-planned. US officials have criticised Al-Jazeera's coverage of the bombing campaign as inflammatory propaganda. The station reaches more than 35m Arabs, including 150,000 in the US. "I still believe the decision to exclude our office from the coverage was taken weeks before the bombing," Hilal said. "But I don't think they would do that while we were the only office in Kabul." 

He claimed that US intelligence forces routinely monitored communications between Qatar and Kabul - a recent videotape of a Bin Laden statement was played out by satellite to Qatar from Kabul, but not broadcast until seven days later. Yet, before it was shown, Washington knew of its existence and demanded the right to broadcast a response. 

The US would have known, therefore, that Al-Jazeera had ordered its Kabul correspondent to leave, but would not have realised he was still in the city. If the correspondent had died, there would have been an outcry, and the disaster would have been compounded if Reeve had been seriously injured or killed. 

Speaking to the conference from the US military's central command centre in Florida, spokesman Colonel Brian Hoey denied that Al-Jazeera was a target. "The US military does not and will not target media. We would not, as a policy, target news media organisations - it would not even begin to make sense." He said that the bombing of Serb television in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict was a different issue - the targets in question "appeared to have government facilities associated with them". 

Col Hoey said the Pentagon did not have the location co-ordinates of the Al-Jazeera office in Kabul even though the broadcaster said it had passed them on, several times, via its partner CNN in Washington. 

The situation is still confused. Al-Jazeera has a conspiracy theory that it cannot prove, but of which it is genuinely convinced. Wars are organised chaos and, however much it likes to suggest that it is capable of precision bombing, it is clear that the US has got little idea of what has and has not been hit in this instance. 

What can't be disputed is that Al-Jazeera was hit, and the bomb almost took out the BBC, too. Target or not, the avoidance of the death of an independent journalist by a US bomb appears to be ascribed to a combination of sticky tape on Reeve's window and a large measure of good fortune. 

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