Al Jazeera Riles Coalition Brass but Retains Access; Arab Network's Audience 'Important'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

Al Jazeera Riles Coalition Brass but Retains Access; Arab Network's Audience 'Important'


Byline: Paul Martin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

DOHA, Qatar - An unrepentant Al Jazeera, the Arab world's most widely watched television channel, has enraged coalition commanders with its mix of aggressive reportage, dramatic and shocking images, and sharp commentary.

Combined with emotive and often-repeated pictures of supposed allied brutality and Iraqi heroism, its reporters paint a witheringly contemptuous picture of coalition military performance and its effect on Iraqi civilians.

Yet its reporter is a regular fixture at coalition briefings in Doha and it has been permitted to embed another with U.S. troops in the field, reflecting the alliance's struggle to project a positive image to the network's Arab audience.

Officials at Al Jazeera's headquarters here bristle at any suggestion of bias and insist they are simply delivering the kind of information and analysis their Arab viewers demand.

What's more, they match and at times exceed the technical standards and breadth of coverage of the Western networks, making the network a source of pride for millions of Arab viewers.

The channel's popularity has soared: Al Jazeera says it doubled its subscriber base of 4 million Arabic-speaking viewers in Europe within a week of the war's start.

At Central Command headquarters in Doha, deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Abizaid last week turned his wrath on the Al Jazeera reporter after the network showed pictures of U.S. prisoners being questioned by Iraqi television.

He and British commanders were also outraged by graphic pictures of U.S. and British soldiers who appeared to have been executed by shots to the head.

"Quite apart from the obvious distress that such pictures cause friends and families of the personnel concerned, such disgraceful behavior is a flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention," Britain's military commander in the Gulf, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, said at a briefing here last week.

But the pique has not led to sanctions, and coalition spokesmen remain eager to accommodate Al Jazeera's requests for information and access.

Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave an interview to the network last Wednesday, the same day he told an American television network that Al Jazeera tends "to portray our efforts in a negative light."

Jim Wilkinson, media strategist for Gen. Tommy Franks, said the coalition was making a conscious effort to get its message out via Al Jazeera. "When you start excluding journalists, you start losing," he said. "It's important to give them more access, rather than less."

The network is represented at the Doha briefings by 36-year-old Omar el-Issawi, who went to school in Britain and Washington.

Like many American journalists, he takes pride in the fact that his network is criticized with equal vehemence by all sides in the conflict. …

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