Al Jazeera Goes to Jail
Disturbingly, these two cases fit into a larger pattern of US government hostility toward Al Jazeera, provoked by the network's tough reporting on the Iraqi occupation. And this hostility is best viewed in the context of the escalating, multimillion-dollar regional media war between Al Jazeera and the US government.
Donald Rumsfeld has called Al Jazeera's coverage "outrageous" and "inexcusably biased" and implied that he'd like to see the satellite channel thrown out of Iraq. So far the American military has bombed the network's offices in both Baghdad and Kabul, killing one employee; arrested and briefly jailed twenty-one of Al Jazeera's reporters; and now has imprisoned and allegedly abused and humiliated Hassan and Darwish in ways that the UN convention on such matters would consider torture.
At the same time that the US military is harassing Al Jazeera reporters, other parts of the US government, including the State Department, are attempting to answer Al Jazeera in its own language and format. On February 14 the United States launched a nominally independent, US-funded Arabic-language satellite channel called Al Hurra, which means "the free one." The purpose of this effort is to address the lack of popular support for the US occupation in Iraq, as well as the deepening crisis of American legitimacy throughout the Arab world; polls from the region indicate that more and more people hate the United States every day.
Unlike other US-funded forays into Arabic-language media, Al Hurra, with an annual budget of $62 million, could be quite sophisticated and possibly effective in reshaping the beliefs of the politically important and demographically dominant Arab youth scene. The new channel has a stable of proven Arab journalists--one senior producer is a Palestinian who was poached from Al Jazeera, while the channel's top managers are Lebanese Christians with proven journalistic track records. On the other hand, the channel is based in Virginia, includes Colin Powell on its board of directors and its first broadcast was a pre-recorded interview with George W. Bush--none of which bode well for winning Arab hearts and minds.
Regardless of how well Al Hurra fares, Al Jazeera faces increasing obstacles to its reporting in Iraq as its correspondents are harassed, arrested, abused and killed by US troops.
So far, Al Jazeera's management has kept rather quiet about the cases of Hassan and Darwish. When I interviewed Ceddah Abdelhak, the channel's general manager in Baghdad, he insisted that the channel had publicized the cases, and he was clearly upset about the bad treatment of his staff. But other journalists in Baghdad say that Al Jazeera is under so much pressure from the Americans that its owners in Qatar are afraid the channel could be expelled from Iraq if they push too hard on any issue that upsets the CPA.
This is not an unfounded fear. According to sources that insisted on anonymity, the coalition called the network's managers in Iraq to the Republican Palace in Baghdad for a meeting in late January, at which the CPA's head counsel threatened Al Jazeera with expulsion if the network did not stop "destabilizing the occupation" with its tough reporting and intense editorial criticism. Allegedly, the CPA attorney explained that the coalition needed no legal justification to expel Al Jazeera and implied that US authorities were even pressuring the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, to rein in Al Jazeera, which, though run independently, is owned by the government of Qatar.