Over the past few weeks it was announced that the Arabic TV channel al Jazeera will now be reaching Arab and Muslim audiences in Canada and Britain. The channel, with a reported 35 million viewers worldwide, appears on the surface to have reached mainstream status. Proof of this can be seen in the network’s coverage of both the Democratic and Republican national conventions this summer, as well as with its recently released code of ethics pledging to “address every issue or story with due attention to present a clear, factual, and accurate picture.”
Still, controversy regarding the incitement of viewers to violence surrounds the channel. Other issues of concern include dozens of al Jazeera correspondents’ having been arrested for connection to terrorist activities. In December 2001, al Jazeera cameraman Sami Muhyi Al-Din was one of the first, as U.S. forces arrested and took him to Guantanamo Bay. On September 5, 2003, al Jazeera correspondent Taysir Alouni was also arrested by Spanish authorities and charged with “furnishing al Qaeda with funds in Afghanistan.” Alouni is infamous for his interview of Osama bin Laden shortly after September 11. More recently, on April 4, 2004, al Jazeera correspondent Dib Abu Zayed was indicted in an Israeli military court and accused of serving as a liaison for Fatah in Lebanon and supplying Palestinian terrorists with money and weapons.
By airing exclusive videos provided by terrorists who want to get their message out, al Jazeera is often accused of being sympathetic to such groups. The terrorists reciprocate by providing tips as to where and when the network can film upcoming attacks.
Such actions have been common in Iraq. For example, the Iraqi daily Al-Sabah reported on November 9, 2003, that al Jazeera correspondent Sattar Karim admitted that his office was used to coordinate attacks against coalition forces. U.S. forces arrested al Jazeera cameramen Salah Hasan and Samir Hamza while they were filming the aftermath of an attack on a police station. Correspondent Anwar Bahjat was also arrested, while covering an attack in Baghdad. According to the al Jazeera website, ten of its employees had been arrested in Iraq by October 2003.
In response to ongoing controversial actions in Iraq, on July 3, 2004, Iraqi intellectuals appealed to the government to expel al Jazeera from the country because it is engaged “in a hysterical campaign” against Iraq. An editorial in the Iraqi daily Al-Ittihad on April 12, 2004, said that al Jazeera feeds itself “upon the blood of the Iraqis.” Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, accused al Jazeera on July 27, 2004, of inciting violence in his country and threatened to close its Baghdad offices, while the Governing Council in Baghdad banned al Jazeera from entering its offices and attending its news conferences last year. Stating that its extensive coverage of kidnappings has encouraged militants, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi announced on August 7 that al Jazeera would be shut down for a month.
Examples of how al Jazeera covers Iraq–which can all be viewed on MEMRI’s TV Monitor Project–include terrorist Anis Al-Naqqash calling for strikes against U.S. oil facilities; Dr. Abd Al-Munim Abu Al-Futuh, an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, volunteering to carry out attacks against American forces in Iraq; Sheikh Makki Kubeissi accusing the Jews of carrying out terror attacks in Iraq; and Lebanese Shiite leader Sheikh Fadhlallah claiming that the CIA is behind terror attacks in Iraq.
The Arab media have also reported that Saddam Hussein had made payments to al Jazeera before his ouster. It was implied that such remuneration was provided in exchange for positive coverage of his regime. One report appeared in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas on December 29, 2003, stating that Saddam provided financial support to al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar. Days later, the Iraqi daily Al-Shira coined the phrase “the Society of Saddam’s Orphans,” which includes a number of prominent Arab journalists and al Jazeera talk-show hosts and producers who benefited greatly from Saddam’s bank account. Another Iraqi daily, Al-Mutamar, published documents on April 16 connecting Faisal Al-Qassim, one of the leading personalities on al Jazeera, with Saddam Hussein’s former intelligence services. The German weekly Der Spiegel claims to have original documents identifying 24 al Jazeera and media personalities who were paid bribes by the Iraqi mukhabart. The list includes the director of al Jazeera, Muhammad Jassim Al-Ali, who has since been fired.
While al Jazeera would now like to be known as a mainstream network, in the U.S. it continues to have a controversial reputation in the government and business communities. This began days before 9/11, when FBI agents seized servers hosting the al Jazeera website from a Dallas-based company. After its website was later hacked multiple times, the network’s search for a new host was documented in the media in April 2003. At least one major American company turned down a lucrative offer, preferring not to do business with the network. Furthermore, in March 2003, two al Jazeera reporters were banned from the New York Stock Exchange because, according to an NYSE spokesman, the exchange is open only to those focusing “on responsible business coverage.”
Most recently, al Jazeera was quick to announce its on-location coverage of both political conventions this summer, but according to reports, it was required to remove its logo at the Democratic convention in Boston.
–Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.