Arab airwave raid

U.S. officials take message to Mideast TV

The White House may be asking newsies to cool it when it comes to airing Osama bin Laden, but that’s not stopping officials from trying to use Al-Jazeera TV to pump their message to the Arab world.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice taped an interview Monday at the net’s Washington, D.C., bureau, with Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld slated to be interviewed today.

In the 16-minute interview, Rice reiterated that “our war against terrorism is not a war against Islam.”

Al-Jazeera has broadcast interviews of bin Laden and his lieutenants in the days after the U.S. bombing campaign began in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, prompting concerns in the White House that the exiled Saudi militant it blames for the Sept. 11 attack on the United States may be using the broadcasts to send messages to followers.

Al-Jazeera has gained international recognition in recent days, as the Arab world’s top independent satellite news service is the only media outlet with access to Taliban-controlled territory.

There’s a growing realization within the Bush administration that more needs to be done to win public support for the war on terrorism, particularly in the Middle East. Arguably, Al-Jazeera provides the perfect forum.

Rebuttal vital

U.S. undersecretary of public diplomacy Charlotte Beers said it is indeed an “interesting day” when the U.S. government populates a TV network like Al-Jazeera with officials such as Rumsfeld and Rice. Beers said during a briefing late last week at the State Department that it’s critical the U.S. counter Al Qaeda statements aired by Al-Jazeera.

Beers, a New York ad exec who arrived at the State Department only last month, said her staff monitors TV nets around the world to determine counter-messages from the the White House.

At the same time, the White House has suggested that the news nets in this country think carefully before airing certain footage from Al-Jazeera, chiefly, statements by bin Laden or other members of his Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Rice held an unprecedented conference call with TV news prexys last week, “sensitizing” them about airing statements in the “raw.” Following the call, the nets loosely agreed not to broadcast Al Qaeda messages without screening them first and possibly editing them.

Al-Jazeera accused the U.S. government of dabbling in censorship by invoking national security. Rumsfeld insisted otherwise at a Monday press briefing, saying bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network are “accomplished liars.”

On Monday, CNN’s Nic Robertson talked with representatives of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda org in Afghanistan. The conversation apparently occurred in the middle of the night in Robertson’s hotel room, without a video opportunity. On air, Robertson relayed the reps’ message: If civilian homes are damaged in U.S.-led air raids on Afghanistan, there will be serious consequences for the U.S. and Britain.

A CNN spokeswoman said the interview was “unexpected” and therefore Robertson didn’t have video capabilities.

Even if he had been able to record the interview, however, CNN wouldn’t air it live or in its entirety, according to the spokeswoman.

“We won’t air any Al Qaeda statements live or in their entirety; that includes interviews. We have a senior executive committee in place to review all Al Qaeda statements before airing them,” she said.

No censorship?

Meanwhile, newsies continue to insist that Rice was not playing censor.

“The White House did not apply pressure. It was a cordial discussion outlining concerns of airing this video live,” said an MSNBC spokesman. “As journalists, we’re trying to cover the story thoroughly, while also protecting the American people from any more devastation.”

Like CNN, MSNBC said it would not air a statement or an interview with Al Qaeda before reviewing it first to determine its newsworthiness.

“Since they are self-proclaimed cold-blooded killers and terrorists, I’m not airing any statements or interviews with them unless I see and hear them first. Period,” said MSNBC prexy Erik Sorenson.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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