From the frying pan into the fire

Well-known for his war reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, former BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar explains his decision to join Al-Jazeera’s upcoming English language news service.

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By  Rageh Omaar Published  February 19, 2006

|~|al-jazeerah-200.jpg|~|ABOVE: Al Jazeera staff protest after reports suggest US president George Bush planned to bomb its offices. BELOW: Tareq Naim Ayyoub, a journalist with Al-Jazeera, was killed when a US bomb hit his Baghdad offices on in April 2003. He left a wife and young daughter (pictured), who was then aged 14 months.|~|Well-known for his war reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, former BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar explains his decision to join Al-Jazeera’s upcoming English language news service. As I edited my piece with the cameraman, we suddenly heard what sounded like a surge of air, as though a storm or a typhoon was descending onto the house we were using as a makeshift studio-cum-office. A split second later there was a massive blast and a bright flash. The windows were blown in and my colleague was thrown off his chair. An American missile had been fired at the house opposite that belonged to the Taliban mayor of Kabul. The BBC was lucky. The Pentagon had the exact co-ordinates of where we were located and, besides, it could trace the signal from the satellite phones emanating from our house. Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-speaking satellite news channel, was not so lucky. That night I saw it being hit. Two years later I was to see Al-Jazeera attacked by the Americans again, this time in Baghdad when one of its journalists was killed. I believe I am the only person in the world to have witnessed the US bombing of Al-Jazeera’s offices in both Kabul and Baghdad. How ironic then that I am about to become part of it. Once the new English language Al-Jazeera starts broadcasting from London later in the spring I will be presenting a programme showcasing the work of independent film and documentary makers called Witness. It will feature interviews with eyewitnesses to events and is intended to provide a home for as diverse a range of voices and experiences as possible. We aim to avoid politicians, diplomats, soldiers and analysts and to speak to people who have actually been there as stories unfold. I will be based in London but will also present the programme from different locations around the world. Al-Jazeera has a controversial reputation. Above all else it is accused by some in the United States of being a mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. So I expected scepticism from colleagues and friends, but I have been surprised by their interest and enthusiasm. Everyone wants to know what it will be like and how it will look, not to mention its approach. Out in the field I have met nothing but professionalism and kindness from Al-Jazeera’s Arabic- speaking staff. It was the only international broadcaster allowed to remain inside the besieged Afghan capital by the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan, but a week before Kabul fell, three BBC colleagues and I were able to get in. Al-Jazeera’s team let us use their satellite link, the only one in Kabul, to send a report to the BBC. But two hours before we were due to drive across the city to their bureau, the Al-Jazeera staff received a phone call: get out. Within an hour a US missile destroyed their building. A Pentagon spokesman said the building had been intentionally targeted because it was a “command and control facility” for Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Donald Rumsfeld, the American defence secretary, made the most serious allegations against the channel, saying that it worked “in very close proximity” to terrorists in Iraq, effectively asserting that Al-Jazeera was working alongside Al-Qaeda and was part of the same movement. In 2004 he described the channel as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable”. Yet the administration’s attitude towards Al-Jazeera wavers. After the infamous story of the torture and abuse of Iraqis by US troops in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad broke around the world, Al-Jazeera was getting telephone calls from the White House and the Pentagon. Not for angry denunciations but to ask if it would please interview President Bush, Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, who all wanted to get their message across to the furious Arab and Islamic world. Shoot the messenger when you don’t like the message, but treat him nicely when you need him. However, Al-Jazeera — in its original Arabic form, at least — is a contradiction; a complex, diverse and dynamic news channel that cannot be characterised one way or another. It is funded by the deep pockets of the Sandhurst-educated Emir of Qatar but is editorially independent. It’s hard to see how Al-Jazeera could possibly have got close to a fraction of the kind of stories it has become renowned for, (particularly those detailing corruption of government officials), if it was under some kind of government leash. Every country in the Arab world has put pressure on the Qatari Emir to rein in the channel but he has resisted it, which is why Al-Jazeera has been thrown out of, or shut down in, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Is it a platform for Al-Qaeda because it receives tapes from Bin Laden? Al-Jazeera makes these recordings available to every other international agency and network which, of course, also broadcasts them. Is it totally biased against the West when it has a huge bureau and presence in Israel? Listen to what Ibrahim Hilal said when he was editor-in-chief, just after 9/11: “We are in the business of news. Our policy is to air all shades of opinion. We put every word, every move of President Bush on the air. Arabs accuse us of being pro-American, even pro-Israeli. The Americans say we’re pro-Taliban and Al-Qaeda. We must be doing something right.” It has always baffled me that westerners who do not speak Arabic arrive at such strong and clear-cut views about Al-Jazeera. How can they assess a news channel when they cannot understand the language in which it broadcasts? I have met people who argue that we should close Al-Jazeera, but when I ask them which programmes upset them most, I draw a blank: 90% of people’s views are based on hearsay so it’s easy for labels to stick. I can remember vividly the first time I watched Al-Jazeera. Having been born in Somalia, (a Muslim country and a member of the Arab League), I grew up speaking Somali, which has strong Arabic influences. In 1995 I studied Arabic at the University of Jordan. That was partly what drew me to the Middle East as a journalist 10 months after Al-Jazeera first went on-air. The network had been borne out of the collapse of the BBC’s Arabic language TV service in 1996. Dozens of long-term BBC Arabic-speaking journalists went to work at the newly established network. Although my Arabic was far from perfect, I could watch and have an understanding of what was being discussed. I will never forget seeing Israeli politicians and spokesmen being interviewed, arguing Israel’s case, some of them speaking Arabic as they did so. It was a shocking and breathtaking sight. The truth is that Al-Jazeera has completely transformed the Arab world, which was accustomed to muzzled state broadcasters. The Arab and Islamic world is far better for having Al-Jazeera and other satellite channels it has given rise to. Its coverage of Israel and Palestine is a case in point. Al-Jazeera has broken out of the journalistic bubble of Jerusalem, where almost every western broadcaster is based; it has reporters and offices in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Gaza. I was in Jerusalem last month when Hamas won the Palestinian elections. For me, the most interesting coverage of that event was a programme organised by Al-Jazeera in which eight leading Palestinian academics came together in Ramallah, spiritual home of the defeated Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the liberal intelligentsia of Palestinian society, far from Gaza, the spiritual and political home of Hamas. In a live debate the academics discussed what the Hamas victory meant for Palestinians and especially for Palestinians like themselves. It was riveting. Al-Jazeera coverage of Israel also throws up a pertinent question: how is it that you can have so many strident condemnations of the channel from American politicians and commentators about its coverage of the Arab and Islamic world, but you almost never hear Israeli politicians complaining about it? It is quite the reverse. You get the sense that Israelis quite like Al-Jazeera’s offices on their soil. Could it be because many Israeli politicians, unlike their US counterparts, speak Arabic and can judge for themselves what the channel is saying? That so many people's views of Al- Jazeera are based on supposition has let the broadcaster challenge accepted views, surprise supporters and critics alike and break the mould. This will be one of the greatest strengths and opportunities for the new English language channel. Although it will be separate from the Arabic network, the English language Al-Jazeera shares the same brand name. I am not alone in going to work there, the veteran David Frost is also going, along with a plethora of editorial staff from CNN, BBC World, ITV, CBS News and Channel 4. The channel is going to be for everybody; whatever their race, creed, colour or nationality, and whether their interests are in getting more coverage and information about the Arab and Islamic world or whether they just want news coverage from a different (Arab) perspective. I’m looking forward to it. This article first appeared in The Times newspaper.||**||

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