- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

After earning itself the title of "The Osama bin Laden Channel" for its unedited airing of al Qaeda tapes and biased coverage of the war in Afghanistan, the Qatari television station Al-Jazeera is gearing up for the fall season by escalating its criticism of U.S. policy toward Iraq, increasing its inflammatory pieces about the American bias toward Israel, and lambasting governments in the region seen as betraying the political ideology of the station's anchors. When criticized for its slanted reporting, Al-Jazeera's producers proclaim loudly their editorial independence and hide behind the shield of press freedom.

However, a look at the station's coverage of Qatar its financial sponsor belies this claim and undermines its journalistic credentials. Al-Jazeera was born with a $150 million loan from Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, but the government insists it is not an official channel. "We just help it financially," said one spokesperson, "like Britain does to the BBC." The comparison does not hold under scrutiny Al-Jazeera is far from the BBC, or even the CNN, of the Arab world.

In the last few months, Al-Jazeera's programming has been filled with criticism of U.S. efforts to oust Saddam Hussein. Several episodes have featured guests who assailed America and other countries supportive of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. What is conspicuously absent from this coverage, however, is the fact that the Qatari government has positioned itself as one of America's most important allies if a showdown comes to pass. The Qatari Amir has sanctioned an expansion of the already massive al Udeid air base, adding aircraft hangars and warehouses for storing armaments. With more than 3,000 American military personnel, a fleet of Air Force KC-10 and KC-135 refueling tankers, and runways long enough for any aircraft, al Udeid will clearly be a hub of any large-scale assault on Iraq. But if you listened exclusively to Al-Jazeera, you wouldn't know of its existence. The station cannot claim ignorance the construction site is clearly visible from its offices. In fact, its senior editors can look out their windows and read the serial numbers of U.S. military aircrafts arriving and departing from the base.

Selective reporting is also apparent in recent critical coverage of Crown Prince Abdullah's peace proposal. For the anti-Israeli crusaders at Al-Jazeera, such attacks are to be expected. After all, this is the station that featured relatively obscure Arab "academics" arguing that a Zionist-Mossad conspiracy was behind the terror attacks of September 11. Al-Jazeera also covered the liberation of Afghanistan with photos of dead Taliban soldiers while the rest of the world's media carried unprecedented shots of Afghanis celebrating in the streets with U.S. troops. Despite Al-Jazeera's readiness to critique any policy toward Israel seen as "accommodationist," the station ignored last month a "secret" meeting between Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, and his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres.

Al-Jazeera is populated with anchors and editors who cling to an extreme form of socialist Pan-Arabism, a discredited ideology of the 1960s and 1970s. A leading voice of this movement is Faisal al-Qassem, host of the station's most popular talk show, "The Opposite Opinion." As a good Pan-Arabist, Mr. al-Qassem reviles all monarchies. His urge to discredit them sometimes leads him to haul in fairly pathetic characters, as when he invited a guest "expert" to explain that Jordan's Hashemites were solely responsible for the foundation of Israel. Unfounded accusations such as these, which are rarely cross-examined, have infuriated many governments in the region. Not surprisingly, however, this anti-monarchical stance has nothing to say about Qatar. Al Jazeera's motto, "Opinion and the other opinion," clearly does not include views critical to the Qatari ruling family.

A final story that Al-Jazeera's subscribers haven't heard is bin Laden 's 1996 stopover in Qatar on his way from Sudan to Afghanistan. U.S. and European intelligence sources claim that while there, he met with a member of the Qatari royal family as well as a senior Qatari security officer. What they discussed is not known: Al-Jazeera's reporters have gone great lengths covering bin Laden's antics halfway around the world, but his activities in their own backyard seemingly do not warrant investigation.

It is true that Al-Jazeera has brought some much-needed openness to Arab airwaves, which were formerly dominated by stuffy state-sponsored propaganda machines. But until the station turns its camera on its own country, it cannot claim the mantel of a free press. This blind spot opens the station to accusations that it is nothing more than a sophisticated propaganda wing of the Qatari monarchy. Responding to criticism of its reporting, Ahmed al-Sheikh, chief of Al-Jazeera's news desk, recently said "we are giving the world the two sides of the coin, and this is what a television channel should be all about." Agreed. But the Qatari Riyal has more than one side, too.


Nawaf Obaid is the author of the book "The Oil Kingdom at 100."

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