For once, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher didn't mincewords. "We've expressed our concerns about some of the kinds ofthings we've seen on their air, particularly inflammatory stories,totally untrue stories, things like that," he said at a dailybriefing in early October 2001. "We would certainly like to see themtone down the rhetoric."
Boucher was not talking about the old Soviet Union, whoseactive-measures teams dreamed up wild conspiratorial stories aboutU.S. domination of the Third World and fed them to disinformationagents as "news." The culprit he was speaking of was the al-JazeeraTV 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 combatmissions in his territory. Yet he finances the most vileanti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda imaginable.
During the first month after Sept. 11, al-Jazeera rebroadcastexcerpts from a 1998 canned interview with Saudi terrorist Osama binLaden 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 statementsprompted an unusual public scolding from Secretary of State ColinPowell on Oct. 8, 2001, during a visit to Washington by Sheik Hamadbin-Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. The emir shrugged off thecriticism, claiming al-Jazeera was part of his plan to create aparliamentary system for his kingdom.
Al-Jazeera's Washington correspondent, Hafiz al-Mirazi, had asimilar response. "When you have a 24-hour broadcast, there are a lotof empty holes," he tells INSIGHT, explaining the frequent replays ofthe bin Laden interview. "Many people didn't know who bin Laden wasbefore September 11. We do no propaganda for bin Laden. When you putPresident [George W.] Bush on live television at a memorialfor 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 toSept. 11, the satellite-TV network prominently featured bin Laden inits broadcasts, and regularly invited bin Laden friends andsympathizers onto the air. "They had become jihad television," saysU.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 openedit like this:
"Good evening, dear viewers. Do you know how much Osama bin Ladenweighs? That's what one of the Arab leaders at the recent summit inAmman asked. The answer is: No more than 50 kilograms [110pounds]. In contrast, the average weight of the Arab leaders isat least 80 kilograms [176 pounds], not to mention the weightof the [Arab] armies and the huge budgets. Nevertheless, theslender bin Laden has made the greatest power in history shudder atthe sound of his name, [while] the physical and materialheavyweights arouse only America's pity and ridicule."
Balancing this view was Abd al-Bari 'Atwan, editor in chief of thepro-Iraqi London daily Al-Quds al-Arabi. The United States is "aterrorist regime that has killed innocent people since 1945 to thisvery moment," 'Atwan instructed viewers. "Bin Laden is a legitimatejihad 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 showhappened to be al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith, calling fromsomewhere in Afghanistan. After a 10-minute speech in praise of hisboss, he ended with a call for volunteers for "the holy jihad againstthe Jews and the Christians."
During the first two months of the war, al-Jazeera's Kabulcorrespondent &emdash; a Syrian named Tasyeer Alouni, who traveled ona Spanish passport &emdash; was the only foreign TV correspondentallowed to operate in Afghanistan by the Taliban. His wild-eyedreports alleging massive civilian casualties from the U.S. bombingcampaign fed the Arab conspiracy mills and were picked up by CNN andother U.S. networks. The Pentagon says most of his claims simply werefalse.
Alouni's close working ties to Taliban leaders and al-Qaeda didnot go unnoticed. The Kabul office was destroyed by rockets launchedfrom 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'tdescribe to anybody," and that he was "in deep psychological shock."
Al-Jazeera &emdash; which translates from Arabic as "thepeninsula" &emdash; was set up in Qatar by Sheik Hamad in 1996,barely one year after he toppled his father in a palace coup. In whatappeared to be a daring move, the young emir abolished theInformation Ministry and granted an annual $30 million subsidy toestablish an "independent" news channel allegedly modeled after theBritish Broadcasting Corp. The 24-hour satellite news channel todayreaches 35 million Arabs, including an estimated 150,000 in theUnited States. Despite climbing advertising revenues and the millionsof dollars earned from syndicating its "exclusive" reports from Kabuland the bin Laden interviews (which go for $250,000 a pop, accordingto Managing Director Mohammed Jasem al Ali), the network remainsfinancially and politically dependent on the emir's patronage.
During the last five years, al-Jazeera has tweaked the noses ofArab leaders from Kuwait to Algiers, but never Qatar, which does notallow its 200,000-odd citizens to have satellite dishes to receivecritical views, but pipes al-Jazeera by cable into most homes. Tosome, this willingness to shock has spread a breath of freedomthroughout the Arab world, which is used to controlled media andstale government propaganda. It also has enhanced the clout of theotherwise obscure emir, whose kingdom shares a massive offshorenatural-gas field with Iran and is linked by a land bridge to SaudiArabia. And it has won him protection from radical Islamists whomight otherwise view his sheikdom as a ripe target.
Al-Jazeera also has gone easy on Saddam Hussein while whacking hisopponents, in line with the emir's pro-Iraq line. Since taking power,the emir has encouraged wealthy Qatari citizens and royal relativesto make large donations to Iraq, including a business jet givenpersonally to Saddam, according to former U.S. intelligence officers.
Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti scholar who heads the Kuwait InformationOffice in Washington, felt the brunt of the network's political biasduring a solo appearance he made on al-Jazeera after the short-lived"Desert Fox" bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998. For twohours he was berated by 'Atwan, the pro-Iraqi journalist, and byhostile callers. The mood became so ugly that the Qatari foreignminister personally telephoned the show and put an end to the"debate."
Despite that experience, Ghabra remains circumspect: "Al-Jazeerais catering to the Arab street. It represents how they think and is agood reflection of what's going on. There is a lot of sensationalism.The street is emotional, and al-Jazeera caters to that. But it hasalso raised the bar for discussion in the public debate. Yes, theyhave a bias; but so does Fox News."
The United States prides itself on a free press. So what do we dowhen some element of the foreign press turns against us? The answer:flood the airwaves. Phase one of the U.S. counteroffensive has beento make administration officials available for interviews. But evenhere, they had to swim upstream against al-Jazeera's inherent bias.In her first appearance on the network, just nine days after thebombing campaign began on Oct. 7, National Security AdviserCondoleezza Rice was bombarded with questions about U.S. support forIsrael and the U.S. "failure" to restart the "peace process" before asingle question about Afghanistan was raised.
Since then, the State Department has called out of retirementformer U.S. ambassador Christopher Ross, a fluent Arabic speaker, andhas booked him almost daily on Arab media outlets and the Voice ofAmerica's (VOA's) Arabic service to explain U.S. policy. "BeforeSeptember 11, we didn't spend that much time on outreach," says MattLucenhop, a spokesman for the State Department's newly revamped ArabMedia Outreach Office. "Since then, we realize that we have to reachpublics in the region directly to get our message across."
The administration also has increased funding for the VOA underthe stewardship of new director Robert Reilly, a culturalconservative and VOA veteran (see Picture Profile, p. 36). And at theurging of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and others, Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty has launched a new Radio Free Afghanistan thathas begun beaming local news directly into Afghanistan.
But what about al-Jazeera, which continues to spew lies andhatred? "We should bring pressure to bear on the government of Qatarto shut it down," Pipes tells Insight. "This must be part of anoverall 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, wemust define our goal, which should be to replace it wherever itexists, just as we did in Afghanistan."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
To read more transcripts in English ofal-Jazeera broadcasts, go to www.memri.org