For once, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher didn't mince words. "We've expressed our concerns about some of the kinds of things we've seen on their air, particularly inflammatory stories, totally untrue stories, things like that," he said at a daily briefing in early October 2001. "We would certainly like to see them tone down the rhetoric."
Boucher was not talking about the old Soviet Union, whose active-measures teams dreamed up wild conspiratorial stories about U.S. domination of the Third World and fed them to disinformation agents as "news." The culprit he was speaking of was the al-Jazeera TV satellite network, the proud creation of the emir of Qatar &emdash; a U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf who has agreed to host U.S. Marine Expeditionary Units and allow U.S. fighter jets to base combat missions in his territory. Yet he finances the most vile anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda imaginable.
During the first month after Sept. 11, al-Jazeera rebroadcast excerpts from a 1998 canned interview with Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden dozens of times &emdash; sometimes several times in a day &emdash; in which bin Laden called on Muslims to kill Americans, Christians and Jews. The prominence given to the bin Laden statements prompted an unusual public scolding from Secretary of State Colin Powell on Oct. 8, 2001, during a visit to Washington by Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. The emir shrugged off the criticism, claiming al-Jazeera was part of his plan to create a parliamentary system for his kingdom.
Al-Jazeera's Washington correspondent, Hafiz al-Mirazi, had a similar response. "When you have a 24-hour broadcast, there are a lot of empty holes," he tells INSIGHT, explaining the frequent replays of the bin Laden interview. "Many people didn't know who bin Laden was before September 11. We do no propaganda for bin Laden. When you put President [George W.] Bush on live television at a memorial for one-and-a-half hours, it's the same thing," he adds.
While few Americans would agree with that equivalence, al-Jazeera's record does not tally with al-Mirazi's account. Prior to Sept. 11, the satellite-TV network prominently featured bin Laden in its broadcasts, and regularly invited bin Laden friends and sympathizers onto the air. "They had become jihad television," says U.S. scholar of Islam Daniel Pipes.
Consider this July 10, 2001, broadcast called Opposite Direction, one of many al-Jazeera talk shows touted as presenting "balanced" opinion and "fair" comment. Host Faysal al-Qassem called the program "Bin Laden &emdash; The Arab Despair and American Fear," and opened it like this:
"Good evening, dear viewers. Do you know how much Osama bin Laden weighs? That's what one of the Arab leaders at the recent summit in Amman asked. The answer is: No more than 50 kilograms [110 pounds]. In contrast, the average weight of the Arab leaders is at least 80 kilograms [176 pounds], not to mention the weight of the [Arab] armies and the huge budgets. Nevertheless, the slender bin Laden has made the greatest power in history shudder at the sound of his name, [while] the physical and material heavyweights arouse only America's pity and ridicule."
Balancing this view was Abd al-Bari 'Atwan, editor in chief of the pro-Iraqi London daily Al-Quds al-Arabi. The United States is "a terrorist regime that has killed innocent people since 1945 to this very moment," 'Atwan instructed viewers. "Bin Laden is a legitimate jihad fighter. Bin Laden has a work plan to harass the U.S., to harm its presence in the region as much as he can."
The first caller to reach the "open" phone lines of the show happened to be al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith, calling from somewhere in Afghanistan. After a 10-minute speech in praise of his boss, he ended with a call for volunteers for "the holy jihad against the Jews and the Christians."
During the first two months of the war, al-Jazeera's Kabul correspondent &emdash; a Syrian named Tasyeer Alouni, who traveled on a Spanish passport &emdash; was the only foreign TV correspondent allowed to operate in Afghanistan by the Taliban. His wild-eyed reports alleging massive civilian casualties from the U.S. bombing campaign fed the Arab conspiracy mills and were picked up by CNN and other U.S. networks. The Pentagon says most of his claims simply were false.
Alouni's close working ties to Taliban leaders and al-Qaeda did not go unnoticed. The Kabul office was destroyed by rockets launched from U.S. warplanes. When Alouni reappeared on the air the next day, he whined that he had witnessed "scenes that, I'm sorry, I couldn't describe to anybody," and that he was "in deep psychological shock."
Al-Jazeera &emdash; which translates from Arabic as "the peninsula" &emdash; was set up in Qatar by Sheik Hamad in 1996, barely one year after he toppled his father in a palace coup. In what appeared to be a daring move, the young emir abolished the Information Ministry and granted an annual $30 million subsidy to establish an "independent" news channel allegedly modeled after the British Broadcasting Corp. The 24-hour satellite news channel today reaches 35 million Arabs, including an estimated 150,000 in the United States. Despite climbing advertising revenues and the millions of dollars earned from syndicating its "exclusive" reports from Kabul and the bin Laden interviews (which go for $250,000 a pop, according to Managing Director Mohammed Jasem al Ali), the network remains financially and politically dependent on the emir's patronage.
During the last five years, al-Jazeera has tweaked the noses of Arab leaders from Kuwait to Algiers, but never Qatar, which does not allow its 200,000-odd citizens to have satellite dishes to receive critical views, but pipes al-Jazeera by cable into most homes. To some, this willingness to shock has spread a breath of freedom throughout the Arab world, which is used to controlled media and stale government propaganda. It also has enhanced the clout of the otherwise obscure emir, whose kingdom shares a massive offshore natural-gas field with Iran and is linked by a land bridge to Saudi Arabia. And it has won him protection from radical Islamists who might otherwise view his sheikdom as a ripe target.
Al-Jazeera also has gone easy on Saddam Hussein while whacking his opponents, in line with the emir's pro-Iraq line. Since taking power, the emir has encouraged wealthy Qatari citizens and royal relatives to make large donations to Iraq, including a business jet given personally to Saddam, according to former U.S. intelligence officers.
Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti scholar who heads the Kuwait Information Office in Washington, felt the brunt of the network's political bias during a solo appearance he made on al-Jazeera after the short-lived "Desert Fox" bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998. For two hours he was berated by 'Atwan, the pro-Iraqi journalist, and by hostile callers. The mood became so ugly that the Qatari foreign minister personally telephoned the show and put an end to the "debate."
Despite that experience, Ghabra remains circumspect: "Al-Jazeera is catering to the Arab street. It represents how they think and is a good reflection of what's going on. There is a lot of sensationalism. The street is emotional, and al-Jazeera caters to that. But it has also raised the bar for discussion in the public debate. Yes, they have a bias; but so does Fox News."
The United States prides itself on a free press. So what do we do when some element of the foreign press turns against us? The answer: flood the airwaves. Phase one of the U.S. counteroffensive has been to make administration officials available for interviews. But even here, they had to swim upstream against al-Jazeera's inherent bias. In her first appearance on the network, just nine days after the bombing campaign began on Oct. 7, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was bombarded with questions about U.S. support for Israel and the U.S. "failure" to restart the "peace process" before a single question about Afghanistan was raised.
Since then, the State Department has called out of retirement former U.S. ambassador Christopher Ross, a fluent Arabic speaker, and has booked him almost daily on Arab media outlets and the Voice of America's (VOA's) Arabic service to explain U.S. policy. "Before September 11, we didn't spend that much time on outreach," says Matt Lucenhop, a spokesman for the State Department's newly revamped Arab Media Outreach Office. "Since then, we realize that we have to reach publics in the region directly to get our message across."
The administration also has increased funding for the VOA under the stewardship of new director Robert Reilly, a cultural conservative and VOA veteran (see Picture Profile, p. 36). And at the urging of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and others, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has launched a new Radio Free Afghanistan that has begun beaming local news directly into Afghanistan.
But what about al-Jazeera, which continues to spew lies and hatred? "We should bring pressure to bear on the government of Qatar to shut it down," Pipes tells Insight. "This must be part of an overall strategy that mobilizes all aspects of U.S. power &emdash; military, economic, political, diplomatic, financial and economic. First, we must define the enemy, which is militant Islam. Second, we must define our goal, which should be to replace it wherever it exists, just as we did in Afghanistan."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
To read more transcripts in English of al-Jazeera broadcasts, go to www.memri.org