U.S. Courts Network It Once Described as 'All Osama'
By JANE PERLEZ with JIM RUTENBERG
DOHA, Qatar, March 19 — Bush administration officials once referred to Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite network based here, as "All Osama All the Time" for its regular showings of Al Qaeda video tapes and frequent appearances by anti-American commentators.
But last week, several United States Central Command press officials accepted an invitation to a barbecue in this desert city at the home of its news director, Omar Beck.
On the eve of likely conflict in Iraq, the party was one sign of how aggressively the Bush administration has embraced Al Jazeera as Washington fights the propaganda front of the Iraqi conflict.
With all but one of the major American television networks now out of Baghdad — only CNN remains — Al Jazeera is likely to become a major source for Baghdad coverage. ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN all have video-sharing arrangements with the channel.
Seven correspondents and an Al Jazeera crew of about 30 will stay in Baghdad and broadcast during the first critical days of a war, the communications director for the network, Jihad Ali Ballout, said today.
But Al Jazeera's real importance stems from its audience — 45 million people in the Arab world, it says — where pictures of heavy casualties caused by an American bombardment could further galvanize public opinion against the United States. Such pictures could be the enduring ones, although administration officials hope that instead images of cheering Iraqi crowds will prevail.
The Bush administration's communications planners, stung by Al Jazeera's reporting on civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2001, have decided that instead of scorning the network they should woo it. The new relationship has been helped by the proximity of the network's studios here to the headquarters of the Central Command, where the invasion commander Gen. Tommy R. Franks will run the war.
The Pentagon has offered Al Jazeera reporters choice spots with American military units. Jihad Ali Ballout, Al Jazeera's communications director, said the network could take only two of four positions because of diplomatic problems involving the network and Kuwait and Bahrain, where the units were based.
As for sources, the network has been granted access to the top. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, appeared on Jazeera in an exclusive interview last week, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, granted a rare 30 minutes of his time.
The Pentagon has assigned a special media liaison officer to Al Jazeera as it has to every other media organization planning to cover the daily briefings at Central Command headquarters. Jazeera's liaison is Lt. Joshua Rushing, who normally runs the Pentagon's television and film office in Hollywood, and who now helps the network with interviews and technical matters.
"We have gone to great lengths to reach out to Al Jazeera," said Capt. Frank Thorp, the senior spokesman for the Central Command here. "We have a very warm relationship and work with them on a daily basis."
This is a sharp change in strategy from the Afghanistan campaign and its aftermath when the Bush White House considered Al Jazeera as a propaganda outlet for Osama bin Laden and Qaeda. The network has been the exclusive outlet for tapes with the voice of Mr. bin Laden, and other Al Qaeda messages, all of which created significant news around the world.
In deciding to work closely with Al Jazeera, the administration has chosen to ignore some of the network's non-news programs.
Along with fairly straightforward news reporting, nighttime talk shows are frequently tinged with fiery anti-Americanism.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a talk-show guest referred to Osama bin Laden as a "struggler in the path of God," a sentiment occasionally echoed by callers to the network and other Al Jazeera guests. The United States has been referred to by other guests as an "oppressor."
But administration officials are partly driven by the belief that a failure to engage with the network would be to leave its journalists to the influence of the Saddam Hussein government, with which it has considerable contacts. For example, Jazeera's bureau chief in Baghdad, Faisal al-Yasiri, was identified recently by The Times of London and people at American networks as the former head of Iraqi television.
Recently, the network's fortunes in Baghdad have gone up and down. Mohamed Jassem al-Ali, the Al Jazeera managing director, met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad several months ago. Mr. Beck, the Jazeera news director, described the meeting as "a protocol thing" to find out "what we will be allowed to do, what we will not be allowed" to do in Iraq during a war.
He added that Al Jazeera was not receiving any special treatment from the Iraqis. "I still have to go through the same steps doing the visa applying for the permits," he said.
Last summer the Iraqi government shut Al Jazeera's Baghdad office because a correspondent, Diyar al-Omari, referred to Mr. Hussein as "the Iraqi president" instead of by his full title and name, "Iraqi President Saddam Hussein." CNN later reported that the office had reopened after a newspaper owned by Mr. Hussein's son Uday ran an editorial supporting the network for airing a recent speech by Mr. Hussein in its entirety and crediting it with being the most influential Arabic-language television network.
Al Jazeera's American competitors expect it to have much freer rein in Baghdad than they would have had. One senior network executive acknowledged that Al Jazeera's greater access factored heavily in his news division's decision to pull out of Baghdad. Another American network executive said that doubts about whether any television network, including Al Jazeera, would be able to transmit from Baghdad during an aerial bombardment was another factor in pulling out.
Al Jazeera executives said they have been told by the Pentagon that the American military would not scramble the satellites in order to prevent transmission. The network was assured that "no such thing would happen," Mr. Ballout said. But he acknowledged that there was some nervousness that the Pentagon would indeed black out Baghdad.
We have made contingency plans, he said, but declined to say what they were.
Al Jazeera officials said they were aware of the physical danger to their reporters and crew in Baghdad during expected heavy American bombardments.
Al Jazeera's level of influence is the envy of those who have followed its development. It was founded in this small Persian Gulf country in 1996 from the remnants of a failed BBC Arabic television service. It is financed by the very rich ruling al-Thani family of Qatar who view the network as a way of establishing their little known country on the world stage. Almost all of the news executives and correspondents come from Arab nations other than Qatar.
NYTimes, 20 March