Al-Jazeera: A View from D.C.

Mar 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When President Bush announced that the United States had officially launched its invasion of Iraq late last Wednesday evening, Arabic-speaking residents of the Middle East were among the first in the world to know because the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite network was carrying a translation of the speech live from Washington.
Since earlier that same afternoon, the network’s 20-person Washington bureau has also been churning out live reports from the White House, State Department, Pentagon and other U. S. venues, feeding the network’s round-the-clock war coverage.
Some critics still call it the Osama bin Laden network, a swipe at the fact that it has served as a regular conduit for the al Qaeda leader’s pronouncements-and a forum for other anti-American sentiment-for years.
During the military incursion in Afghanistan in 2001, U.S. forces bombed the network’s headquarters in Kabul, attributing it to error.
But Al-Jazeera has office space in the Pentagon today and recently received several embed slots, clearing the way for it to send its correspondents along with U.S. military units in Iraq. It filled at least one of those slots. Recent guests on its interview programs have included Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The newfound access is largely due to a U.S. public relations campaign designed to at least try to get the government’s message to Al-Jazeera’s claimed audience of 45 million in the Middle East.
“We’re giving them equal access in hopes that they will get out our side of the story,” said Lt. Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesman. “They are the CNN of the Arab world, and that’s an audience we can’t ignore.”
“They would rather have us on their side than having disgruntled Al-Jazeera reporters reporting [Iraqi leader] Saddam’s [Hussein] views,” said Stephanie Thomas, the network’s Washington bureau manager.
Despite the warmer relations, Al-Jazeera representatives are quick to say they could always use more access.
Al-Jazeera’s White House correspondent, Thabet Elbardicy, for instance, has to jump through special hoops other reporters don’t have to negotiate every time she visits the White House, because she has not been given a regular press pass.
“We would love interviews with the president and the vice president,” Ms. Thomas said.
Also despite the warmer relations, Al-Jazeera is taking no chances about having its transmission facilities in Iraq bombed.
“We’ve given the coordinates of our equipment to the Pentagon so that this time they can’t claim it’s a mistake, which is what they did in Kabul,” said Imad Musa, an Al-Jazeera producer in Washington.
If the outreach effort is having the desired effect, U.S. officials weren’t commenting on it last week.
“It’s too soon to call,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
A Bush administration official added, “They also know that along with better access to the administration comes greater scrutiny of their coverage.”
Al-Jazeera’s Ms. Thomas, meanwhile, offered no apologies for the network’s programming speaking to Arabic viewers.
“It’s not bias and it’s not neutrality,” she said. “It’s somewhere between.”
Al-Jazeera, which is subsidized by the government of Qatar, bills itself as the only editorially independent TV outlet in the Middle East, a factor that the Bush administration is said to appreciate. The name literally translates as island or peninsula.
“An island of freedom in a sea of state-controlled press,” Ms. Thomas said.
Despite the network’s gripes about second-class access in the United States, representatives of Western media outlets say Al-Jazeera clearly receives preferential treatment in Iraq, where it currently has seven reporters. Indeed, in Baghdad, one inside source said Al-Jazeera was one of the few networks allowed to move out of the Ministry of Information-which was widely expected to be a target of U.S. bombing strikes.
CNN, which has an affiliate relationship with Al-Jazeera that allows each to use the other’s video, had no comment on the quality of the Arabic network’s coverage.
“Whenever we take material from Al-Jazeera or any other affiliate, we always clearly identify it,” said Matt Furman, a CNN spokesman.