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Al Jazeera Under Fire Once Again: This Time The GCC Threatens Sanctions

The International Press Institute, a European-based global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, has rallied to Al Jazeera as the channel finds itself under attack from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has warned it to stop "insulting and slandering" them or face a GCC call for a boycott.

Information ministers from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates accused Al Jazeera of "insulting and slandering" the five states during a regular meeting last October (2002) in the Oman capital of Muscat. In a statement issued after the meeting the ministers (except for Qatar, which is a member of the GCC, and "expressed reservations" about the recommendation), the minister recommended "halting cooperation with Al Jazeera's offices, presenters, and employees" and cutting off regional advertising revenue by "urging the public and private sectors to stop commercial cooperation" with Al Jazeera if the Qatar-based channel failed to change its ways.

The IPI, in its support for Al Jazeera, praised Qatar for not yielding to previous attempts "to curtail the network's freedom to report," a freedom which, the IPS noted, is grounded in Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes press freedom as a basic human right. The IPI protest is curious in its stress on Al Jazeera's freedom "to report," since in its own press release the IPI acknowledges that the GCC statement was provoked not by Al Jazeera's reporting but by the comments of an Al Jazeera moderator of a talk show "The Opposite Direction" that Arab leaders were "bastards" and "thieves." The IPI statement further acknowledged that the GCC was asking Al Jazeera to "adopt a more polite tone" rather than to curtail or restrict its field reporting. One foreign correspondent based in Cairo and covering the Middle East for several decades said, "With insensitive friends like the IPI, Al Jazeera does not need any enemies."

Indeed, Al Jazeera, whose slogan is "The Opinion and the Other Opinion," has been periodically targeted by Arab leaders and rival Arab media over the past two years. Last August, the Al Jazeera bureau in Amman, Jordan was closed down following comments on the channel considered insulting to the royal family. Jordan also recalled its ambassador to Doha for consultations, saying Al Jazeera was provoking "sedition" through a broadcast that portrayed the kingdom's rulers as "puppets of the United States and Israel." The reference was to the same talk show-Al-Ittijah Al- Mu'akis ("The Opposite Direction")-that has more recently offended the GCC. Participants on the show challenged the basis of the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty and slammed Jordan's policies toward the Palestinians and Iraq, blasting King Abdullah II and his late father King Hussein as "liars" and "agents" of Israel's secret service and the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), accusations that are almost never made on the record.

The reaction of Jordan's Information Minister, Mohammed Adwan, was immediate and angry; "This station has exceeded all professional and moral values in dealing with many national issues," the official news agency Petra said. Accusing Jazeera of "cheap tactics," Jordan's Foreign Minister Marwan Al-Moasher said the issue "is not one of freedom of speech but of voluntary falsification of the noble history of Jordan and its Hashemite leadership."

The Kuwaiti government shut down Al Jazeera's bureau on November 3, 2002. According to Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), a press freedom watchdog based in Paris, this action came the day after the station broadcast a report stating that a quarter of the emirate's territory had been sealed off to allow US-Kuwaiti military maneuvers to take place there. "The government informed me that the bureau is closed because Al Jazeera channel is not objective," the station's bureau chief, Saad Al-Enezi, told the Associated Press. Al-Enezi was not sure if the closure was intended to be temporary or permanent. RSF said the Kuwaiti government claimed the report harmed the country's interests, while Al Jazeera insisted that it was objective and impartial.

Al Jazeera has also come under fire on previous occasions for its generally accurate field reporting, which has at different times and places embarrassed several Arab countries [see TBS 5 "Egyptian Media Waxes and Wanes in its Attacks on Al Jazeera"]. In December 2001, at a GCC Summit meeting in Oman, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz accused Al Jazeera of "defaming the GCC countries, harming its members' royal families, threatening stability in the Arab world and encouraging terrorism," according to a report appearing in the Lebanese daily Al-Anwar. Crown Prince Abdullah reportedly focused his attack on Al Jazeera's coverage of the arrest of a Saudi Princess in the United States for the alleged "enslavement" of an Indonesian maid, relying solely on U.S. media's version of events at a time when Saudi bashing has become fashionable in pro-Israeli American political and media circles. The Saudi Crown Prince implied that Al Jazeera made no attempt to report the other side of the story.

"This behavior smacks of a settling of scores in a hateful and insulting manner," the Crown Prince told the Ruler of Qatar who was present at the Summit meeting and who responded, according to the Al-Anwar's account by saying he had not seen the report since he was out hunting at the time it was broadcast. The Saudi Crown Prince also accused Al Jazeera of serving " as a platform for Al-Qaeda." The Amir of Qatar "kept an embarrassed silence," according to Al-Anwar's account.

Sources in Al Jazeera don't take the threats too seriously. "We have heard this before," one executive said off the record. "Considering that we get periodically denounced for being CIA agents, Al-Qaeda agents, Israeli agents, and Hamas agents, we must be doing something right." A political analyst in Cairo suggests that the GCC warning may be prompted by concerns that Al Jazeera will embarrass GCC leaders by reporting on their cooperation or at least passivity in allowing the US to use their land and air space in any invasion of Iraq. However, a weak point in that theory is that it is Qatar, more than any other GCC country, that will host the largest numbers of US Army personnel, equipment, and command facilities for the invasion when it comes.

As for Al Jazeera, it is making its own preparations for that invasion. Unlike nearly all other Arab channels (as well as CNN) with personnel and equipment in Baghdad, Al Jazeera is not operating under the Iraqi suspended sword of ten-day visas, largely because its three reporters in Baghdad are all Iraqis. At the same time Al Jazeera has moved one reporter from Baghdad into Kurdish-controlled territory in Northern Iraq, which apparently does not offend the Iraqi government as much as those networks and channels which have moved staff and gear into Iraqi Kurdistan via Turkey; the inference being that Al Jazeera recognizes Iraqi sovereignty by staffing the Kurdish territories from Baghdad.

In a separate development, Al Jazeera is planning to target international viewers for the first time, reported the Times of London in early November. According to the newspaper, the Qatar-based station will begin dubbing its news, commentaries, and current affairs programs into English for non-Arabic speakers in the first quarter of 2003.

Al Jazeera's English edition will be available across Europe, the daily said, and will enable viewers to monitor world events from a Middle Eastern perspective.

About Assya Y. Ahmed

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