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December 2, 2005

The War on al-Jazeera


by Jeremy Scahill

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.

 

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Jeremy Scahill is an independent, unembedded international journalist. He is a correspondent for the national radio and TV show Democracy Now! and writes regularly for The Nation magazine. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the prestigious George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting.

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