The accusations strongly rejected by both networks.
Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they have evidence that the two Arab television news organizations had advance knowledge of attacks against coalition forces in Iraq.
“I opined accurately that from time to time each of those stations have found themselves in very close proximity to things that were happening against coalition forces — before the event happened, and during the event,” Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
Rumsfeld accused the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network and Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network of cooperating with insurgents by videotaping and broadcasting attacks against coalition troops in Iraq.
“They’ve (the insurgents) called Al-Jazeera to come and watch them do it (attack coalition troops), and Al-Arabiya, ‘Come and see us, watch us; here is what we’re going to do’,” Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon briefing.
Rumsfeld said the broadcasts resembled elements of psychological warfare, or “cy-war,” used previously by deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his Baathist government, in which a suicide assailant would receive public praise and financial rewards for an attack.
“It’s part, the information operations, or the cy-war part of what they’re doing has always been a part of their behavior pattern, partly by the targets they pick, partly by trying to have notice called to what they’re doing and take pride in that,” he added.
When pressed to elaborate on their allegations, Rumsfeld and Myers indicated that U.S. forces in Iraq have gathered more than just circumstantial evidence that one or both of the Arab news organizations may have cooperated with the attackers.
“Yes, I’ve seen scraps of information over a sustained period of time,” Rumsfeld said.
“I’m not in a position to make a final judgment on it,” but it needed to “be looked at in a responsible, orderly way. And I’m not in a position to make a final judgment on it,” the defense secretary added.
Neither Rumsfeld nor Myers provided further details.
Both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya rejected the Pentagon’s allegations they had inside information about planned attacks against coalition forces, pointing out that Rumsfeld did not present the networks with any evidence.
Al-Arabiya’s chief editor told the Associated Press that the network’s reporters arrive at the scene in the aftermath of the attacks “like everyone else.” An Al-Jazeera spokesman also noted U.S. officials have previously made similar allegations — also without providing proof to back their claims.
Rumsfeld’s allegations against the Arab networks come just after the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council issued a decree banning Al-Arabiya from working in Iraq.
On Monday, the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad raided the offices of Al-Arabiya in Iraq, seized equipment from its Baghdad bureau, banned its broadcasts from Iraq and threatened to imprison its journalists working in Iraq.
The council’s chairman said it decided to ban the Dubai-based satellite network after it broadcast a taped recording purportedly of Saddam Hussein, encouraging Iraqis to resist the presence of U.S. forces.
“We have decided to ban Al-Arabiya in Iraq for a certain period of time because it broadcast an invitation to murder, an incitement to murder by the voice of Saddam Hussein,” Jalal Talabani, the council’s current chairman, said Monday.
“We have issued a warning to Al-Arabiya and we will sue,” Talabani warned. “Al-Arabiya incites murder because it’s calling for killings through the voice of Saddam Hussein.”
The council also indefinitely banned the Middle East Broadcasting Center, primarily an entertainment network that shares offices with Al-Arabiya and owned by the same Saudi company.
The network’s Baghdad correspondent Ali Al-Khatib reported live Monday: “Iraqi police entered the Al-Arabiya bureau armed with a decision from the interim Governing Council to close the bureau, seize the furniture and equipment until the channel gives a written commitment not to promote violence.”
Al-Khatib said the police warned staffers they would be fined $1,000 and imprisoned for a year for each violation. He said officers told correspondents the council might reconsider its ruling if the news channel writes a letter pledging never to encourage terrorism.
Al-Arabiya on Tuesday rejected the Governing Council’s charges.
“We are showing pictures which we can earn and we think they’re under the law,” a spokesman told Reuters. “They are giving the Iraqis some information about what is going to happen or what is happening in their country, that is all. We are not inciting violence.”
The network said it would continue reporting on Iraq from its headquarters in Dubai, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, until the matter was resolved.
Meanwhile, media watchdog groups also decried the council’s action, saying it smacked of press censorship.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the ban, saying it raised concerns about developing a free press in postwar Iraq.
“Statements from Saddam Hussein and the former Iraqi regime are inherently newsworthy, and news organizations have a right to cover them,” Joel Campagna, coordinator of CPJ’s Middle East program, said in a statement.
“This is the latest in a string of heavy-handed actions by the Iraqi Governing Council and U.S. and coalition authorities toward the media that make us apprehensive about the future of press freedoms in Iraq,” Campagna said.
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press advocacy group, called the closure a violation of freedom of the press and said it represented “methods … that are contrary to the promises of setting up a democracy in Iraq.”
Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera have come under fire from Iraqi authorities in the past for its coverage of Iraq.
In September, the Iraqi Governing Council temporarily banned both news organizations from entering government buildings and attending news conferences, accusing the networks of inciting sectarian strife and promoting violence against coalition forces.
U.S. military officials have frequently criticized both networks for having an anti-American bias, claims which the networks strongly reject.
Last Friday, Rumsfeld called the two popular satellite television stations “violently anti-coalition.”
“At the present time, two of the most popular stations, Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, are violently anti-coalition and were pro-Saddam Hussein, in the case of Al-Jazeera, in such an obvious way,” Rumsfeld said at a town hall meeting with Pentagon staffers on Nov. 21.
“It will take some time to persuade people to watch alternative programming,” Rumsfeld said, as he announced plans to launch a new U.S.-run satellite channel intended to counter the influence of the Arab-language satellite stations.
The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq was working hard to launch its own satellite station broadcasting, Myers said at the meeting.
Myers said the new station was trying to develop “quality programming that we hope will attract Iraqis’ attention to what’s going on in their country and take their attention away from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.”
The American broadcasts are scheduled to begin in December, he said.
Indeed, recent surveys conducted by the State Department and the Gallup Organization indicate that the majority of urban Iraqis preferred watching pan-Arab networks, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, over the U.S.-funded Iraq Media Network for news. Still, the majority of Iraqis only watch local television broadcasts — namely IMN — since less than one-third of the population has access to satellite channels, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. But the State Department’s October study cautioned that as more Iraqis purchase satellite dishes, “IMN’s influence will likely be rivaled.”
A Gallup poll of Baghdad residents suggested that Iraqis find pan-Arab networks have greater “appeal” to them than the IMN; the “prevailing view” is that Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera presented the news in an objective manner and were able to break news stories before other channels.
Despite such criticism from media rights groups, Rumsfeld on Tuesday praised the current work of coalition forces and Iraqis to establish free press in Iraq, noting some 170 newspapers were being published in Iraq.