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Caught in the middle

Taliban, West eager for Al-Jazeera coverage

CAIRO, Egypt — Qatar-based Arab news agency Al-Jazeera is in the eye of the storm.

The Taliban is giving them releases and interviews because it trusts them more than Western networks. And while decrying its broadcast of Osama bin Laden tapes, President Bush is eager to have pro-U.S. interests represented on it as well.

With its special access to Afghanistan, the Arabic language Satellite News Channel has been edging out the BBC and CNN in its distinctive coverage of the Sept. 11 attack and the U.S. retaliation.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair Blair appeared on Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite television network in an interview broadcast Tuesday in what his spokesman in London described as a reply to comments made by Bin Laden and his aides on the same station Sunday.

“Let us be clear, when we listen to the words of Osama bin Laden, if he has his way, the regimes that he would replace regimes in the Arab world with would be like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan,” Blair said.

The interview in London was broadcast with a voice-over in Arabic.

Al Jazeera’s frequent showing of Bin Laden footage prompted the United States last week to raise concerns about the station’s coverage during a meeting with the emir of Qatar in Washington. The station has defended its policy, saying Bin Laden is a party to the conflict.

Independent stance

Al-Jazeera, which has been bringing news to the Middle East for five years, started as the first Arabic independent news channel in a region where the airwaves were dominated by government outlets. The TV channel’s chairman, Hamid bin Thamer al-Thani is a member of the ruling family of the small oil-rich kingdom of Qatar and a professional journalist, who graduated from Qatar University with a degree in communications.

“Al-Jazeera is one of the main players in the Islamic world as the only news channel to have a bureau both in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Yosri Fouda, Al-Jazeera investigative correspondent and London bureau chief said. “Presently the Taliban leaders regard us as the only independent window message through to the world.

“You could say we are lucky, if you want to use that word, since the Taliban leaders are sending us faxes about their position since they do not trust Western media. A fax sent to us a few days ago by Osama bin Laden made headlines; the CIA came to us to compare his signature. We have also sold an interview that we made with bin Laden three years ago to channels all over the world at $35,000 for each copy.”

Arab TV angered

Al-Jazeera’s uncensored coverage of the region has angered enough Arab TV stations to keep it out of the Arab States Broadcasting Union. Despite criticism from Egyptian TV (which finds itself competing with the popularity of Al-Jazeera), it was the first station to sign up in Cairo’s Media City, and its Cairo bureau has been active in the coverage of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We broadcast six hours before ABC and CNN the interview with the father of the accused Egyptian hijacker Mohamed Atta, and we were the first to interview the Arab League leaders and people on the street for their reactions,” Al-Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdul Ghani noted.

Al-Jazeera has 35 bureaus, including two in the U.S. — Washington, D.C., and New York. A major buyer of programming at TV markets, it has much global grounding attributable to its dynamic managing director, Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali.

“Jazeera has forced Arab national TV to get real in its news coverage for the first time and has broken through as a major player in global news,” commented professor Abdallah Schleifer, director of Cairo’s American University Adham Center for Broadcasting.

“In its aggressive pursuit of news, Al-Jazeera has achieved a goal of international standards and a wake-up call, often disturbing in its vital independence, to all the news channels in the Gulf region.”

Al-Jazeera has a string of international awards such as the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam for “increasing freedom of the press in the developing world” and a prize by the National Council for Media in Lebanon for coverage of the Israeli pullout in that country.

Plans to broaden audience appeal include starting business and documentary channels in both Arabic and English.

BSkyB recently pacted with Al-Jazeera to broadcast in the U.K. beginning Oct. 1. According to Fouda, “This is a positive, but controversial, move as people will have to get used to paying to watch us and so will be initially restrictive for the audience.”

“The difference between Al-Jazeera and the Western media is that we concentrate on Arab news and Arab issues. CNN and BBC may cover news here, but through their own angle,” Al-Ali says. “Ultimately, we come from an Arab perspective rather than a global perspective.”

(Wire services contributed to this report.)

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