No. 7, Fall/Winter2001

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Courting Al-Jazeera, the Sequel: Estrangement and Signs of Reconciliation

By TBS Managing Editor Sarah Sullivan

Feb. 20, 2002: When TBS reported from Doha in October about the affiliation between CNN and Al-Jazeera, both sides were describing their resource-sharing agreements as mutually beneficial, a good example of what two major broadcasters can do when they work together. Three months and one Osama bin Laden interview later, there was talk of lawsuits, severing relations, accusations of bad news judgment, accusations of acting in bad faith. How could the honeymoon be over so soon?

Happily, after some bumps in the road, CNN and Al-Jazeera may be ready to start over. According to a high-level CNN source, both sides are making efforts to keep their disagreements from continuing to be battled out in the press, hopefully allowing them to get their cooperation back on track. Al-Jazeera said in a Feb. 2 statement that "it is necessary to discuss the issue with the American network in the framework of cooperation between the two sides."

The issue was that on the last day of January, CNN aired several minutes of an hour-long videotaped interview that Al-Jazeera's then-Kabul-based reporter Tayseer Allouni conducted on Oct. 21 with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—the only television interview bin Laden granted (he was interviewed on audiotape around Nov. 8 by Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir) since before Sept. 11. In the excerpts aired by CNN bin Laden, when asked about accusations that he was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, said that "America has made many accusations against us and many other Muslims around the world. Its charge that we are carrying out acts of terrorism is unwarranted," adding, "If inciting people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists." He also claimed that killing innocent civilians is "permissible in Islamic law and logically."

Al-Jazeera was angered by CNN's broadcasting the tape, saying that the American network had no right to use the tape and that it obtained the tape illegally. Managing Director Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali said in a statement the day the tape aired that "Al-Jazeera would have expected CNN to use its judgment and respect its special relationship with Al-Jazeera by not airing material that Al-Jazeera itself chose not to broadcast." CNN's response was that "CNN did nothing illegal in obtaining this tape, and nothing illegal in airing it—our affiliate agreement with Al-Jazeera gives us the express right to use any and all footage owned or controlled by Al-Jazeera, without limitation."

CNN's broadcast was the third phase of the months-long emergence of this interview. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a statement to Parliament on Nov. 14, 2001 that "on 20 October, bin Laden said in an unbroadcast video tape: 'If avenging the killing of our people is terrorism, let history be a witness that we are terrorists.' They are terrorists, and history will judge them as such." It was later widely reported that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in the Middle East had seen, or at least knew of, this interview. Blair described it in mid-November only as "a tape circulating among al-Qaeda supporters."

On Dec. 12 the story came out that this tape was actually an Al-Jazeera interview. The New York Times cited American and Middle Eastern government officials as saying that the station didn't air the tape "partly because it revealed how much Mr. bin Laden had intimidated the network's correspondent." The Times also quoted a government source as saying that "it seemed like people everywhere in the Middle East had seen the tape, including the king of Jordan." Apparently, in the weeks preceding Dec. 12, government officials around the world knew that this tape was something other than a "tape circulating among al-Qaeda supporters"; they just weren't saying so.

Al-Jazeera's response, when on Dec. 12 the news broke that the station had interviewed bin Laden, was that it had several tapes of bin Laden that it didn't broadcast. The AP quoted Al-Jazeera Chief Editor Ibrahim Helal as saying that these tapes may include the one referred to by Tony Blair. Helal "declined to say whether [the tapes] were interviews conducted by his reporters or videos given to the station by the Saudi exile."

So what exactly did CNN make public on Jan. 31? Not that a tape existed. Not that Al-Jazeera had done an interview. Not some vital piece of intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts that government officials were badly in need of. But two things make the Jan. 31 airing of portions of this tape remarkable. First, while by Jan. 31 the world had heard bin Laden—on the home video released by the US government in December—implicitly taking credit for the Sept. 11 attacks, back on Oct. 21, when this interview was conducted but not aired, this was significant news.

The transcript of the interview makes bin Laden's defense of Sept. 11 and implicit acknowledgement of responsibility even clearer than the excerpts broadcast by CNN. According to the transcript, which CNN had translated into English and posted on its website around a week after airing portions of the tape, bin Laden said: "The events [of Sept. 11] proved the extent of terrorism that America exercises in the world. Bush stated that the world has to be divided in two: Bush and his supporters, and any country that doesn't get into the global crusade is with the terrorists. What terrorism is clearer than this?" A moment later, "Just as they're killing us, we have to kill them so that there will be a balance of terror. This is the first time the balance of terror has been close between the two parties, between Muslims and Americans, in the modern age." Later, "If they kill our women and our innocent people, we will kill their women and their innocent people until they stop." He speaks of al-Qaeda as part of the Islamic nation, and says that "Those men who sacrificed themselves in New York and Washington, they are the spokesmen of the nation's conscience. They are the nation's conscience that saw they have to avenge against the oppression."

Secondly, for anyone who followed closely Tayseer Allouni's reports from Kabul from the Oct. 7 beginning of the US airstrikes on Afghanistan until he left Kabul in late November (after both the Northern Alliance takeover and a US bomb striking the Al-Jazeera Kabul office), seeing Allouni—who in that short time became one of the Middle East's more recognized faces, who was hailed by more than one Al-Jazeera viewer in a live call-in show from Doha not long after his return from Afghanistan as "the voice of truth" for his reports showing civilian casualties in Afghanistan, which the US media mostly described through the filter of US government officials or didn't describe at all—sitting face to face with the United States' most wanted man is indeed remarkable. Since Sept. 11 the public has seen bin Laden either alone or with aides in his pre-recorded statements, or caught on candid camera in the tape released by the US government Dec. 13. This time he's talking with a professional news reporter.

The other factor that turned CNN's airing the tape into a point of controversy between two one-time allies is that there's a big difference between reading in the paper that this interview took place and seeing it happen. Whatever Al-Jazeera had to say about the interview between Oct. 21 and Dec. 12, when the news of the tape came out, and between Dec. 12 and Jan. 31, when CNN aired the excerpts, they now had no choice now but to explain the circumstances, explain why they didn't air the tape and didn't make the tape public.

Al-Jazeera told their side of the story in a statement issued Feb. 2. As was widely reported in mid-October, al-Qaeda proposed to both CNN and al-Jazeera that the two broadcasters submit questions for Osama bin Laden which he would answer in a televised statement. CNN submitted six questions via Al-Jazeera, and Al-Jazeera added twenty-three of its own. Al-Jazeera officials said that ten days later, Tayseer Allouni was contacted in Kabul and told to cover an "important event." He was taken blindfolded (as Hamid Mir said he was a few weeks later), by a group of armed men, to bin Laden and told to interview him. He was given a list of questions to ask, which included "only a small number" of those submitted by CNN and Al-Jazeera.

The statement said that Allouni was under "strong psychological pressure," and was told that Al-Jazeera must run the interview in full. The station decided not to run the interview because "the conditions under which the interview had been conducted do not represent the minimum of objectivity and professionalism" and that it denied the existence of the tape for the sake of the safety of their correspondent.

Government and media sources in the United States were, meanwhile, accusing Al-Jazeera of at the very least allowing itself to be used by bin Laden, if not being an outright propaganda outlet for al-Qaeda. But if Al-Jazeera's accounting of events is accurate, this certainly was a blatant attempt—more blatant by far than sending a messenger to drop a tape off at Al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau—by al-Qaeda to use the station to get a message across, which the channel resisted. Al-Jazeera says that not only was Allouni pressured into the interview and into asking certain questions, he was also threatened if they didn't air the whole tape. "Bin Laden's people wanted it all or nothing; either we air the entire interview or none of it. And our answer was none," says Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief Hafez Al-Mirazi. "We're not going to be intimidated by someone who pressures us to broadcast an interview we don't want to broadcast."

Al-Jazeera Managing Director Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali added another reason, saying that the tape contained nothing newsworthy. CNN and Al-Jazeera had submitted questions, but "in the interview bin Laden didn't take these questions but used his own. There's nothing new in the tape."

CNN thought differently; Chief News Executive Eason Jordan said that "once the videotape was in our possession, we felt we had to report on it, and show it because it was extremely newsworthy." While Jordan has said that the network does not intend to publicly release the entire tape, CNN did provide the transcript to the Washington Post on Feb. 6 (and, as noted above, has posted it on CNN.com). The Post didn't run the entire transcript but instead a story on it; on Feb. 7 Post writer Howard Kurtz reported that "a review of the transcript shows that [Tayseer Allouni] asked solid questions that helped shed light on bin Laden's philosophy of terrorism."

The last word before a ceasefire was declared came in an interview CNN conducted on Feb. 9 with Eason Jordan and Ibrahim Helal. Previous statements had been exchanged back and forth in the media; this was the first instance—and from what we're told, will likely be the last—of a one-on-one public debate on the issue between representatives of the two parties.

In an interesting development, both CNN and Al-Jazeera have over the last few months been reaching out to the audiences of the other. CNN officially launched CNNArabic.com at a press conference in Dubai on Jan. 19; the Arabic language site, which focuses on news of the Middle East but also includes world news, joins CNN's Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, and Korean language sites.

Al-Jazeera officials, meanwhile, tell us they are currently testing an English-language audio track to be distributed via cable to audiences in the United States; viewers will receive the channel's video accompanied by two audio tracks, one the original Arabic and one an English voiceover. Still under discussion is whether—some sources say the question is when—Al-Jazeera will begin a separate English-language channel or English-language website.

Any new Al-Jazeera ventures in English will likely have a great impact in the United States, where the post-Sept. 11 era has brought a hunger for news from the Middle East, and where Al-Jazeera has been much-maligned even by those with no knowledge of Arabic and thus no direct understanding of exactly what's being broadcast. "Many people have taken advantage of their Arabic language skills to pick and choose what part of our content to translate for newspaper articles or websites," said Al-Mirazi. "We're a channel who's motto is 'both sides' [ar-ra'i wa'l ra'i al-akher] and people are only shown one side; they don't have the opportunity to check the source."

"We're in many newsrooms in Washington now, because they're interested in our footage-but it's important to make them aware of what they're seeing," Al-Mirazi said, adding that an English voiceover could also draw more of the Arab-American audience, where many of the second generation don't understand Arabic or only speak their own dialect.

New ventures now being launched by both parties—which were under development long before any CNN/Al-Jazeera rift or even before Sept. 11—are one reason that this timeout in the CNN/Al-Jazeera partnership might be, ideally, turned into an opportunity to rethink and reshape a future working relationship, taking into consideration new resources and new ways of partnering.

The other reason is that because of how much the world has changed since the fall, the conditions of mutual dependence between CNN and Al-Jazeera four months ago no longer exist. In mid-October, the cooperation between Al-Jazeera and CNN was in full swing; CNN had senior international editor Octavia Nasr working out of Al-Jazeera's Doha newsroom to coordinate between the two organizations. The Taliban still controlled Kabul, and CNN hadn't gotten a reporter in. The Northern Alliance banned Arab reporters from their territories, following the Sept. 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood by Arabs posing as journalists. Cooperation was necessary if either side wanted to report the full story. CNN correspondent Matthew Chance appeared, with Arabic simultaneous translation, on Al-Jazeera from northern Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera was able to interview then Northern Alliance, now Afghan Foreign Minister Abdallah Abdallah through CNN's crews. CNN had first rights to Al-Jazeera's exclusive footage from Kabul.

The picture is quite different now. With the fall of the Taliban and the formation of an interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, the politics that affect reporting the news have changed. CNN and other American media are free to report from Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban Al-Jazeera replaced Allouni—who had been working in Kabul for two years and had been filing frequent, exclusive reports throughout the US airstrikes—with other correspondents. (The day the channel asked Allouni to leave, reportedly, he stayed after receiving Alliance assurances that he was safe and didn't inform Doha. That night, Nov. 12, the Al-Jazeera Kabul office was struck by a US bomb, leading to speculation not just from Al-Jazeera but from their colleagues at the BBC that the bombing may have been deliberate; the Pentagon resolutely denies this.) The headlines about the war, the changes in Afghanistan, the US efforts against al-Qaeda cells now come not just from Afghanistan but from Bonn, Karachi, London, Sana'a, Mogadishu.

The world has changed enough in the past few months that the US government appears to feel more secure with bin Laden appearing on the world's TV screens—despite the fact that officials in Washington continue to warn the public about possible new terrorist threats, and that bin Laden himself is still nowhere to be found. In October US officials met with heads of American TV networks and asked them to use caution and responsibility when airing tapes, and leaned on both Al-Jazeera and on Qatari officials to try to get Al-Jazeera to stop broadcasting bin Laden's statements. But this time US government officials—who, Al-Jazeera told us in October, were trying to 'shoot the messenger'—aren't unhappy that CNN aired portions of the interview tape. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Feb. 1 that "this tape showed the importance of completing the mission and protecting freedom, a mission that is bigger than Osama bin Laden."

But it was speculated in the press that US pressure on Al-Jazeera in late October might have been a factor in the station's decision not to air the interview. On Oct. 20, the day before Allouni's interview with bin Laden, US Vice President Dick Cheney met with the emir of Qatar and asked him to urge Al-Jazeera to use caution in airing tapes of bin Laden. The main topic of the meeting was the emir's concern that the United States might not attend the Nov. 9-14 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Doha, but Cheney gave assurances that the US would attend if proper security measures were in place.

CNN reported, not in an official statement but in a news story posted on CNN.com Feb. 1: "A day before Al-Jazeera network interviewed Osama bin Laden, US Vice President Dick Cheney urged the network to act 'in a more responsible and representative way' when reporting on the suspected terrorist mastermind, a senior administration source told CNN Friday....Al-Jazeera never aired the interview, taped October 21, but CNN obtained a copy of it and began broadcasting portions of it Thursday night [Jan. 31]. The Bush administration did not criticize CNN for airing the videotape, and said the interview underscored the importance of winning the war on terrorism....It was not immediately known if Cheney's conversation with the emir played any role in the network's decision not to air the interview."

Al-Jazeera Managing Director Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali says in no uncertain terms that this meeting had no impact on the station's news decisions, pointing out that the station did air several other bin Laden tapes—tapes prerecorded and delivered by al-Qaeda, not interviews—on Nov. 3 and Dec. 26, after Cheney's meeting with the emir and other, similar statements from Washington.

Al-Jazeera is deservedly proud of its independence, and the ruler of Qatar has managed to handle severe attacks on Al-Jazeera from a number of Arab states who have felt victimized by the station's news reports or, more typically, by the critical comments that fly freely on Al-Jazeera's talk shows.

My colleague, TBS Senior Editor Abdallah Schleifer, who has closely followed and frequently written about the rise of Al-Jazeera, suggests that on this one occasion—which occurred at the height of American sensitivity, given the impact of the first bin Laden tape on the Arab street, with its allusions to American double standards in the Middle East—the pressure on the emir might have been so great that Al-Jazeera was advised to stay away, for a while, from bin Laden at the very moment Tayseer Allouni was conducting this interview. If that were indeed the case, Schleifer says, "then it would be prime evidence that the US tendency to overstate its case since 9/11 has frequently proven counter-productive. If anything would have helped overcome that pervasive Arab state of denial of bin Laden's responsibility for the 9/11 atrocity, which in turn fed the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that has characterized the way most Arab media treats the Afghan war, it would have been the sight and sound of bin Laden implicitly taking responsibility and openly justifying the atrocity." TBS

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