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[] NYT 24.09.02 Arab TV Channel Prepares For A War In Its Backyard,

New York Times
September 24, 2002

Arab TV Channel Prepares For A War In Its Backyard

By Jane Perlez

DOHA, Qatar, Sept. 20 ? For more than a year, the lively television
newsroom of Al Jazeera, filled with journalists from the Arab world and
backed by Qatar, a little-known American ally in the Middle East, has
caused angst in the Bush administration. In the event of a war against
Iraq, it may be in a position to cause more.

A satellite channel that has run tapes from Osama bin Laden and given
sympathetic coverage to the Palestinians, Al Jazeera is also well placed
geographically to outpace the Western networks on regional war coverage.

Its studios are about 40 miles from Al Udeid Air Base, which is shaping
up as a major hub for any United States strikes against Iraq.

To report the other side of the story, the channel has had a permanent
office in Baghdad since 1998, and with three correspondents there, it
was the lone foreign broadcaster until Iraq recently readmitted Western
television networks.

The editors and journalists at Al Jazeera, like their colleagues in the
West, are fiercely competitive. In an interview at the studio here, the
chief editor, Ibrahim Helal, was reluctant to give away the strategies
they are devising for their Iraqi coverage. But he seemed confident that
Al Jazeera would be leading the pack with its images of raids against

"We have a 24-hour open line from Baghdad," he said. "The only reason
that something could go bad is human error, or if the bombs are too far
from the cameras." One thing is certain, he said: Al Jazeera will be
there, denying CNN the possibility of exclusive coverage, as it had in

The nature and origins of Al Jazeera, as well as the content of its news
programming, have generated diverse opinions within an American foreign
policy establishment trying to grapple with hostile Arab attitudes
toward the United States.

One diplomat called the programming "egregious," citing talk show
moderators who soon after the Sept. 11 attacks referred to the hijackers
as "martyrs." Other diplomats, however, singled out the news broadcasts
as "fair," "interesting," and a desirable model for other Arab stations,
which remain tightly controlled by autocratic governments.

Senior administration officials have called on Al Jazeera to tone down
its coverage of the Middle East, arguing that its reporting inflames
Arab public opinion against the United States. At the same time, the
administration has tried a counteroffensive, offering interviews with
American officials in the United States and the region to Al Jazeera.

For example, as President Bush was making the case against Iraq at the
United Nations last week, a former American ambassador to Syria,
Christopher Ross, a fluent Arab speaker, spent much of the day with a
Jazeera crew in Washington.

In some ways, the channel is a vanity product of the very rich ruling
al-Thani family of Qatar. In 1996, the new emir, eager to establish his
country on the world stage and to show he was different from the
region's hidebound leaders, bought a failed BBC Arabic television
service and gave the journalists the reins.

The senior anchor, Jameel Azer, a Jordanian with a British passport,
worked for the BBC Arabic service for 31 years. Other journalists, many
with BBC backgrounds, come from Iraq, the West Bank, Egypt and elsewhere
in the region.

All told, there are 50 reporters in 30 locations, including Beijing and
Jakarta, Mr. Helal said.

The chairman of the board is Hamid bin Thmer al-Thani, a cousin and
close adviser of the emir. The journalists say he rarely interferes.

Earlier this month the channel ran the audio portion of an interview
with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an operative of Al Qaeda closely linked to the
Sept. 11 attacks. The June interview ? conducted in Karachi, Pakistan,
by its chief investigative reporter, Yosi Foudra ? was another in a
series of what Western news organizations have come to regard as Jazeera
scoops inaccessible to them. Mr. bin al-Shibh was arrested in Karachi
days after the broadcast.

Mr. Helal was scornful of questions about whether Al Jazeera had somehow
helped the Pakistani and American authorities find Mr. bin al-Shibh.
"Now we're accused of being an American tool," he said. "It is just as
crazy as Al Jazeera being a tool of Al Qaeda."

He added: "I don't think they needed Al Jazeera to know that he was in
Karachi. Everyone knew it."

But he said that the interview might have prompted the Pakistanis to
speed up the arrest so they looked as though they were on the ball.

This week Al Jazeera's Islamabad office received another tape that the
Western press would have liked to get. The tape showed Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, the Afghan warlord who has vowed to join with Al Qaeda and
the Taliban to oust the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai.

In the interview the warlord said he wanted to work with Mr. Karzai. The
message was not credible, Mr. Helal said, but at least it was valuable
to hear Mr. Hekmatyar's voice.

The United States government is not the only one to be unnerved by Al
Jazeera. Its talk show programs have infuriated Arab governments,
including Jordan, which recently closed the Jazeera office in Amman and
pulled the reporters' credentials.

But Al Jazeera was so popular in Jordan ? where most people find the
government-run station sanitized and boring ? that the authorities have
not dared interrupt the programming.

Olivier Minkwitz___________________________________________
Dipl. Pol.
HSFK Hessische Stiftung für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung
PRIF Peace Research Institute Frankfurt
Leimenrode 29 60322 Frankfurt a/M Germany
Tel +49 (0)69 9591 0422  Fax +49 (0)69 5584 81                         pgpKey:0xAD48A592
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