Al-Jazeera – the CNN of the Middle East
October 2001

Commentary by Rick Francona

Al-Jazeera Al-Jazeera Net, the 24-hour Arabic language news network was virtually unknown in the West prior to the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom – it has become almost a household world to millions of people watching coverage of events inside Afghanistan. Americans are used to having multiple English-language news sources available on demand as world events unfold. This was certainly the case during the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon. However, when American military operations began in Afghanistan on October 7, coverage of events inside the Taliban-controlled areas of the country was extremely limited. The only continuous news feed out of the country was that of Al-Jazeera. 

Al-Jazeera Net

Al-Jazeera Net is based in Doha, Qatar, and is owned by the Emir of Qatar. The word al-jazeera, or more properly al-jazirah, means “the island,” but is also translated in this context as “the peninsula.”  For years the only available continuous television news service available in the region was CNN, an English language service. For Arabic speakers, there was no comparable option. Although there are Arabic-language news services available by satellite in the region, none offer 24-hour continuous coverage. Afghanistan presents a unique challenge for news agencies. The radical Taliban organization will not permit most Western news agencies into the country. Two organizations that have gained access and permission to broadcast are Al-Jazeera and Al-Manar, an outlet of the Lebanese Resistance Movement, the military arm of Hizballah. 

Al-Jazeera’s coverage of ongoing military operations in Afghanistan are usually the only source available to the outside world. For that reason, the service’s images are consistently rebroadcast by a variety of international news services. Since the sound track, in Arabic, is not usually carried by Western agencies, there is little concern for how the operations are being characterized. However, popular opinion in the region is very important, especially in regards to the American-led war on terrorism. How Al-Jazeera reports events in Afghanistan directly impacts on the United States’ ability to garner support for the coalition. This will be even more important when the focus of Operation Enduring Freedom shifts to an Arab country, such as Iraq, Sudan, or Yemen. 

The U.S. government is concerned that Al-Jazeera’s reporting may be inaccurately reflecting American foreign policy and jeopardizing the fragile coalition built by President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Washington was not pleased with what appeared to be Al-Jazeera’s willingness to provide wanted terrorist Usamah Bin Ladin with a propaganda organ. Al-Jazeera has already aired several videotapes by the terrorist. 

American Reaction 

Believing that Bin Ladin’s Al-Qa’idah organization and the Taliban movement were using Al-Jazeera to great effect in the Arabic-speaking world, senior U.S. government officials have appeared on the station to attempt to better represent the American position, that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam nor the Arabs.  President Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was interviewed on Al-Jazeera. However, the station repeatedly aired statements taken out of context as “teasers” advertising the interview. For example, Dr. Rice discussed a wide range of topics, including American demands that Palestinians halt violence against Israel, concerns about Saddam Husayn, the background for American military actions in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. Only the demands that Palestinians stop attacks on Israel and remarks about Saddam Husayn were aired in these teasers. No mention was made of her reiteration of the American administration’ support for the creation of a Palestinian state. 

The power of instant access to news, long available only to the West or people with English language capability, has come to the region.

If you can read Arabic, visit Al-Jazeera's excellent web site.

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