CPJ dismayed by U.S. pressure against Arab satellite news channel

New York, October 4, 2001—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned by reports that U.S. officials pressured Qatar in an attempt to influence the news coverage of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel.

Following a meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C., with U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani acknowledged that U.S. officials had asked him to use his influence to rein in Al-Jazeera’s news coverage.

The U.S. government apparently feels that Al-Jazeera’s programming has been unbalanced and anti-American, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

“We heard from the U.S. administration, and also from the previous administration,” the emir was quoted as saying by CNN. “Naturally we take these things as a kind of advice.”

A State Department official told CNN that Secretary Powell and the emir “had a frank exchange” on the issue and “there should have been no mistake of where we are coming from.”

On October 2, the, U.S. Embassy in Qatar filed a formal diplomatic complaint with Qatari authorities regarding Al-Jazeera’s coverage.

Founded in 1996, Al-Jazeera is the most widely watched news channel in the Arab world. The 24-hour channel has revolutionized the Arabic news industry through uncensored news programs and open debates.

Although the Qatari government subsidizes Al-Jazeera, the station has been widely praised for its editorial independence. Over the years, Al-Jazeera has drawn a steady stream of complaints from Arab governments angered by its reporting.

“The U.S. administration is effectively urging Qatari authorities to interfere with what is essentially an independent news station,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “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.”

CPJ sources and press reports indicate that U.S. officials were particularly disturbed by Al-Jazeera’s frequent airings of its exclusive December 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. government was also irked by airtime given to analysts who expressed anti-American views and by an unconfirmed Al-Jazeera report that Taliban forces recently captured U.S. Special Forces troops inside Afghanistan.