Only a day after US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed that the Arabic Al-Jazeera television channel was “inciting violence” and “endangering the lives of American troops” in Iraq, the station’s Baghdad bureau chief has written a scathing reply to the American administration, complaining that in the past month the station’s offices and staff in Iraq “have been subject to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation of news material, and multiple detentions and arrests, all carried out by US soldiers…”
The unprecedented dispute between an Anglo-American occupation authority supposedly dedicated to “democracy” in Iraq and an Arab station once praised by Washington for its services to free speech in the Arab world comes at a time when the US administration appears to be laying the ground work to close down Al-Jazeera’s operations in Iraq –along with those of the Arabia channel –for alleged “incitement to violence”.
America’s senior occupation proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has officially stated that he would close down newspapers or television stations guilty of “incitement to violence” –without, of course, explaining exactly what this phrase means.
Wolfowitz, a right-wing ideologue and fervent supporter of Israel, is one of the cabal of advisers who pushed the US administration into war with Iraq on the grounds that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and that the destruction of his regime would open the way to a new, democratic Middle East. He used the equally right-wing and Murdoch-owned Fox Channel to make his allegations against Al-Jazeera, many of which are palpably false. He claimed, for example, that the staff of Al-Jazeera “have a way when they want to cover somebody favorably, including Saddam Hussein in the old days, of slanting the news incredibly … and now, the minute they get something that they can use to spread hatred and violence in Iraq, they’re broadcasting it around.”
In fact, as the station’s Baghdad bureau chief, Wadah Khanfar, points out in his letter –addressed to Bremer, a copy of which has been obtained by The Independent –“Al-Jazeera did not cover Saddam Hussein favorably. Both Yasser Abu Hilala (one of the channel’s senior correspondents) and I myself have been expelled from Baghdad by the former regime for our reporting. The Baghdad bureau was shut down twice by the former Ministry of Information for unfavorable coverage, and once by Al-Jazeera itself in protest over attempts at censorship. Al-Jazeera reporters in Iraq have even been physically assaulted by former Information Minister Mohamed Saeed As-Sahaf for daring to broadcast events which cast the regime in an unfavorable light.”
Already, however, the dispute between Al-Jazeera and the US authorities has gone beyond mere words. American troops have raided the bureau’s offices in the city of Ramadi and arrested reporters, harassment that has been accompanied by claims from US officers –a certain Col. Teeples of the US 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment prominent among them –that Al-Jazeera has advance notice of attacks against American troops. The truth is that the station sometimes receives unsolicited videotapes –hand-delivered to their reception staff by unidentified men –showing the military ambush of US convoys. In many cases, Al-Jazeera has decided not to show the tapes –but this has had no effect on the Americans.
The history of mutual –indeed lethal –antagonism between Washington and Al-Jazeera goes back to the 2001 bombardment of Afghanistan when, after the Arab station showed videotape of Osama Bin Laden, an American Cruise missile exploded in their Kabul bureau. Then in the last days of the invasion of Iraq this year, after the channel beamed pictures of Iraqi civilians mutilated by US air raids and tape of American prisoners in Iraqi hands, a US jet targeted the station’s Baghdad bureau, killing one of its senior reporters. Al-Jazeera had earlier given the map coordinates of its Baghdad offices to the Pentagon to prevent any accidental bombing of its bureau. These frightening events –regarded by many of the international Baghdad press corps as a deliberate attempt by the Americans to murder Al-Jazeera staff –mean that the channel’s reporters regard themselves at risk of their lives if they offend the Americans.
Another of Wolfowitz’s claims involved the station’s coverage of an incident in the Iraqi Shiite city of Najaf. “Al-Jazeera ran a totally false report that American troops had gone and detained one of the key imams in this holy city of Najaf, Muqtad Al-Sadr (sic),” he said. “It was a false report, but they were out broadcasting it instantly.” Wadah Khanfar’s detailed reply –and his sense of frustration –will be familiar to any Western newspaper editor. “Al-Jazeera never stated at any time that Muqtada As-Sadr was detained,” he wrote. “Our correspondent Yasser Abu Hilala, a top reporter with thirteen years experience covering the Middle East, stated he had received phone calls from Muqtada As-Sadr’s secretary and two of his top deputies saying the imam’s house was surrounded by US forces after he called for the formation of an Islamic Army. The phone calls were not only made to our offices but to all the offices of As-Sadr’s followers in Baghdad resulting in a massive demonstration in front of the Republic Palace within 45 minutes which we reported, along with the New York Times, CNN and a host of others.”
Khanfar added that “when Mr. Abu Hilala attempted to contact the US military’s public information center they did not even know about the demonstration going on in their own backyard, let alone what was happening in Najaf. When the US military finally got around to denying the encirclement of As-Sadr’s home over 24 hours later, we duly reported it.”
The Al-Jazeera bureau chief suspects that poor translation of its dispatches mean that “half-truths and total falsehoods about our reporting…make the rounds in Washington, Baghdad and elsewhere.” No doubt remembering the American missile strikes against Al-Jazeera’s offices, he also states in his letter to Bremer that “the mischaracterizations of our reporting made by Mr. Wolfowitz and others are a form of incitement to violence against Al-Jazeera, the first Arab television channel to practice professional Western-style journalism free of the notorious censorship so prominent in the rest of the Middle East.”
Khanfar is calling for Wolfowitz to retract his statement and issue an apology. But the real cause of American anger has always been Al-Jazeera’s powerful coverage of Arab and Muslim suffering –and its ability to reflect this in millions of homes throughout the Middle East.
And since the US government neither explained nor apologized for its deliberate bombing of the station’s offices in Kabul and Baghdad, Khanfar has not the slightest chance of an apology from Wolfowitz.
ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.