Middle East

Satellite Station Scoops CNN

Al-Jazeera, The Pride of Qatar

Always controversial in the Arab world, Al-Jazeera is now controversial worldwide.

When Osama bin Laden, the world’s most-wanted man, has something to say, he goes to Al-Jazeera. When Taliban want to denounce allied attacks on their country, they go to Al-Jazeera. And Al-Jazeera, a Qatari satellite TV channel, is happy to oblige. In fact, so much that the U.S. authorities have started questioning the liberal credentials of the channel. But everyone’s watching Al-Jazeera, established now as one of the first sources of news from and on Bin Laden and the Taliban. The United States, meanwhile, is keeping a close eye on it.

The channel’s surprisingly close links with Bin Laden and the Taliban have seen the United States add it to its list of detractors since the Sept. 11 attacks. The channel is being accused of reporting in favor of the Taliban, which it denies.

It was not always so. The channel was till recently well received in the United States. After all, it has been satiating Americans’—and the world’s—hunger for information about a man as elusive as he is wanted.

On Sunday, Al-Jazeera broadcast a recorded video message from Osama bin Laden. An ominous message, really, promising that the United States “will never again know security before Palestine knows it.” And this was not a first. Video footage released a day earlier showed Bin Laden and lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri with followers celebrating, presumably after the Sept. 11 attacks. Earlier, its offices received a fax purportedly from Bin Laden, denouncing U.S. President George W. Bush. Al-Jazeera also interviewed Bin Laden at least thrice—1997, 1998, and in January this year—and had exclusive footage of the wedding of his son Mohamed at Kandahar. The tapes are now under the scrutiny of the U.S. authorities. Much is being read into the timing of the release of the latest tapes, especially since Bin Laden, it is said, allows himself to be filmed only when he has a message to convey.

Al-Jazeera, however, has a long, liberal background. The CNN of the Arab world, as it is popularly known, has beamed freedom into Arab homes since it began broadcasting in November 1996, touching taboo topics like women’s rights, relations with Israel, sex, fundamentalism and religion, and corruption.

Breaking every rule, it aired interviews and debates with controversial figures—Israeli leaders, Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzuk, and shadowy folk like Robert Hatem, alias Cobra, the former bodyguard of Eli Hobeika, leader of the Lebanese Phalange militia responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.

The channel began as a pet project of Qatar’s liberal emir, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani. Lively programs like “The Opposite Direction,” “Without Borders,” and “The Other Opinion” have changed the way TV will be viewed in the region. For the first time in a conservative land, it criticized governments and refused to edit contrary views. No wonder then, it is the pride of Qatar. The ruling family put up US$150 million as a five-year “loan” to set up the channel on the condition that Al-Jazeera became financially independent by April 2001, which incidentally it has not. The channel has invested heavily in state-of-the-art equipment, new infrastructure, and commercial studios. It has bureaus in all-important centers of international news, can be seen almost throughout the world, and has plans to expand.

Though viewers have embraced the channel with the fervor of a people hitherto denied free information, it has been a thorn in the flesh of Qatar’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Bahrain, and Jordan. The marked exception has been the Taliban. And Al-Jazeera is using it to its advantage.