Mon, Mar 31, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Al-Jazeera says it won't censor the horrors of war

REUTERS , DOHA, QATAR

Blasted by Washington and London for beaming distressing pictures from Iraq, al-Jazeera television said yesterday it would not censor the horrors of war.

"I think the audience has the right to see all aspects of the battle," said Jihad Ballout, spokesman for the Qatar-based al-Jazeera, seen by many as being a major influence in shaping Arab opinion over the US-led war.

The 24-hour, Arabic-language, broadcaster deliberated carefully before beaming pictures that could be especially troublesome to viewers, he said, and denied any political bias.

"We're not catering for any specific side, or any specific ideology. What we are doing is our business as professionally as possible," Ballout added.

Images of bombed Baghdad buildings, bloodied and screaming Iraqi children and slain or captured US and British troops seen by millions of viewers angered Washington and London which seek to portray the war as one to liberate Iraqis.

"If there's a perceived imbalance, it's purely a function of access," Ballout said.

He said if the Americans and British gave the station more access to their troops, who invaded Iraq 12 days ago "you would certainly find as much coverage on the ground from there as you would find from the Iraqi side."

The station says it has at least 35 million viewers in the Arab world. In Europe, Ballout said, its subscriber figures doubled to 8 million homes in the first week of the war. These came mainly in countries with large Muslim populations such as Britain and France.

The Pentagon initially offered al-Jazeera several opportunities to travel with US combat units but only one of these "embed" offers worked out, he said.

The others fell through because of visa headaches from Bahrain, a base for allied warships, and Kuwait, launchpad for many journalists covering US and British ground forces.

With many ordinary Arabs protesting angrily at the US-led war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, authorities in some Arab states also object to al-Jazeera's conflict coverage.

The station has also drawn US ire for its cover in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its broadcast messages from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and, more recently, for showing video footage of Iraqi interrogation of US prisoners of war.

"They tend to portray our efforts in a negative light," US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview with National Public Radio broadcast last Wednesday.

The same day, Powell appeared on al-Jazeera, as have other Bush administration officials to get their messages to Arab viewers.

Britain's military commander in the Gulf, Air Marshal Brian Burridge even suggested the station might have become a tool of Iraqi propaganda and violated the Geneva Conventions. In fact, the 1949 protocols bind states, not media organizations.

Burridge slammed al-Jazeera for showing "shocking, close-up" pictures of two British troops later said by Prime Minister Tony Blair to have been executed by Iraqis, a claim which was denied by the soldiers' family members based on information from other members of their unit.

"Quite apart from the obvious distress that such pictures cause friends and families of the personnel concerned, such disgraceful behavior is a flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention," Burridge told a briefing at US Central Command's forward headquarters in Qatar last Thursday.

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