Al-Jazeera Calls on U.S. to Ensure Free Press
By Merissa Marr, European Media Correspondent
LONDON (Reuters - 26 March) - Banned on Wall Street and wiped off the Internet, Arab news channel al-Jazeera defended its controversial coverage of the Iraq war on Wednesday and demanded the United States come to its aid in the name of a free press.
Al-Jazeera, which angered the United States by showing footage of dead and captured American soldiers, said it was deeply concerned after two of its reporters were banned from the New York Stock Exchange and its Web sites were hacked.
"There has to be a national effort to protect the freedom of the press even more," said al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout.
"We appeal to authorities to pay attention to this."
Al-Jazeera has taken the Arab world by storm since its launch in 1996, with its controversial reporting and brash, Western style drawing an audience of more than 35 million.
After making its name in the Afghan war with exclusive footage of Osama bin laden, the Qatar-based satellite channel has also had success in Europe, with viewers doubling since the start of the Iraq war.
But the CNN of the Arab world has faced an uphill battle in the world's largest media market, the United States.
Al-Jazeera raised the ire of Americans on Sunday when it aired shaken U.S. prisoners of war and dead U.S. soldiers with gaping bullet wounds, prompting the Pentagon to issue a rare appeal to U.S. networks not to use the footage.
On Wednesday, it also showed pictures of what it said were two dead British soldiers and two British prisoners of war.
EUROPEAN VIEWERS DOUBLE
In Europe, al-Jazeera said it had signed up more than four million subscribers in the past week, adding to the four million it already has. But in the United States, it has been slow to catch on with little more than 100,000 subscribers.
"In Europe, we're naturally most popular in countries with big Muslim populations like France. In Britain, we've also seen a pick up in non-Arabic-speaking Muslims," Ballout said.
Viewers, who subscribe through local satellite operators, are glued to the pictures even if they cannot understand the words. There are no English-language subtitles.
As the storm over the American soldier footage raged this week, the New York Stock Exchange withdrew credentials for two al-Jazeera journalists. It said it had to cut back on the number of reporters on the exchange floor.
Media pundits were stunned by the exchange's decision, saying it smacked of a dangerous opening salvo in a game of media quid pro quo which could see Western media's access cut off. Iraq last week ordered CNN journalists to leave Baghdad.
"The New York Stock Exchange has many useful functions, especially in turbulent times. Making foreign policy is not one of them," the New York Times wrote in a Wednesday editorial.
Al-Jazeera's new English-language Web site (http:english.aljazeera.net), which went live on Monday, and its Arabic-language site (www.aljazeera.net) were downed by a hacker attack on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"This is yet another example of people trying to interfere with freedom of expression and the press," Ballout said. "Freedom of the press must be protected. This is not restricted only to America, it should be an international effort."
INFLUENCE ON ARAB WORLD
Al-Jazeera's coverage has also led to its ban from a number of Arab states. But many have subsequently let the channel back in, aware of its influence over the Arab world where it is widely available on free television.
In Iraq, the Arabic channel has gained unprecedented access with reporters stationed in nearly all the major battle zones beaming back exclusive and sometimes gruesome footage, leading to some accusations that it is pandering to Iraqi propaganda.
Similarly, in the Afghan conflict, critics questioned the channel's close ties to the Taliban. In its defense, al-Jazeera argues it is just reporting what it sees.