Nothing puts the lie to the Bush administration's
absurd claim that it invaded Iraq to spread democracy throughout the Middle
East more decisively than its ceaseless attacks on al-Jazeera, the institution
that has done more than any other to break the stranglehold over information
previously held by authoritarian forces, whether monarchs, military strongmen,
occupiers, or ayatollahs. The United States bombed its offices in Afghanistan
in 2001, shelled the Basra hotel where al-Jazeera journalists were the only
guests in April 2003, killed Iraq correspondent Tareq Ayoub a few days later
in Baghdad, and imprisoned several al-Jazeera reporters (including at Guantánamo),
some of whom say they were tortured. In addition to the military attacks, the
U.S.-backed Iraqi government banned the network from reporting in Iraq.
Then in late November came a startling development: Britain's
Daily Mirror reported that during an April 2004 White House meeting
with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, George W. Bush floated the idea of bombing
al-Jazeera's international headquarters in Qatar. This allegation was based
on leaked "Top Secret" minutes of the Bush-Blair summit. British Attorney
General Lord Goldsmith has activated the Official Secrets Act, threatening any
publication that publishes any portion of the memo (he has already brought charges
against a former Cabinet staffer and a former parliamentary aide). So while
we don't yet know the contents of the memo, we do know that at the time of Bush's
meeting with Blair, the administration was in the throes of a very public, high-level
temper tantrum directed against al-Jazeera. The meeting took place on April
16, at the peak of the first U.S. siege of Fallujah, and al-Jazeera was one
of the few news outlets broadcasting from inside the city. Its exclusive footage
was being broadcast by every network from CNN to the BBC.
The Fallujah offensive, one of the bloodiest assaults of the U.S. occupation,
was a turning point. In two weeks that April, 30 Marines were killed as local
guerrillas resisted U.S. attempts to capture the city. Some 600 Iraqis died,
many of them women and children. Al-Jazeera broadcast from inside the besieged
city, beaming images to the world. On live TV, the network gave graphic documentary
evidence disproving U.S. denials that it was killing civilians. It was a public
relations disaster, and the United States responded by attacking the messenger.
Just a few days before Bush allegedly proposed bombing the network, al-Jazeera's
correspondent in Fallujah, Ahmed Mansour, reported live on the air, "Last
night we were targeted by some tanks, twice … but we escaped. The U.S.
wants us out of Fallujah, but we will stay." On April 9, Washington demanded
that al-Jazeera leave the city as a condition for a cease-fire. The network
refused. Mansour wrote that the next day,
"American fighter jets fired around our new location, and they bombed
the house where we had spent the night before, causing the death of the house
owner Mr. Hussein Samir. Due to the serious threats we had to stop broadcasting
for few days because every time we tried to broadcast, the fighter jets spotted
us, [and] we became under their fire."
On April 11, senior military spokesperson Mark Kimmitt declared, "The
stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children
are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that is lies."
On April 15, Donald Rumsfeld echoed those remarks in distinctly undiplomatic
terms, calling al-Jazeera's reporting "vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable.
… It's disgraceful what that station is doing." It was the very next
day, according to the Daily Mirror, that Bush told Blair of his plan.
"He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere,"
a source told the Mirror. "There's no doubt what Bush wanted to
do – and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it."
Al-Jazeera's real transgression during the "war on terror" is a simple
one: being there. While critical of the Bush administration and U.S. policy,
it is not anti-American – it is independent. In fact, it has angered almost
every Arab government at one point or another and has been kicked out of or
sanctioned by many Arab countries. It holds the rare distinction of being shut
down by both Saddam and the new U.S.-backed government. It was the first Arab
station to broadcast interviews with Israeli officials. It is hardly the al-Qaeda
mouthpiece the administration has wanted us to believe it is. The real threat
al-Jazeera poses is in its unembedded journalism – precisely what is needed
now to uncover the truth about the Bush-Blair meeting.
Conservative British MP Boris Johnson, who is by trade a journalist and is
editor of The Spectator magazine, has offered
to publish the memo if it is leaked to him. It should be published, and
if any journal is prosecuted for doing so, it should be backed up by media organizations
everywhere. The war against al-Jazeera and other unembedded journalists has
been conducted with far too little outcry from the powerful media organizations
of the world. It shouldn't take another bombing for this to be a story.
Reprinted courtesy of The Nation.