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Blaming and (Killing) the Messenger

A Wikileak on the US and Al- Jazeera

by KATHLEEN CHRISTISON

The United States has had it in for al-Jazeera at least since 2000, when the Qatar-based news network began reporting on Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians during the intifada and, a year later, covered the start of U.S. war-making in the Middle East, revealing to the Arab world a graphic picture of U.S. and Israeli brutality.  During the Iraq war, U.S. planes bombed the al-Jazeera station in Baghdad and killed one of its correspondents, in what clearly appeared to be an attempt to silence the network.  CounterPunch can show, through a Wikileaks-released cable from the U.S. embassy in Doha, Qatar, where al-Jazeera is based, that U.S. officials were still ragging the network in February 2009 in the wake of Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza, because, alone of news networks the world over, al-Jazeera had actually shown what was happening on the ground to Gazan civilians besieged by an unrelenting Israeli air, artillery, and ground attack.

The U.S. ambassador’s scolding of al-Jazeera is particularly relevant today in view of the network’s running coverage of the popular uprising in Egypt against U.S. ally Husni Mubarak.  Mubarak himself has tried to shut down the network, and one can assume that U.S. officials, undecided just how torespond to this crisis and which side to support, are at least biting their fingernails over what to do about this latest instance of al-Jazeera’s honest reporting.  There is no way to hide this uprising, even with press censorship, and U.S. networks are also reporting non-stop, but al-Jazeera is the network watched throughout the Arab world, and it is easy to imagine U.S. policymakers ruing the fact that it is once again exposing the U.S. alliance with dictatorships and oppression of Arabs.

Accordig to the cable from Doha, on February 10, 2009, three weeks after the Gaza assault ended, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Lebaron arranged a meeting with al-Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, to express concern that the network’s reporting from Gaza was harming the U.S. image “in the Arab street.”  Lebaron’s contorted reasoning went as follows: al-Jazeera’s coverage “took viewers’ emotions and then raised them to a higher level through its coverage.”  Then Qatar’s ruling royal family, which provides funding to the network, would point to anger on the Arab street as “a call to action,” which Lebaron contended created a vicious circle leading to “more graphic coverage, more emotion, more demonstrations, and then more calls to action” — as if the emotion-raising images from Gaza that started this circle revolving were somehow not real and not the basis of the story.  There would obviously have been no emotion and no demonstrations if Israel had not launched the assault in the first place (using U.S. arms).

Lebaron simply did not like the fact that al-Jazeera had shown what was happening in Gaza.  With jaw-dropping illogic, he complained that al-Jazeera provided no balance in its reporting because on one side it showed Israeli talking heads, while “on the other side of the scale, you are broadcasting graphic images of dead children and urban damage from modern warfare.”  Lebaron was not convinced by Khanfar’s point that, even though al-Jazeera had attempted to provide both perspectives by running reports in every news bulletin from correspondents in Israel as well as in Gaza, it was still impossible to “balance” coverage because it was Gazans who were being killed and Israelis who were talking.

In answer to Lebaron’s argument about the vicious circle, Khanfar noted that demonstrations in other sizable Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia had also been very large, despite the fact that there was not a big market for al-Jazeera in these countries.  But Lebaron thought this argument “extraneous.”

It is of course in the nature of any war-making country to wish no one were looking over its shoulder reporting on the atrocities it and its allies are committing.  U.S. policymakers and the U.S. media have long regarded al-Jazeera’s television coverage of Israeli and U.S. actions as “incitement” — as if al-Jazeera rather than we and the Israelis were the perpetrator, as if al-Jazeera rather than U.S. and Israeli actions were the cause of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment among Arabs.  This cable is one of the most blatant examples of this effort to manage the news, avoid responsibility, and blame the messenger.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and the author of several books on the Palestinian situation, including Palestine in Pieces, co-authored with her late husband Bill Christison.  She can be reached at kb.christison@earthlink.net.