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Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 12:21 GMT
Al-Jazeera and Bin Laden
Bin Laden with Ayman al-Zawahri in a freeze frame from Al-Jazeera
Al-Jazeera is well known for airing Bin Laden messages

The broadcast of a message purporting to be from Osama Bin Laden has once again thrust the Arabic language satellite television station that aired it into the spotlight.

Eighteen months ago, al-Jazeera, which is based in the tiny Middle East state of Qatar, was little known in the West.

But since then it has become famous for carrying exclusive messages from the al-Qaeda leader - earning a nickname as the Bin Laden channel.


al-Jazeera is a cultural, political and social phenomenon - it's teaching people about things like civil society, human rights and voting

Yosri Fouda, al-Jazeera's London bureau
It has also been vilified for what its critics describe as its anti-American bias, particularly in its coverage of the Afghan war, and for fanning the flames of Islamic extremism.

But to many in the Arab world, it is seen as the only station that tells the story straight. It is hailed as a revolutionary force among Arab media, which has been shackled by state control. As a result, it has also drawn condemnation from Arab governments.

Now, the channel is making the most of its notoriety - and its claimed 35 million viewers - with ambitious plans to go global and dub its coverage into English. If this is successful, it plans to launch an English language version of its programming.

Independent

Last year's attacks against the US were the turning point for the station, which was launched in 1996.

Since then, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon have been interviewed by al-Jazeera.

The first two took the opportunity to criticise the station's coverage, but the appearance of such heavyweights lent it the kind of credibility it needed.

The station is owned by Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whose vision is of an independent, unbiased Arabic channel. Indeed, the channel encourages debate and covers subjects deemed taboo by Arab governments.

US soldier from the 101st Airborne walks past a Chinook helicopter
Al-Jazeera has become notorious for airing Bin Laden messages
But lack of objectivity is a criticism that has often been levelled at the station.

Its reporters have at times been banned by Kuwait, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It has been criticised by Saudi Arabia and was reportedly described by Bahrain as being pro-Zionist.

But al-Jazeera says the fact that it has managed to upset so many governments is the clearest evidence that it is doing its job properly.

Free speech

"We always try to provide as comprehensive a picture as possible. We don't only reflect one angle and this is why some governments are unhappy with what we do," Yosri Fouda, deputy executive director of al-Jazeera's London bureau, told BBC News Online.

"Al-Jazeera is a cultural, political and social phenomenon - it's teaching people about things like civil society, human rights and voting - many governments in our part of the world are not happy with such things."

The station's reputation for being a mouthpiece of Bin Laden is shrugged off. Yes, it aired the tapes, but what news network would not have, Mr Fouda argues.

Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister
The network has even interviewed the Israeli Prime Minister
He finds it ironic that the US administration initially sought to prevent al-Jazeera and US networks from broadcasting messages from Bin Laden and the Taleban leadership.

"This, from a country entrusted with defending free speech. Here we had politicians interfering in the name of protecting Western values," Mr Fouda says

US commentators argue that much of their suspicion comes from the fact that al-Jazeera's material is often uncheckable.

And they say that, by Western standards, much of the station's coverage would be considered lacking in fairness and balance.

Poised for Iraq

The network's chief editor Ibrahim Helal acknowledges that al-Jazeera's combative talk shows are largely anti-American, but argues that feelings towards America are running high in the Arab world at the moment.

Dr Naomi Sakr, a specialist in Arab media and lecturer at Westminster University in London, says it is not that the channel has an anti-US agenda, but that it is reflecting the anti-American feeling.


Al-Jazeera is desperate to prove its professionalism and will bring the audience a full account of what is going on in Iraq

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor al-Quds
She says this is magnified by the fact that people in the streets have never had an outlet for their feelings before.

"What we are seeing is the pent-up frustration of people in a part of the world where there is no free media. Al-Jazeera focuses on the issues that they are pre-occupied with - the Palestinian situation, Iraq and levels of poverty and social exclusion in Arab countries. People find it hard not to blame the US for the problems in the Middle East."

Some commentators argue that, if there is a war in Iraq, al-Jazeera is well placed to rival Western networks on regional coverage.

It has had a permanent office in Baghdad since 1998, and was the lone foreign broadcaster until Iraq recently readmitted Western TV networks

"Al-Jazeera is run by Arabs and they understand the people, speak the language. It is desperate to prove its professionalism and will bring the audience a full account of what is going on," says Abdel Bari-Atwan, editor of the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

He argues that the American networks failed the test after 11 September, by accepting the administration's interference over whether to air al-Jazeera's Bin Laden tapes.

Steven Hess, an expert on how the foreign media view the US at the Brookings Institution, argues that while the tapes caused waves last year, it is unlikely the administration will take the same approach this time round.

"We've learnt to adjust and live with it," he told BBC News Online.

And he argues that Americans should seize the opportunity to use al-Jazeera to win over the hearts and minds of the Arab public.

"For Americans, it's a great opportunity to present our side - the network is willing to accept a voice that is not necessarily what they want to hear - this is almost unheard of in the Middle East"


Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

08 Nov 02 | Europe
14 Oct 02 | Middle East
10 Sep 02 | Middle East
06 Oct 02 | Middle East
04 Jul 02 | Panorama
12 Nov 02 | Middle East
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