Covering the Attack

Al Jazeera Surpasses CNN in Live Afghan War Coverage 

By Magda Abu-Fadil Special 

In 1991, CNN had Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw and the late John Holliman reporting from Baghdad during the Gulf War. As the only network with correspondents on the ground, CNN secured a monopoly on live coverage.

But when the shooting began in the U.S. attack on the Taliban Sunday, CNN found itself relying on a little-known network based in a little-known country for the only live footage available from Afghanistan. The only foreign TV correspondent authorized to broadcast live from Afghanistan's capital of Kabul is Tayseer Allouni of the Al Jazeera satellite TV channel, the only all-news station in the Arab world.

Lebanon's daily As Safir reported Monday that CNN had struck a deal with Al Jazeera to capitalize on its inside-the-borders coverage while Al Jazeera was to benefit from CNN's state-of-the-art facilities and extensive reach. The tiny Arab Gulf state's TV station has been a trailblazer since its debut in 1996, attracting all manner of fans and foes.

Detractors include the U.S. government, which expressed displeasure earlier this month with Al Jazeera's extensive coverage of anti-American sentiments following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Washington also objected to the station's repeated airing of its exclusive 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden.

"The U.S. administration is effectively urging Qatari authorities to interfere with what is essentially an independent news station," protested Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Arab government attempts to influence Al Jazeera have garnered widespread attention over the years. We are disheartened to see U.S. officials adopting similar tactics," she added.

The emergence of Al Jazeera has been an unpredictable ride for its founder, a bold younger member of Qatar's royal family who meant it to tackle controversial issues with as much impartiality as its Western counterparts -- regardless of the backlash from mostly state-run Arab media.

Some Arab analysts have charged that Al Jazeera's provocative brand of journalism serves U.S. and Israeli interests.

Al Jazeera was established at a cost of US$150 million and has been heavily subsidized by the Qatari government but is starting to attract advertisers who at first shied away from it. The channel's daring approach to news coverage, analysis and editorials has led to its bureaus being closed temporarily in some Arab countries.

Its controversial talk show "Al Ittijah Al Mu'akiss" (The Opposite Direction), draws viewers and callers from across the Middle East and beyond. While the U.S. has criticized the station as a platform for bin Laden, Israel has frequently complained that Al Jazeera's coverage of its war against Palestinians serves to enrage Arab masses. Israel has objected to the station's graphic live reports, in Arabic, of the role of Israeli security forces in such cases as the demolition of Arab-occupied homes and killing of Arab leaders.

Prior to Al Jazeera's emergence, Arab TV audiences had to rely on footage and reports from Western media generally regarded as pro-Israel in the Arab world. Enter a station that uses Palestinian reporters to cover Palestinian and Israeli politicians in an attempt to present both sides of the intractable Middle East conflict. "Western media that blasted Al Jazeera with claims of biased coverage following the attacks last month are jealous of its success and our airing of an interview with Osama bin Laden a few days ago," said the station's CEO, Mohammad Jassem Al-Ali, adding that Al Jazeera provided equal time to the U.S. viewpoint.

Al-Ali denied that Al Jazeera was anti-American, saying Western media begrudged the station its successful coverage of world events and its coterie of professional (mostly BBC-trained) correspondents, anchors and editors.

"Al Jazeera wants to ensure balanced coverage by getting out the other side of the story, just like CNN did during the Gulf War," said Mahmoud Tarabay, a professor of journalism and media studies at two American universities in Lebanon. He added that the station, whose name means the peninsula in Arabic, had been heavily criticized by Arab governments but had earned its stripes and was worthy of the worldwide attention it had attracted. "The Taliban need Al Jazeera and the network needs to be there (in Afghanistan)," said Tarabay. Meanwhile, the station's Kabul-based correspondent tried to keep a cool head on the first day of the anti-Taliban military campaign by economizing on the use of camera lights while doing a stand-up atop a city roof.

"I don't want to be a target myself, otherwise you'll be without news," he quipped to his Doha-based anchorman. "The city's power has been cut, I'm in the dark and will become a sitting duck if the missiles zero in on me."

Magda Abu-Fadil is director of the Institute for Professional Journalists at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. She is a 25-year veteran of international news organizations and spent her career covering Washington and the Middle East. She has written previously about Al Jazeera for the IPI Report of the International Press Institute