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.
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)
Jesus Christ! Down in the basement!
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".
(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
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?
Say, for example, the statement that
you broadcast two hours after the
American bombing started?
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
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?
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
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
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
Do you think there is any kind of
moral equivalence between Osama
bin Laden and, say, George Bush
or Tony Blair?
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.
Do you think there is any kind of
moral equivalence between the
Zionist and anti-Zionist causes?
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.
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?
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.
What would you call, then, the
Israeli victims of a Palestine
Because they are not Muslim, you
cannot call them martyrs.
You don't accept that that in itself
is an editorial judgment, and that it
affects how your viewers see the
conflict in Palestine?
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.
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
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.
Ibrahim Helal, thank you very
much for sparing the time to
talk to us.