Aljazeera presses 'right to speak up'

by Jenn Buck | 11/18/03 6:00am

Their news coverage has been accused of inciting violence against U.S. troops in Iraq; their reporters thrown in jail for "supporting and financing" the Al-Qaida terrorist network; and their stations have been bombed repeatedly by the U.S. government.

The majority of Americans probably haven't heard of Aljazeera -- the largest and first free Arab news broadcasting organization, with over 45 million viewers worldwide. The network made history in 1996 when it launched the first 24-hour news station broadcasting in Arabic.

Imad Musa, a producer for Aljazeera's Washington bureau, spoke about his experiences working for the controversial Arab news network, yesterday at Silsby Hall.

"Regardless of what anyone thinks about Aljazeera," Musa said. "They'll look back in 100 years and know 1996 was a turning point in free speech."

The network has its main offices in the small Arab country of Qatar and states its philosophy as promoting "the right to speak up."

And speak up it has, said Musa, citing the importance of having one voice bringing together news for all Arabs.

He talked about the way Aljazeera was viewed by the U.S. government when it first went on air, and the way that view has shifted as the network has found itself in controversial positions from its aggressive reporting.

Those Americans who are familiar with Aljazeera have likely heard the name via the U.S. government's angry accusations over the Arab news network's "lies and misrepresentations," as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said. This is a virtual 180 for the American government, who hailed Aljazeera as a "beacon of free speech and democracy" in the Arab world when they began broadcasting, Musa said.

Qatar was praised in 1996 for hosting the network that sought to "free the Arab world from the shackles of censorship and government control" and offer "much needed freedom of thought, independence and room for debate," Musa said.

"This was seen as a sign that things might be changing in the Middle East. Arabs saw it as a sign they might enter 21st century with their own media," he said.

But among Arab governments, the network was despised since day one.

"Every story Aljazeera did was regarded as 'a Zionist American conspiracy threatening the stability of our country, and our people, and our devoted leader,' wherever that leader was," Musa said.

"Aljazeera was encouraging dissent, encouraging the opposition, promoting violence by giving away state secrets, damaging the image and reputation of the country and the glorious king or dictator, and waging psychological warfare on the country at this critical point in history," Musa said.

"If you notice, it's always a 'critical point in history,'" he added.

But despite Arab governments' attacks, the viewership of these governments' national stations, which used to be the only broadcaster in the country, immediately fell. Arab people finally had a forum in which to voice their opinions through Aljazeera's call-in shows and political commentaries, and there was no turning back.

The network was shut down or given only limited access in Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Egypt in response to its controversial free press coverage of news events from objective angles, drawing viewers away from the old government propaganda.

Then in 2001, Aljazeera's relations with the United States went south as well.

The network had broadcast tapes sent to them by Osama Bin Laden, deeming them "newsworthy," said Musa. When the United States got wind of this after the Sept. 11 attacks, American officials accused Aljazeera of being "the mouthpiece of terrorism," part of the "axis of evil."

The United States began to pressure Aljazeera to "reel itself in in the name of responsibility," said Musa. He said that the network favored free speech.

The U.S. further criticized Aljazeera for broadcasting photos of American POWs, and for referring to what the U.S. government called "Operation Iraqi Freedom" as "the U.S.- and British-led attack on Iraq," Musa said.

The Aljazeera websites were subsequently hacked by an American (who has recently been convicted and sentenced). Two U.S. missiles hit an Aljazeera office in Iraq on April 8, killing one reporter.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that the bombing was an accident, and that the government would check with the weapons manufacturer about a possible malfunction, Musa said.

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