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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Ibrahim Helal

JEREMY PAXMAN:
It wasn't CNN or even the BBC who were in Kabul broadcasting exclusive pictures when the air strikes began, but Al-Jazeera, until then a little-heard-of Arab TV station. It was the only one allowed into Taliban-controlled areas. Set up five years ago with funding from the Emir of Qatar, its motto is, "The opinion and the other opinion" - free speech in a region of government censors. It has carried White House and Pentagon briefings during the war and it has interviewed Israeli politicians as well as Palestinians. But when Al-Jazeera broadcast a recorded statement by Osama bin Laden, praising the September 11th hijackers, the station was accused of being his mouthpiece. Colin Powell complained to the Emir, saying the statement contained coded messages. The night before the Northern Alliance entered Kabul, the BBC correspondent, William Reeve, was sending a report when this happened. (EXPLOSION)

WILLIAM REEVE:
Jesus Christ! Down in the basement!

PAXMAN:
An American missile had scored a direct hit on Al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau next to the BBC office. Had the Arab station's coverage of the war led it to become a target? I spoke to the editor-in-chief of Al-Jazeera, Ibrahim Helal, and asked him first how he reacted to American politicians calling his channel "Taliban Television".

IBRAHIM HELAL
(Editor in Chief, Al Jazeera):
There is a lot of emotion inside this description and we understand the emotional side of the story. What happened on September 11th was a very big thing, it's changing the world now, and it's changing the mentality of the Western leaders at the same time. They cannot now think like before.

PAXMAN:
They say it is about what you broadcast and when you broadcast it. For example, Osama bin Laden's statements. How do you get those?

HELAL:
Which one?

PAXMAN:
Say, for example, the statement that you broadcast two hours after the American bombing started?

HELAL:
After the accusations against Osama bin Laden after September 11th, most people all over the world wanted to listen to him, either defending himself or accepting the accusations and admitting that he did it. So we were waiting for something from him and it was just because of our technicalities in Afghanistan. It was due to our unique satellite uplink in Kabul. This is the main reason for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, and even the Taliban, to deliver tapes to our office in Kabul. We received the tape of the first statement of Osama bin Laden, which was broadcast the same day as the American bombing of Afghanistan. The same day, we just received it within a couple of minutes or maybe half an hour before we ran it. I don't accept the accusations that we embargoed this tape until the American bombing of Afghanistan, because we cannot hide or conceal information.

PAXMAN:
So you were physically given the tape in Kabul by a representative acting on behalf of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or whoever. You uplinked it as soon as you could to your headquarters and you say you broadcast it immediately. Do you accept that you were being used?

HELAL:
Of course not. We were not being used, of course. We are a source of information. If you receive a bit of information, we don't have the right of judgment. We don't have the right to conceal this bit of information. I think, if there is any other channel in our shoes, they would have done it the same.

PAXMAN:
Sure, but in that tape, he called upon Muslims around the world to rise up and kill what he called "the infidel". If anybody acted upon that advice, would you consider yourself responsible?

HELAL:
Of course not, because we didn't call for that, actually. We just carried out his opinion. We don't have the right to conceal his opinion. If we start concealing people's opinions from our channel, we will end, because it's not our job to be between the information and the viewer.

PAXMAN:
Do you think there is any kind of moral equivalence between Osama bin Laden and, say, George Bush or Tony Blair?

HELAL:
No, I don't think so. Of course, Osama bin Laden is calling for killing. I don't think I can compare him with Western leaders like Mr Bush and Mr Blair, but I can compare the view of Al-Qaeda, the view of Taliban and the view of the Western side.

PAXMAN:
Do you think there is any kind of moral equivalence between the Zionist and anti-Zionist causes?

HELAL:
Yes, there is an equivalence between Zionist and anti-Zionist causes. They are not asking for killing. They are just ideologies. You cannot compare between any two ideologies in the world.

PAXMAN:
But if one of your reporters refers to somebody killed by an Israeli soldier as "a martyr", that is use of biased language, isn't it?

HELAL:
It is a different environment in the Arab world. You are broadcasting to Arab viewers, mainly. I am not broadcasting for the whole world, I am broadcasting for the Arab listeners all over the world. It's a different context, actually. Here, in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, if you call somebody a martyr because he was killed accidentally, killed accidentally... This is the context of this word. But in the English translation of it, it's completely different. I would like to emphasise that. You can check out my explanation.

PAXMAN:
What would you call, then, the Israeli victims of a Palestine suicide bomber?

HELAL:
Because they are not Muslim, you cannot call them martyrs.

PAXMAN:
You don't accept that that in itself is an editorial judgment, and that it affects how your viewers see the conflict in Palestine?

HELAL:
No, we don't respond to our viewers. We just tell them events by the language they can understand. This is the main point here. In our coverage of Palestine, we are telling our viewer things accurately by the language they can understand. I cannot call a child murdered by an Israeli soldier just a child killed. Our viewer will not understand that. He will understand it, or she will understand it, as a biased statement to Israel. So I have to be very careful. I have to tell things with the language our viewer can understand. If I transmit these events in English, I would change the language because the audience is different, the mentality is different and the environment is completely different.

PAXMAN:
The Americans clearly concluded that you were being used by forces hostile to them. Do you think the bomb attack upon your bureau in Kabul was an accident?

HELAL:
I don't give here a statement. But I don't think it was by accident, because I don't question the accuracy of American army. They are very accurate. If you review our coverage from Kabul for more than 40 or 45 days, we have live transmission from Kabul, we have lights from our roof. We have sat phones. We are using sat phone signals from our office. They knew exactly where our office was in Kabul. I don't think they hit it by accident. They hit it because they were sure at that day there was nobody inside and if they hit this office, nobody will be killed.

PAXMAN:
Ibrahim Helal, thank you very much for sparing the time to talk to us.


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