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In Defense Of Al Jazeera
By Michael Moran
October 18, 2001 - MSNBC

One day in April 1996, as I headed for my desk in the newsroom at BBC Television Centre, I noticed an odd gathering of journalists in the space beside ours - the newsroom of BBC Arabic Television. There were tear-streaked faces, hugs among staff members and anger as the 250 journalists were told that the network, a BBC partnership with a Saudi company, would be shut down because the Saudis tried to censor a documentary on executions in their puritanical country. It was a devastating defeat for a brave group of journalists.

FOR MANY of BBC  Arabic’s staff, that day marked the death of a long-held dream: uncensored news for the Middle East, reports shorn of the crazy conspiracy theories, anti-Israel sentiments and sniveling praise for venal regimes that is standard fare on state-controlled broadcast networks from Algiers to Islamabad.

Jamil Azar, then with the BBC’s Arabic service, told me later how wrenching it was for so many on the staff who worked so hard at something they truly believed would change attitudes in the region. “We understand the BBC’s position,” Azar told me. “But the gap it will leave will be tremendous.”

BORN FROM THE ASHES  As it turned out, the gap was quickly filled. From the ashes of BBC Arabic rose al-Jazeera, a satellite channel funded by the Emir of Qatar and other Arab moderates who had recognized during BBC Arabic’s short life that the long-term interests of Islam would be served best by truth rather than censorship. Unfortunately, that kind of foresight temporarily escaped the White House, opening the United States up to charges of hypocrisy at precisely the time when the United States needs to be seen taking every possible step to be up-front about its goals.   

The first time most Americans heard the name al-Jazeera was Sunday, Oct. 7, the day U.S. and British forces began hitting the Taliban and its “guests” in Afghanistan. The timing was almost surely accidental — Western journalists had spent three weeks expecting an attack at any moment. But the impact on the White House was undeniable, and suddenly Washington reverted to the kind of bullying that had not been evident in the buildup to the attack.
Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced al-Jazeera for airing “vitriolic, irresponsible kinds of statements” when it broadcast a videotaped statement by suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden praising the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The CIA leaked its concern that bin Laden might be sending secret messages through these taped statements. Condoleeza Rice, the national security adviser, called and visited with top American network and newspaper representatives, urging them to consider the dangers of airing bin Laden’s views. On the shallower media outlets around the U.S., al-Jazeera suddenly found itself being equated with the former Communist mouthpiece Pravda or Hitler’s National Zeitung.

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