By Magda Abu-Fadil Posted Jan 1 2002
Until the U.S. launched its 2001 war on terror, mainly in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera TV in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar was the darling of the West and the bane of Arab regimes for daring to dot “i's” and cross “t's.”
But when it scooped even Gulf War veteran CNN and other media giants in covering the allied campaign on Afghanistan, with its correspondent being the only journalist authorized to broadcast live from Kabul, it was lambasted by Washington for acting as a platform for accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and the ruling Taliban regime in the country.
Secretary of State Colin Powell wagged a finger in October at Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, reiterating an earlier protest by the U.S. ambassador to Qatar demanding the station tone down anti-American broadcasts and limit appearances by bin Laden, his associates or Taliban officials, CNN and other media reported.
“I was very upset about the official US reaction to Al Jazeera's coverage of the international crisis in general,” said Mona Ziade, news editor of the English-language The Daily Star in Beirut. “For the first time in the Middle East we have an objective medium, and we would like to preserve it.”
She noted that it was important for critical thinkers to see both sides of the conflict to form an opinion “and perhaps help propose ideas for compromise.”
Al Jazeera had rerun an exclusive interview with bin Laden in 1998 and after the attacks of September 11 aired even more dramatic footage it obtained of him, which the station said was delivered to its Kabul office.
Bin Laden and his spokesmen, in incendiary remarks, swore the U.S. and its allies would never see peace if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were not resolved, sanctions on Iraq were not lifted and other grievances were not addressed.
“Powell blundered,” wrote Michael Young in The Daily Star. “He not only ignored America's own constitutional principles, but also underestimated the station's importance to Emir Hamad.”
Al Jazeera's chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani told a news conference after the war on Afghanistan began that his station would continue broadcasting news from all fronts and multiple sources and not be swayed or pressured by politicians or governments.
Ironically, since the flap, Al Jazeera hasn't been able to fend off U.S. officials who must take a number to be interviewed by its Washington bureau chief Hafez Al Mirazi, to present the “other side of the story.”
The veteran journalist had begged for appearances by top policymakers like
Secretary Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice. The officials at first played hard to get but later decided to launch a media counter-offensive.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair had already beat U.S. officials to the punch by appearing on Al Jazeera to insist that the war in Afghanistan was against terrorism, not Islam or Muslims.
Besides its monopoly on coverage in Taliban-controlled areas and bin Laden interviews, it has chalked up exclusives like the Taliban's destruction of historical statues of Buddha, Afghan demonstrators burning the U.S. embassy in Kabul and a two-hour interview of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi pontificating on the war in Afghanistan.
In January 2000, days after U.S. and U.K. air strikes against Iraq, Al Jazeera made news when it broadcast Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Army Day speech in which he called on Arabs to overthrow their leaders if they were allied to the U.S.
In October 2001, Al Jazeera signed a contract with CNN to trade its international feed — an important subscription service through which CNN offers video, sound bites, and live breaking news. The two networks' correspondents in Afghanistan have also exchanged reports and shared airtime on each other's airwaves, based on the agreement. But Al-Jazeera maintains its monopoly of inside-Kabul coverage,
Al Jazeera is hailed as a trailblazer for covering taboo subjects like
sex, polygamy, Islamic fundamentalism and corruption in Arab countries (except Lebanon) noted mainly for their state-run broadcast media.
It is the most watched Arabic-language satellite channel that reaches about 40 million homes.
Its website http://www.aljazeera.net has become a popular destination for Arabic-language browsers worldwide.