Window on the War
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PETER JENNINGS, ABC News: The United States has attacked Afghanistan 26 days after terrorists attacked the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: When Americans turned on their television sets over the weekend to see the first U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, many of the pictures carried Arabic-language graphics. The live video from Kabul — and, most stunningly, a videotaped statement from Osama bin Laden — came courtesy of the Al-Jazeera Network, whose name itself was news to most Americans.
Based in the tiny gulf state of Qatar, Al-Jazeera is a five- year-old satellite television network funded largely by the Qatari government. Operating 24-hours a day, it has a daily audience estimated at 35 to 40 million people and is received throughout the Arab world and beyond. Al-Jazeera has become a cultural force in the Middle East offering not only news, but a range of opinion in its talk shows unseen elsewhere in the Arab world. It stands in sharp contrast to most Arab broadcast media, which are generally controlled and censored by Arab governments.
And since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Al-Jazeera has been serving as an unofficial, two-way communications channel between the Arab and western worlds. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, granted an interview to Al-Jazeera’s Washington Bureau Chief, Hafez Al-Mirazi. Other U.S. officials have done the same.
HAFEZ AL-MIRAZI, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Jazeera: They choose Al-Jazeera to talk because they consider that this is the channel that would reach the widest audience that we would like to reach, and they have the credibility that we want in order to deliver our message.
TERENCE SMITH: And the accused terrorist bin Laden has repeatedly chosen Al-Jazeera to get his message out. He has provided the network with footage of himself, here attending a family wedding, and after President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress, bin Laden faxed his response to Al-Jazeera. And this weekend, in what appears to have been a planned response to the anticipated U.S. air strikes, bin Laden had this pre-taped defiant statement delivered to the Al-Jazeera bureau in Kabul. The videotape was a surprise to the network, which aired it immediately. A translation was subsequently rebroadcast by the American networks, multiplying the audience many times over.
TOM BROKAW, NBC News: We heard too from Osama bin Laden on Al-Jazeera television which comes out of Qatar, which is kind of the official voice of the Middle East.
TERENCE SMITH: Edmund Ghareeb, a specialist on Middle East media, thinks it was no accident that bin Laden and his associates chose Al-Jazeera.
EDMUND GHAREEB, American University: They wanted to have access to a major news network that’s going to reach across borders. And this, to an extent, is what Al-Jazeera is, what CNN is. These are new channels that cross international boundaries and present in this globalized world new media and new access, different kind of access.
TERENCE SMITH: The communication is a two-way street. Al-Jazeera routinely broadcasts the speeches and press briefings of U.S. officials, translating them into Arabic for its listeners. They are currently booking at least six hours a day of satellite time from Washington to the Arab world. The network’s coverage has attracted angry criticism from several Arab governments. And just last week, Secretary Powell urged the visiting emir of Qatar to ensure balance in Al-Jazeera’s reporting. Professor Ghareeb says criticism from all sides is not new for Al-Jazeera.
TERENCE SMITH: So they’ve been accused of everything?
EDMUND GHAREEB: Exactly.
TERENCE SMITH: They’ve been accused, if I follow you, of being what?
EDMUND GHAREEB: Pro American, pro Iraqi, pro Israeli, pro extremist, radical extremist and divisive. They have been accused of being very divisive and sensationalistic.
TERENCE SMITH: What in your opinion are they? Give it your own description.
EDMUND GHAREEB: I think they are all of these things at the same time. They have given a voice, for example, to these different points of view.
TERENCE SMITH: And last night, to the western world as well.
PETER JENNINGS: We are listening to live broadcasting from Kabul via an Arabic reporter through an Arabic television company based in the Persian Gulf in Qatar, which has been a real window on the world for people all over the region.
TERENCE SMITH: With these fresh pictures of bomb damage in Kabul today and the only reporter still able to broadcast live from the Afghan capital, Al-Jazeera seems likely to continue in that role.