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Al Jezeera Makes Documentary about Guantanamo Base Detainees - 2002-02-21

In the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials criticized the Qatari-based television network, al Jezeera, for broadcasting videotapes of Osama bin Laden to its large Arab-speaking audience. Now, al Jezeera is working on a documentary program focusing on the 300 Taleban and al Qaida detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Under the baking sun, Yosri Fouda stands before the camera to tape a "stand-up" at Camp X-Ray, where 300 Taleban and al-Qaida detainees are being held. A while later, he talks about his goals for the 30-minute documentary program.

"If I manage to give a more accurate picture to my audience about what takes place here, I will be happy," he said.

But Mr. Fouda, who works out of al Jezeera's London bureau, says his task will not be easy. He says many people in the Middle East are instinctively suspicious of U.S. actions and motives. He says some al Jezeera viewers may find it difficult to take U.S. officials at their word when they insist the detainees are linked to the September 11 terrorist attacks - but are being treated humanely nonetheless.

"There is always a natural tendency towards conspiracy theories. And this gets magnified when there is a lack of information. So, here comes the importance of giving access to the media," Mr. Fouda said.

Mr. Fouda says U.S. officials are wise to allow Arab news organizations to go to Guantanamo. He says the same story told by an Arab reporter often will have greater weight in the Middle East than if it originates solely from a U.S. media outlet.

Since September 11, the Bush administration has attempted to boost what it calls "public diplomacy" to the Muslim world. Yosri Founda says, in general, U.S. authorities are doing a better job today when it comes to explaining America's actions in the war on terrorism. He says the Pentagon blundered badly last month when it released a now-infamous photograph showing detainees bound and kneeling at Camp X-Ray.

"In the beginning, it did not reflect very positively, especially in light of the release of a few photographs by the Pentagon. And that is why I think the officials here realize that they should try to explain things better to the Arab and Muslim world," Yosri Founda said.

A small army of military public affairs officers shadows the news media virtually everywhere at Guantanamo Bay. Marine Major Steve Cox says his orders are to provide reporters with maximum access to every facet of the detainee operation possible, given strict security measures.

"We are aware of public opinion. We are certainly concerned about public opinion. We feel we have nothing to hide here. There is nothing we are doing here at Guantanamo Bay or Camp X-Ray that we would not want someone to know about," Mr. Cox said.

But even the "maximum access" directive has its limits. Yosri Fouda had hoped for a one-on-one interview with the commanding officer for the detainee operation, Brigadier General Michael Lehnert. The request was denied.

Military officials say the general is not conducting one-on-one interviews with any news organization, U.S. or foreign. Mr. Fouda says the general has missed an opportunity to take his message directly to a region that many of the detainees call home.

Major Steve Cox stressed his goal is to treat all media organizations equitably, with special treatment for none. "We are happy to have al Jezeera here," he said. "It is a professional news organization. And, given that, there is no special plan; there is no public relations campaign geared towards al Jezeera or their particular audience. We want to show them the same thing we are showing the American public or anybody else. I would just hope that they (al Jezeera) take advantage of this opportunity and carry the message back that detainees are being treated firmly, fairly and humanely."

Yosri Fouda says the events of September 11th thrust al Jezeera on the world stage in a way the television network never anticipated. With that exposure came new opportunities - but also new responsibilities and, at times, criticism. He defends the network's decision to broadcast the Osama bin Laden videotapes but says he understands why doing so provoked the ire of U.S. officials. He says the controversy appears to be resolved, and that he detected no lingering animosity while at Guantanamo Bay.