Moral Low Ground

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If only America had an Al Jazeera…

The Arabic news network al-Jazeera has come under fire. Again. This time it’s Palestinians who are up in arms, infuriated over a leak to al-Jazeera of 1,700 secret files chronicling more than a decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The leaked ‘Palestine Papers’ reveal a Palestinian Authority (PA) all too willing to make massive concessions to Israel, including limiting the cherished right of return of  hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees expelled during the Israeli ethnic cleansing campaign of 1948, and ceding all but one illegal Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem to Israel.

Wild conspiracy theories and unhealthy paranoia are by no means the exclusive realm of the Middle East, but Arabs are the world heavyweight champions of wild conspiracy theories and unhealthy paranoia. You can’t blame them, really, after all they’ve been through.

The latest gossip is that al-Jazeera, based in the tiny yet extremely wealthy Gulf emirate of Qatar and funded by the Qatari government, is acting as an agent of that country’s government in an organized campaign against an already weakened Palestinian Authority. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said that the leaked files had been “taken out of context and contain lies.”

“Al-Jazeera’s information is full of distortions and fraud,” Erakat said. But Erakat’s comments and the Palestinian Authority’s excoriation of al-Jazeera is more likely a due to embarrassment over what Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the “ugly face” of PA “cooperation with the [Israeli] occupation.” Other Palestinians  believe that Israel is behind al-Jazeera. Anti- al-Jazeera protesters chanting “al-Jazeera is a Zionist plot” smashed up the network’s West Bank headquarters in Ramallah yesterday.

It’s not only Palestinians, of course, who have been al-Jazeera haters at one time or another since the network was launched back in 1996. In Denmark, the far-right Danish People’s Party recently called for a ban on satellite dishes in immigrant neighborhoods, a prohibition clearly aimed at al-Jazeera. Party leader Pia Kjærsgaard accused the network of “broadcasting indoctrination from the Middle Eastern world”, and “inoculating the viewers in Denmark to hate Denmark and the West”.

But the most rabid– and unreasonable– opposition to al-Jazeera is found in the United States, where many consider the network to be a mouthpiece for terrorist propaganda. Al-Jazeera was on former President George W. Bush’s shit list from day one of his War on Terror. The network did air statements from top al-Qaeda figures including Osama bin Laden if they were deemed newsworthy. But al-Jazeera was no more a mouthpiece or propaganda tool of al-Qaeda than CNN is a mouthpiece for the Bush or Obama administrations. And al-Jazeera is far less of a propaganda tool than Fox News is.

That’s not just my opinion. Al-Jazeera won a Freedom of Thought Award in Germany in 1999 as well as the 2003 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for ‘best circumvention on censorship.’ “Al-Jazeera’s apparent independence in a region where much of the media is state-run has transformed it into the most popular station in the Middle East,” said judge Ann Leslie, veteran foreign reporter for Britain’s Daily Mail, in conferring the honor.

Al-Jazeera won the prestigious anti-censorship award at exactly the same time as the American-led invasion of Iraq was beginning and the US mainstream media were relying upon embedded (read lackey) journalists who were self-censoring like crazy. Al-Jazeera drew worldwide acclaim for the way in which it fairly reported both sides of the war– it aired graphic images of both American and Iraqi war dead.

But the network incurred the wrath of the Bush administration for its frank depiction of the war. Sami al-Haj, an al-Jazeera cameraman, was arrested in Pakistan and endured nearly seven years of hellish imprisonment and torture at the hands of the United States in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During al-Haj’s detention and torture, his American captors repeatedly grilled him about al-Jazeera and unsuccessfully attempted to recruit  him to spy on the network. He was charged with no crime and released without so much as an apology in 2008.

During the invasion of Baghdad, a US missile directly struck al-Jazeera’s office, killing journalist Tareq Ayoub and seriously wounding a cameraman. Another network, UAE-based Abu Dhabi TV, was also attacked. The US said it was an accident. Was it also an accident in 2001 when American forces bombed al-Jazeera’s Kabul bureau during the invasion of Afghanistan? Would it have been an accident if President George W. Bush ordered the bombing of al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, a strong US ally with American troops stationed on its soil? That’s exactly what Bush proposed to do in an April 2004 meeting with British prime minister Tony Blair. Luckily, Blair would have none of it. But the fact that the leader of a country that counts freedom of the press as one of its most cherished values, enshrined as the first freedom protected in its constitution, would want to silence that same freedom in the most violent manner possible in another country, speaks volumes about American hypocrisy.

Al-Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayoub was killed by US troops in Baghdad, Iraq.

The mainstream American media, perhaps jealous of al-Jazeera’s independence and its own inability to present a truly “fair and balanced” account of the news, went to war against the Arabic network. That’s why al-Jazeera has such a bad rap in the United States today. Ironically, many people in the Middle East believe that the US created and backs al-Jazeera.

“We have been accused from the beginning that we were created by international agencies like the Mossad, the CIA, and that the Americans are behind us, that Osama bin Laden is behind us,”  al-Jazeera managing editor Wadah Khanfar told the New York Times. “This kind of nonsense is for us a sign that what we are doing is right,” he added. This confusion is due to the fact that al-Jazeera really does present such balanced coverage that the network has alternately angered such diverse figures as Saddam Hussein, Israeli and Palestinian leaders, President Bush and countless autocratic leaders across the Middle East.

The Economist says that the government of Qatar “regards al-Jazeera as a part of its plans for political liberalization.” This should theoretically make the satellite network America’s darling, since the US has long pushed for the authoritarian regimes that are its allies in the Middle East to democratize, and al-Jazeera is certainly a democratizing force to be reckoned with. But just as the United States has overthrown countless democratically elected leaders around the world who have offered legitimate alternatives to the American capitalist model, Washington has gone and made an enemy out of the most democratic media outlet in the Middle East.

Yet through it all, the accolades kept coming for al-Jazeera. In 2004, the network was nominated for a Webby Award, which Time called “the Oscars of the internet,” as one of the five best news sites on the internet. No mainstream American news site was nominated. Judges included rocker David Bowie and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. That same year, users of brandchannel.com, powerhouse of the international branding industry, named al-Jazeera the fifth most influential global brand behind only Apple Computer, Google, Ikea, and Starbucks. Says brandchannel.com:

“Rounding out the top five 2004 Global Brands is a surprise winner: the Arab-focused, 24-hour news source al-Jazeera. Based in Qatar and offering an alternative to BBC or CNN, al-Jazeera has over 35 million viewers (overwhelmingly Muslim) and 30 bureaus worldwide. As the issues of 2004 hovered heavily around the Middle East and Islamic populations, al-Jazeera’s relevancy soared. Though suffering difficulties such as banned reporters, advertising boycotts, and charges of bias (arguable stemming from those who are themselves biased toward European and American interests), al-Jazeera is viewed as relatively independent within its region and is increasingly gaining mainstream credibility beyond its borders. The company itself claims to ‘cover all viewpoints with objectivity, integrity and balance.’ Already offering news in English at English.alJazeera.net, the media source is planning to offer an English channel satellite service in 2005.”

That English language channel in turn has been nominated in every news category and won the award for “Best 24 Hour News Program” at the 2008 Monte Carlo Television Festival. “For me, the award demonstrates the commitment of al-Jazeera English staff to giving a voice to the voiceless, of telling vital stories that are not on the agenda of the Western news networks,” Tony Burman, managing director of al-Jazeera English said. That is precisely the reason why the United States has targeted the network over and over again, stopping at nothing– including deadly force– to silence this dynamic and eminently credible news source. In all too many cases the United States only supports free speech if that free speech supports the United States.

The American obsession with al-Jazeera led to the bizarre case of Dennis Montgomery. Playboy magazine (gotta love those articles) uncovered the story of Montgomery, who was head of a small software company in Reno, Nevada. He was also a con man who convinced both the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA that he had decoded hidden messages containing al-Qaeda attack instructions in al-Jazeera broadcasts. Former president George W. Bush actually raised the national terror alert level to ‘orange’– high risk of terrorist attack– and canceled some commercial flights, believing that Montgomery was on to something. The Air Force even awarded Montgomery a $3 million research contract in January 2009. It is amazing, and frankly a bit frightening, the amount of fear and suspicion aroused by al-Jazeera in the United States. That’s a shame. Americans should celebrate al-Jazeera for what its brought to a region that never really knew what a truly free press was all about.

Rushing: former US Marine & Pentagon spokesman turned al-Jazeera reporter.

Instead, US cable companies refuse to carry al-Jazeera because many believe it is “un-American.” Burlington Telecom, a publicly owned cable network in Vermont, used to carry al-Jazeera but dropped the station in 2008.

Josh Rushing, a Washington-based correspondent for al-Jazeera, spoke at public hearings over Burlington Telecom’s decision to stop broadcasting the station. A former US Marine and spokesman for the US Central Command during the Iraq war, Rushing told the crowd he once viewed al-Jazeera as anti-American but he changed his mind when he was interviewed by the network. “It was only by being there, by actually going inside the al-Jazeera newsroom in uniform to give the interviews about the war, that I started to see all the things that I though I knew about it, all the accusations that I had been told, that Secretary Rumsfeld, my boss, was putting out about it were, in fact, not true.”

Said James Leas, a local Burlington resident who spoke at the hearing: “One of the speakers on the other side of this debate said that somehow our freedom is going to be jeopardized if we are permitted the choice to tune in to al-Jazeera. I think the truth is just the opposite: we lose our freedom when choices are taken away.”

The American bashing and the banning of al-Jazeera will continue for the foreseeable future, while viewers around the globe will continue to be informed and educated by the network’s award-winning brand of in-your-face journalism.

If only we had a major network that was as internationally renowned for objective journalism as al-Jazeera is. But it’s precisely that openness that scares the powers that be, whether they be the authoritarian rulers in the Middle East or the American invaders who came to control the region.

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