- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001


Friend or foe? The jury is still out on Al Jazeera, the Arab TV network that meshes fierce homeland loyalties with aspirations to become a global media player.

Theories abound about the upstart network, founded in 1996, subsidized by the Qatar government and the world's sole source of broadcast from Afghanistan. This week, New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets called Al Jazeera "one of the most potent weapons in the Islamic Axis arsenal" and proposed that the U.S. military "shut it down."

The London Daily Telegraph reported "revelations" that Al Jazeera had struck a secret deal with Osama bin Laden to screen his videotaped threats 15 days before the U.S. bombed Afghanistan and "regardless of any protests from the West." An Al Jazeera news director told the Telegraph that the network had solicited the tape through a Kabul correspondent and insiders "hired for their links with al Qaeda," the terrorist group led by bin Laden.

The Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell was more specific, recently writing that Al Jazeera's "Kabul correspondent Syrian Tayseer Allouni has been a longtime Taliban supporter."

At the same time, Al Jazeera's 50 correspondents want the big time. "This is our chance now to be number one. CNN was number one in the Gulf war, and now we are number one," said news anchor Tawfiq Taha.

But there are media decisions to be made on both sides.

After the bin Laden threats received endless airplay last week, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked broadcast and cable networks to use discretion, fearing the tape contained coded messages to terrorists.

Al Jazeera Chairman Hamad Bin Thamer Al Thani denied the charge.

"This is a news event, and we have to cover it from a media point of view, not from a political point of view," he said. "What's the use of freedom if you only use it in comfort and not in crisis?"

Analysts have argued the point for days in print and broadcast, feeling out the balance between aggressive reporting and national security. "It would probably be counterproductive to dissolve one of the few opportunities we have to communicate with the Afghan people," Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs said yesterday.

"Besides, bin Laden used our aircraft against us. Now we can use his airwaves against him," Mr. Felling continued.

So far, U.S. and British networks have agreed not to broadcast live feeds from Al Jazeera that contain statements from bin Laden or al Qaeda, collectively vowing to first screen and edit content to inform viewers without jeopardizing public safety.

Things evolve, though. Yesterday, ABC News announced it had struck a deal with Al Jazeera to share video, information and satellite uplinks, though no money changed hands.

Miss Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld appeared on the Arab network to explain to an estimated 35 million Middle Eastern viewers that the United States is attacking terrorists, not Muslims.

President Bush also is considering an appearance.

The tape may reveal more than coded messages. Nebraska geologist Jack Shroder announced to Reuters news agency yesterday that he had guessed the hide-out of bin Laden to be in Paktika, some 125 miles from Kabul based on the rock formations that appeared behind him in the threat tape.

And on CNN, an Al Jazeera spokeswoman denied the network had been "used" by bin Laden, claiming "we saw [the taped threat] pretty much when everyone else saw it."

"The bottom line is that we can monitor Al Jazeera, which claims to be a news service, to determine if we have legitimate claims to dismantle a propaganda machine," said media analyst Mr. Felling. "We don't want to silence a weapon we can also use, without just cause."

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