August 22, 2006

Al Jazeera's Global Gamble

Al Jazeera Timeline

In an interview with the PEJ, Al Jazeera International Washington bureau chief Will Stebbins argues that the relationship between the U.S. government and Al Jazeera has changed for the better, a development he traces to last year’s appointment of former presidential counselor Karen Hughes to the position of undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. But in the post 9/11 world, the history between the Arab news channel known for airing Osama bin Laden videos and the Bush administration has often been marked by hostility and tension. (It is worth noting that Al Jazeera has angered some Arab governments as well. Saudi Arabia has barred Al Jazeera from its soil and Tunisia, Morocco and Libya all temporarily recalled their ambassadors to Qatar to protest Al Jazeera’s reporting).

The timeline below—compiled with the help of a variety of media sources, including Al Jazeera, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists—chronicles some of the major elements of the relationship between Al Jazeera and the US government and its allies.

November 1, 1996 – The Arab news channel Al Jazeera is launched with a start-up grant of $140 million from the emir of Qatar. “Free from the shackles of censorship and government control,” according to its website, Al Jazeera “has offered its audiences in the Arab world much needed freedom of thought, independence, and room for debate.”

January 1, 1999 – Al Jazeera expands from six hours a day to 24 hours a day. Today, it has more than 30 bureaus and an estimated worldwide audience of 50 million viewers.

October 3, 2001 – The Pentagon awards the Rendon Group, a public affairs firm, a $16.7 million contract to monitor Arab media. According to the contract, Rendon would provide a “detailed content analysis of the station’s daily broadcast . . . [and] identify the biases of specific journalists and potentially obtain an understanding of their allegiances, including the possibility of specific relationships and sponsorships.”

October 3, 2001 – U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expresses concern about Al Jazeera to the Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in a meeting. Following the meeting, one senior State Department official said the emir was “defensive” about the issue and countered that he did not feel Al Jazeera was any more inflammatory than any other Arab media outlet. Still, according to the official, the emir said he “would take it under advisement.”

October 7, 2001 – Al Jazeera broadcasts a statement by Osama bin Laden two hours after the US-led coalition begins military strikes against Afghanistan. In it, bin Laden says the U.S. will have no rest until the Middle East conflict is resolved and U.S. military bases in the region are shut down.

October 30, 2001 – When asked by correspondent Muhammad Al-Alami of Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau about the authenticity of pictures showing Afghani children as war casualties, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accuses the network of propounding Taliban propaganda. He adds that Al Jazeera has “a pattern of not making judgments about the accuracy of the propaganda.”

November 3, 2001 – Al Jazeera airs another tape of bin Laden, dressed in camouflage and armed with an AK-47. Bin Laden says that the war in Afghanistan is in a religious war and that “the people of Afghanistan had nothing to do with this matter. The campaign, however, continues to unjustly annihilate the villagers and civilians, children, women and innocent people.” Bin Laden also calls the U.N. an instrument of crime against Muslims. White House spokeswoman Anne Womack says the statement “just shows how isolated bin Laden is from the rest of the world.”

November 13, 2001 – The U.S. launches a missile attack on Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan. In making the case that this was a deliberate attack, Al Jazeera’s managing director, Mohammed Jasim al-Ali, says “This office has been known by everybody, the American airplanes know the location of the office.” Although no Al Jazeera staff was hurt in the attack, the building was destroyed and some employees’ homes were damaged. In a letter to Al Jazeera dated December 6, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke says “the building we struck was a known Al Qaeda facility in central Kabul.”

December 26, 2001 – Al Jazeera releases another video tape of bin Laden. “Our terrorism against the United States is worthy of praise to deter the oppressor so that America stops its support for Israel, which is killing our children,” bin Laden states in the video. “This is nothing more than the same kind of terrorist propaganda we have heard before,” says White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

March 4, 2003 - The New York Stock Exchange bans Al Jazeera (as well as several other news organizations whose identities were not revealed) from its trading floor indefinitely, citing “security concerns” as the official reason. A few months later the ban was rescinded, according to a New York Stock Exchange spokesperson.

May 2003 – With the help of the U.S.-supported Iraqi interim government, the CIA releases documents showing that Al Jazeera had been infiltrated by Iraqi spies, and was regarded by Iraqi officials as part of their propaganda effort. Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout tells Reuters the network was unaware of “any member of Al Jazeera who is working for any foreign intelligence” organization.

April 8, 2003 – U.S. bombs hit Al Jazeera’s office in Baghdad, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub and wounding cameraman Zohair al-Iraqi. Al Jazeera’s Baghdad correspondent Majed Abdel Hadi calls the U.S. missile strike and Ayoub’s death a “crime.” At a briefing in Doha, Qatar, Brigadier General Vincent K. Brooks says of the Al Jazeera attack: “This coalition does not target journalists. We don’t know every place journalists are operating on the battlefield. It’s a dangerous place, indeed.”

April 27, 2003 –During a briefing, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says of Al Jazeera: “On Iraq they have established a pattern of false reporting.”

September 23, 2003 – The Iraqi interim government suspends Al Jazeera (and Al-Arabiya, an Arab news channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates) from reporting on official government activities for two weeks for what it says was support of recent attacks on government members and U.S. forces.

January 20, 2004 – In his State of the Union Address, President Bush refers to Al Jazeera as a source of “hateful propaganda” coming from the Arab world.

April 15, 2004 – When a reporter asks Rumsfeld, “Can you definitively say that hundreds of women and children and innocent civilians have not been killed?” Rumsfeld, referring to Al Jazeera’s coverage of civilian casualties in Iraq, replies: “I can definitively say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.”

July 2004 – Al Jazeera’s banner is taken down at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. A DNC spokeswoman says politics had nothing to do with the sign moving and cites logistical reasons for the decision. However, she adds that “w e’re trying to create the kind of atmosphere we want to best present John Kerry and the Democratic Party.” An Al Jazeera spokeswoman responds: “I don’t think anyone would deny that the Al Jazeera logo and name are not part of John Kerry’s communications plan.”

July 31, 2004 – Al Jazeera airs a tape of a 22-year-old American named Benjamin Vanderford being beheaded, but the tape turns out to be a hoax. The tape was produced and distributed over the internet by 23-year-old Robert Martin and his girlfriend 20-year-old Laurie Kirchner, in San Francisco. “We never intended this to be taken as real,” said Martin.

August 7, 2004 – The Iraqi interim government shuts down the Baghdad office of Al Jazeera for one month, citing national security concerns. “This decision was taken to protect the people of Iraq and the interests of Iraq,” Prime Minister Iyad Allawi tells a news conference. Although it was only a one-month ban, the shutdown was extended indefinitely in September 2004, and the offices sealed. The bureau is still closed, but Al Jazeera continues to report from Iraq through a network of stringers.

January 30, 2005 – The New York Times reports that the Qatari government, under pressure from the Bush administration, is speeding up plans to sell the channel.

June 2005 – Rumsfeld accuses Al Jazeera of encouraging Islamic military groups by airing beheadings of American troops in Iraq. In response, the network says in a statement that “Al Jazeera … has never at any time transmitted pictures of killings or beheadings and … any talk about this is absolutely unfounded.” A Reuters report notes that Al Jazeera has shown video of hostages pleading at gunpoint for their government to withdraw its troops, but does not broadcast footage of killings posted on the Internet by militants.

July 4, 2005 – Al Jazeera officially announces plans to launch a new English-language satellite service called Al Jazeera International

September 2005 – Josh Rushing joins Al Jazeera International as a reporter based in Washington D.C. Rushing gained recognition in the film Control Room—a documentary about media coverage of the Iraq war—as the military public affairs officer who begins to understand Al Jazeera’s perspective on the news.

November 22, 2005 – The British tabloid, the Daily Mirror, publishes a story claiming it had obtained a leaked memo from someone in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet saying that President George Bush had considered bombing Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters in April 2004. “We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan tells the Associated Press in an e-mail. Then after refusing to comment on the story for close to a week, Blair calls the Mirror report a “conspiracy theory.” British Cabinet Office civil servant, David Keogh, and parliamentary researcher, Leo O’Connor, are later charged with violating the Official Secrets Act for their roles in leaking the memo to the Mirror . They plead not guilty.

July 11, 2006 – Dima Ayyoubthe widow of the Al Jazeera reporter who was killed in the 2003 bombing of the Baghdad bureau, sues the Bush administration for $30 million for the death of her husband. New Jersey attorney Hamdi Rifai is her counsel.

July 19, 2006 – Al Jazeera broadcasts a bin Laden tape in which he praises Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq—killed three weeks ago by U.S. coalition forces—as a “lion of holy war.”

July 30, 2006 – Following the Israeli attack in Qana, Lebanon, Al Jazeera takes its anchors off the air and continuously plays images of the resulting damage for several hours. The video also closed-in on the dead bodies as they were removed from the rubble. According to the Lebanese Red Cross, at least 28 Lebanese died there, including 16 children.