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Middle East: Is Al-Jazeera Providing 'Platform' Or Balanced Coverage?

The Qatari TV station al-Jazeera has a reputation for independent reporting that contrasts sharply with the state-sponsored news coming from other media outlets in the Arab world. But its frequent interviews and other footage of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden are causing unease in Washington, where the State Department is accusing it of providing a platform for extremists.

Prague, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since its launch nearly five years ago, the Qatar-based television station al-Jazeera has earned a reputation for independent reporting unrivalled among other media outlets in the Arab world, where state-sponsored news is the norm.

Its discussion shows have brought delicate topics such as democracy, polygamy, and political persecution to the screens of up to 35 million viewers in more than 20 countries.

Not surprisingly, it's raised some hackles. Saudi Arabia banned its journalists. And the Algerian government once reportedly cut off electricity to several major cities when it aired a show on that country's civil war.

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States last month, al-Jazeera has gained at least name recognition in the West too.

One of its biggest scoops came shortly after the U.S. and Britain began striking at Afghan targets on 7 October, when al-Jazeera aired a pre-recorded video of Osama bin Laden, the man the U.S. believes to have masterminded the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Thanks to a link-up with CNN, a large chunk of the Western world was also able to hear these chilling words from bin Laden:

"As for the United States, I tell it and its people these few words: I swear by Almighty God who raised the heavens without pillars that neither the United States nor he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed, may God's peace and blessing be upon him."

Yesterday, viewers got to hear another disquieting call from bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network when al-Jazeera aired a statement read by Al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Bu-Ghaith:

"It is every Muslim's duty today to wage the Holy Jihad against the U.S. You must fight if you are able-bodied; there is no excuse. The time is now. This is the word of God."

Bin Laden's statement may have been riveting viewing for millions of people, but it is also causing unease in Washington.

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department went public with its criticisms of the satellite station, accusing al-Jazeera of being a platform for extremists.

Last week, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, said after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that he had been asked to exert influence on the channel.

The station unnerved the U.S. back in 1998 also, when it aired an interview with bin Laden -- since rebroadcast -- in which he urged Muslims to attack Americans. At the time, the U.S. feared bin Laden's calls could heighten risks for Americans in the Middle East.

Al-Jazeera defends itself against allegations of bias by pointing out the network has given plenty of coverage to speeches and briefings by U.S. officials.

Some Western networks also reportedly felt uneasy about rebroadcasting the 7 October bin Laden statement. They worried bin Laden might be sending code messages to his people. Another concern is that it allowed bin Laden free rein to espouse his views without requiring him to respond to any challenges.

Rohan Jayasekera works at the London-based Index on Censorship. Jayasekera says he understands the danger of allowing a politician to make a statement that goes unquestioned.

And he says there is a real risk that bin Laden was telegraphing secret messages in his statement, since this form of code transmission is nothing new. As an example, he says the BBC regularly inserted codes for the French resistance into broadcasts during World War II.

But he argues that the alternative -- not airing the video -- would be worse: "Is making it a bit more difficult for Osama bin Laden to communicate messages to his followers by censoring news to the general public -- is that a valid trade-off? I don't think so, personally. I think the truth is that bin Laden will find other ways of communicating his messages to his people without the help of international broadcasters. The need for people to know what's going on, or at least get some kind of idea what's going on, or be provided with information that experts, Arabic speakers and people knowledgeable about the area can analyze on their behalf and present that information to them -- the need for that far outweighs, in most cases, the potential risk, though I accept the risk is a feasible one."

He says it's inappropriate for the U.S. to attempt to have restrictions imposed on journalists in another country that would not be allowed -- under the U.S. guarantee of free speech -- at home.

Balanced reporting was the solution to another recent, widely publicized episode in which another media outlet -- the U.S.-funded radio station Voice of America (VOA) -- came under pressure from U.S. officials.

The State Department objected to a VOA interview with the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, claiming it gave air to terrorist views.

In the end, parts of the interview were broadcast alongside a review of U.S. President George W. Bush's speech to Congress, some accompanying expert analysis, and comments from the Taliban's opponents, the Northern Alliance.

VOA wasn't the only Western media outlet feeling the squeeze. The British government yesterday reprimanded the BBC for publicizing details of Prime Minister Tony Blair's travel plans on his current trip to the Middle East.

But whatever the unease prompted by the Al-Qaeda broadcasts, many still argue that censorship is not the solution.

In an editorial today, "The New York Times" says the Islamic world "has far too much censorship already."

Instead, it argues, the U.S. should "shower al-Jazeera with offers of interviews with American officials or respected Muslims who can counter the anti-American propaganda."

After all, the daily says, al-Jazeera's correspondents don't always find such access easy.

Some Western leaders have recognized the importance of the station already. British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave al-Jazeera an interview on 8 October, three weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to its Washington bureau chief. U.S. President Bush is reportedly also considering giving al-Jazeera an interview.

(RFE/RL's Iraqi Service aided translation for this story.)