The Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera frequently makes news when it reports news. The station has not only aired controversial interviews with terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden, but also top U.S. officials. On Wednesday, Al Jazeera expanded its operation with a new international English language channel. The organization declined a Voice of America request for a pre-launch interview, but provided some of the video for our story about Al Jazeera's involvement in free speech controversies.
With the launch of its new channel, Al Jazeera hopes to expand the reach of its network from an Arabic and Middle Eastern audience to a global, English-speaking one. Al Jazeera International is broadcasting from Doha, Qatar with 20 overseas bureaus, including one in Washington, DC just three blocks from the White House. The organization, funded by the Qatar government, is promising impartial and balanced information from the world's hot spots.
Among those hot spots is Iraq, whose government has banned Al Jazeera. Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had accused the network of conspiring with terrorists. "They've called Al Jazeera to come and watch them do it. And al-Arabiya. 'Come and see us. Come and watch us. This is what we're going to do.' The information operations, the psy-op part of what they're doing has always been a part of their behavior pattern."
At the same time, the U.S. State Department says Al Jazeera is considered the most free and unfettered broadcast source in the Arab world. And the White House website continues to provide transcripts of interviews that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave the network in her previous capacity as National Security Advisor.
Cliff Kincaid, an editor with the Washington-based watchdog group Accuracy in Media, says U.S. officials make a big mistake by appearing on Al Jazeera. "This is simply national suicide! This is feeding and accommodating and appeasing the enemy that wants to kill us all. And that's why, in our opinion, the war in Iraq has been so difficult. Not that our soldiers can't win on the battlefield, but that we are losing the war in terms of information, and propaganda, and ideas."
Many Americans associate Al Jazeera with appearances by terrorist hostage-takers in Iraq, by Osama Bin Laden and other al Qaida leaders involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. Accuracy in Media points to statements by alleged terrorists who say Al Jazeera inspired them to kill Americans in Iraq. "I began watching the news, and following the invasion of Iraq. I would watch Al Jazeera and other TV channels all the time. I saw clerics on TV, on Al Jazeera, declaring Jihad in Iraq."
America, however, is fighting for democratic rule in Iraq. George Washington University media professor Mark Feldstein says free media are an integral part of any democracy. "The thing to remember about the United States and the genius of our system is that the Framers of our Constitution believed in a marketplace of free ideas. They believed that if all voices were there to compete, truth would ultimately out. And to try to clamp down on an Al Jazeera, to try to not allow it to have its voice, really flies in the face of what the framers of our own Constitution would have wanted."
Feldstein says Al Jazeera should have the right to compete in the commercial marketplace. While no U.S. network currently has plans to distribute its new English programs, Feldstein says the information will find an audience. "The problem is, in the world of the Internet, is that you can get this online anyway. It's very difficult to control information now."
Both sides of the Al Jazeera controversy understand the power of information. One side says it can be used to misinform and incite violence. The other side says information should be shared to prevent misinformation.