Scrappy Al Jazeera

By Susan Taylor Martin

DOHA, Qatar -- It's a quiet Friday evening in the Middle East, and once again the lead story on Al-Jazeera's 10 p.m. news will be America's saber rattling against Iraq.

Judging from the languid pace in the newsroom just minutes before air time, there's nothing much fresh to report. The most interesting story tonight doesn't involve Saddam Hussein but Al-Jazeera itself, the Qatari-based satellite TV channel that is almost as adept at making news as it is in covering it.

Earlier in the week, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Qatar and shut the station's bureau in Amman, outraged by an Al-Jazeera talk show that insulted Jordan's royal family.

Now word has come that Jordan is refusing to let an Al-Jazeera correspondent leave the the country until he can prove he didn't continue working after the bureau was ordered shut.

"We're used to getting this reaction," says Mohamed Jasem Al-Ali, the channel's managing director. "Every day, we hear some country is recalling an ambassador, shutting down our offices, not allowing our reporters in."

In the six years since it was founded on the motto "We get both sides of the story," Al-Jazeera has outraged almost every Arab government doing just that, giving critics nearly free rein to blast Arab regimes whose media are little more than propaganda machines.

And since the attacks on the United States, Al-Jazeera also has angered the Bush administration and others in the West, who accuse it of being a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden and fanning anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.

Yet no one can deny that Al-Jazeera has scored some impressive scoops. This month, it aired an exclusive interview from Pakistan with two men suspected of coordinating the Sept. 11 attacks. (One of the men, Ramzi Binalshibh, has since been captured and turned over to U.S. authorities for interrogation and a possible trial.)

Last October, Al-Jazeera was the only station broadcasting live from Afghanistan when the U.S.-led bombing began. And for better or worse, it has been the main vehicle through which bin Laden and his supporters have spoken to the world in the past year.

Thanks to its aggressive coverage, Al-Jazeera claims at least 35-million viewers in the Arab world and 175,000 who pay to watch it it on cable in North America. Its Web site gets 17-million hits a day.

"Al-Jazeera is undoubtedly a new trend in Arab media," says Roger Hardy, a Mideast specialist for the BBC World Service in London.

"And as far as I can tell, it's the TV station of choice for Arabs, whether you're a Palestinian in Gaza . . . or you're part of the Arab diaspora in Canada or America and you grind your teeth when you watch CNN because it doesn't give you what you want or you feel its biases are not the biases you share." 

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