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Video has channel back in spotlight

Sun Staff

Al-Jazeera means "the peninsula," but for some Americans this week, it might just as well mean "the island."

A seeming island of news judgment unto itself, the Qatar-based news channel angered U.S. military and government officials Sunday by broadcasting video images of captured and killed U.S. soldiers. The disturbing footage -- seen by relatively few Americans but beamed to Al-Jazeera's 45 million Arab viewers -- was a violation of the Geneva Conventions that bar efforts to humiliate captured troops, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. In its defense, a spokesman for Al-Jazeera called the interviews an honest account of the war.

So, just what is Al-Jazeera?

The so-called CNN of the Arab world, the 24-hour channel (with bureaus in Washington and New York) is a relatively young news operation, but its seven-year history already has been marked by a lifetime of controversy.

Founded in 1996 as a joint venture between Qatar and the BBC, Al-Jazeera's motto was "The opinion ... and the other opinion." It was initially praised in the U.S. media for its refreshing brand of press freedom, considering the region was accustomed to only pro-government "news" from Qatar's defunct Ministry of Information. (U.S. officials would later appear on the station to communicate government policy positions to the Arab population.)

The station's talk shows, such as The Opposite Direction and Without Borders, built huge audiences by voicing the unimaginable: criticism of the Saudis and other Arab regimes. The station dared to insult and offend. Opposing views, for a change, were welcome.

Despite losing its BBC partners, Al-Jazeera eventually gained some 35 million viewers, including 140,000 satellite subscribers in the United States. Dispatched to 27 bureaus, the station's 70 journalists come from almost all 22 countries of the Arab League.

In short, the satellite news channel became a major player in the global media. Then Sept. 11 happened, and Al-Jazeera's star in America began to fade.

When the United States launched strikes on Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks, Al-Jazeera was the only news station allowed in Kabul. Its war video of bombs falling on Kabul was sought by and aired on U.S. and global television outlets. Then the station aired a video also seen around the world: al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden denouncing the United States after the attacks. Other bin Laden videos and audio tapes would follow. (The station reportedly earns $250,000 for each 3-minute bin Laden video clip it sells to other media outlets.)

In becoming the main vehicle through which bin Laden addressed the world after Sept. 11, Al-Jazeera's objectivity came under attack. Politicians and scholars questioned whether the station had become a mouthpiece for bin Laden and other radical Muslims.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on Al-Jazeera to scold the channel for its "inflammatory rhetoric." Six weeks later, a pair of U.S. bombs destroyed Al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau. The U.S. military said the bombing was a mistake; Al-Jazeera executives were skeptical.

In academic circles, Al-Jazeera became must-see TV. Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, spent hours watching Al-Jazeera programming in October 2001.

The station "may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel ... but he is clearly its star," Ajami would write a month later for the New York Times Magazine. "No matter how hard we try, we cannot beat Al-Jazeera at its own game. But one thing is sure: There is no need to reward a channel that has made a name for itself through stridency and anti-Americanism."

Now, Al-Jazeera is again under fire.

Like any international bureau covering a war, Al-Jazeera's 20-member Washington bureau has been beyond busy. Yesterday, the office phones rang from people questioning the station's decision to air videos of captured and killed U.S. soldiers. It's only natural that Americans turned to the station's Washington bureau for answers, said bureau manager Stephanie Thomas.

"We did not sit in Qatar rolling the tape. But we defend the decision on principle. It's news," Thomas said.

"Americans are not used to looking at that kind of footage, and Al-Jazeera audiences are. Arabs live with that kind of violence constantly, and Al-Jazeera doesn't flinch from that kind of coverage."

Stay tuned.

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