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Al-Jazeera's decade paying price for outspokenness


1 November 2006

Al-Jazeera: a decade of paying the price for its outspokenness

SOURCE: Reporters sans frontières (RSF), Paris

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an RSF press release:

Al Jazeera is ten years old: a decade of paying the price for its outspokenness

Launched on 1st November 1996 by the emirate of Qatar, satellite channel al-Jazeera has continued to stoke up strong passions. Pilloried and praised by turn, the channel today attracts an estimated 50 million viewers and its website is one of the 50 most visited in the world. Reporters Without Borders reviews the main attacks on al-Jazeera over the past two years.

"This satellite channel, beamed into the majority of Arab homes, took an immediate stand in opposition to traditional news broadcast by authorised media. On one hand its programmes regularly enraged Arab leaders for giving a voice to their opponents and to viewers themselves and because it raised political and social issues considered taboo in many countries in the Arab world.

"On the other hand, the US government frequently accused it of fomenting anti-American sentiment in the region and inciting violence against the US-British forces in Iraq," said the organisation.

"Numerous governments have tried to censor al-Jazeera, using financial and advertising boycotts, closing down its offices, banning it from covering major events, expulsions, arrests and deaths of its journalists, bombings of its premises and putting diplomatic pressure on Qatar. But while its outspokenness created a genuine precedent in the Arab broadcast landscape, it still rarely raises Qatar's internal issues," it added.

An al-Jazeera cameraman with Sudanese nationality has been held by the US authorities at the Guantanamo military base in Cuba since 2002. Sami al-Haj was arrested in southern Afghanistan on 15 December 2001 while covering the US military campaign in the country. He has already spent more than four years in prison even though no charges had been made against him.

In Egypt, on 7 December 2005, journalist Leena al-Ghadban, who was covering elections for al-Jazeera and her crew, cameraman Mohamed Ezz, sound recordist Mohamed Galal and driver Medhat Sayed Abdu, were prevented by state security agents from filming inside a polling station in Bandar-Domyat district, 191 kms north of Cairo. The same thing happened to another al-Jazeera reporter, Mohamed Yusef, in al-Arish district, north-east of the capital. A crew from the channel was harassed in al Sharqiya province, 83 km east of Cairo. Journalist Sameer Omar, cameraman Yasser Sulaiman and his assistant Ahmed Shaqi were ordered to leave the area immediately under threat of being sprayed with nitric acid.

Elsewhere, on 27 April 2006, al-Jazeera bureau chief in Cairo Hussein Abdel Ghani was arrested while reporting on a series of explosions in the south of Sinai. He was accused of having broadcast "false information which could damage the country's reputation" - news that had been carried by many Egyptian and foreign media. Finally, in May 2006, cameraman Yasser Sulaiman and his sound recordist Nasr Youcef were prevented from filming a demonstration in support of two Egyptian judges in front of a Cairo court. The cameraman was also struck in the face. His camera was seized and returned without its film. Mohamed al Daba and Lina Ghadban, respectively producer and journalist for al-Jazeera in Cairo, were subjected to a lengthy interrogation before being released.

The Iranian authorities announced the closure of its Tehran bureau on 18 April 2005, for "incitement to disorder". Al-Jazeera had been one of the first channels to cover clashes in the south of the country on 15 April, giving the toll of dead and injured. The channel was accused of "having incited subversive elements to provoke disorder". Tehran had previously threatened sanctions against the channel in November 2004, unless it deleted a cartoon from its website, which was seen as insulting. The TV station was again threatened with expulsion shortly afterwards for referring to the "Arab" Gulf and not the Persian Gulf.

After a temporary ban on covering some movements of Iraqi officials, the al-Jazeera office in Baghdad was closed on 7 August 2004 after being accused of "incitement to hatred and racial tension".

In Israel, a Palestinian journalist Awad Rajub, working for the channel's website, was arrested on 30 November 2005 and accused of '"damaging state security". The authorities said that his arrest was not linked to his work. He was released after six months in custody for lack of evidence. Elsewhere, on 4 November, Israeli soldiers beat and held for several hours Nabil Al-Mazzawi, an al-Jazeera cameraman on the West Bank, while filming a demonstration at the site of the security wall built by Israel. In July 2006, al-Jazeera bureau chief Walid al-Omari was arrested twice in two days while covering the armed conflict at the Lebanese border. At the same time, members of another crew from the channel were also arrested while reporting in Haifa, south of the Lebanese border. Another team came under fire while covering the Israeli army incursion into Nablus, on the West Bank. Technician Wael Tantus was hit in the foot with a rubber bullet.

Abdessalam Razzak, al-Jazeera correspondent in Morocco, was expelled without explanation after arriving at the airport at Laayoune, on 27 May 2005, after demonstrations on 24-29 May pitting the Sahrawi against the security forces. He was only able to return to the town two days later in the framework of an official visit organised by the governor. Another correspondent in the country, Hassan Fatih, along with his crew, was beaten by Moroccan security forces while covering a sit-in on 15 June 2006 by families of 68 Islamist prisoners on hunger strike.

In October 2006, Tunisia decided to close its embassy in Qatar in protest at al-Jazeera's "hostile campaign", after the broadcasting, on 14 October 2006, of two interviews with Tunisian opposition figure Moncef Marzuki, who used them to call for "resistance" to the government. Relations between Qatar and some capitals deteriorated after the broadcast of programmes which upset several Arab governments. In 2001, the Tunisian ambassador in Doha was called back for consultations in protest at the channel's coverage of the country. Saudi Arabia did the same in 2002 after the broadcast of a programme critical of the Saudi royal family.


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