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Arab News Channel Draws Viewers

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Arab News Channel Draws Viewers


Associated Press Writer

October 8, 2001, 4:06 PM EDT

DOHA, Qatar -- Al-Jazeera television has earned a reputation in the Middle East for independence and readiness to present opposition viewpoints, encouraging critics of some regimes here to use the Arab-language news station as a platform to address the world.

Now that one of those who make use of the Qatari station -- Osama bin Laden -- is the target of an internationally televised U.S. assault, Al-Jazeera's reputation is growing beyond the region.

But while station officials insist they are providing independent news to an Arab audience, Al-Jazeera has angered some Arab governments and even U.S. officials, who object to its repeated airing of bin Laden footage.

Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said last week that Secretary of State Colin Powell had raised U.S. concerns over the station. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that the U.S. embassy in Doha also filed a formal diplomatic complaint about the station with Qatari authorities.

But despite the complaints, Al-Jazeera appears poised to secure a global reputation through its coverage of the fighting in Afghanistan and the wider U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

It is the only station broadcasting now from within Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Sunday it alternated live shots of bombs hitting Kabul with a recorded videotape of bin Laden threatening the United States.

The United States says bin Laden is the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and launched airstrikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan on Sunday and Monday after the Taliban refused to hand him over.

"Bin Laden knows that Al-Jazeera reaches a wide audience and that Al-Jazeera conducts itself independent of Arab governments," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor at Emirates University in the United Arab Emirates.

In the tape Al-Jazeera aired Sunday, bin Laden warned that "neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine, and not before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad."

The tape was the second the station has aired since the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Thursday, the station broadcast a 30-second video it said was believed to be the most recent of bin Laden. The station did not say when the tape was shot.

Bin Laden regularly grants the station interviews and gives it videos when he has a message to relay to the world.

Abdullah al-Haj, assistant to the station's general manager, said the station operates in an atmosphere of freedom not enjoyed by other Arabic channels, making bin Laden confident it won't cut out sensitive parts of his speeches.

Al-Jazeera does not release details of how the tapes are delivered from bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan to its studios. Al-Haj declined to comment on the subject Monday.

But Al-Jazeera's correspondent in the Afghan capital, interviewed on CNN Monday, said the tape was delivered to his offices by a man in a car Sunday after the second wave of attacks. He reviewed it briefly and sent it to his headquarters, which immediately aired it.

The station began broadcasting in November 1996, succeeding in grabbing viewers from CNN, the British Broadcasting Corp. and other Arabic channels. One advantage it has is its all-Arabic content in a region where English is not widely understood.

Al-Jazeera has thrived in the more open press environment that emerged after Qatar's emir took over the tiny gas-rich state by overthrowing his father in 1995.

When asked about U.S. objections to Al-Jazeera's coverage, Sheik Hamad said the Gulf state was embarking on the road to "democracy, which dictates that freedom of the press should be granted, and that the press should enjoy credibility."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to comment on the dispute last week.

Copyright 2001, The Associated Press

Comment: So much for the U.S. Government promoting free press, free speech, and democracy around the world.

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