Attempts to influence flow of news in Middle East

The following article is from the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and International Press Institute, October 9, 2001. It is in reaction to attempts by the U.S. State Department to influence the flow of news in the Middle East. The original article can be found at http://www.ifex.org/alerts/view.html?id=9526.

ACTION ALERT UPDATE: IPI expresses concern over attempts by United States State Department to influence flow of news in Middle East
Originator: International Press Institute (IPI)
Date: 2001-10-09
Country: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/QATAR
Person(s):
Target(s):
Source: IPI
Type(s) of violation(s):

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is an 8 October 2001 IPI letter to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell:

Colin Powell
Secretary of State
State Department
Washington, DC
USA

Fax: (+1-202) 261 8577

Vienna, 8 October 2001

Dear Mr. Secretary,

The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, is becoming increasingly dismayed at the attempts by the United States (US) State department to influence the flow of news in the Middle East.

On the basis of information provided to IPI, Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thaniof, confirmed that he was asked by the US State Department, during a recent visit to Washington, to use his government's influence to soften the reporting stance of the independent Qatari-based television station al-Jazeera. According to the US State Department, the television station has been re-running an old television interview with Osama bin Laden and has provided air time for experts hostile to the US.

Commenting on the US State Department's intervention, the emir of Qatar said, "This is true. We heard from the US administration...". He then went on to say, "Parliamentary life requires you have free and credible media and that is what we are trying to do," and "Al-Jazeera is one of the most widely watched [television stations] in the Arab world because of its editorial independence and its willingness to provide a platform of controversy."

Denying the criticism, al-Jazeera stated it gave both the US and Afghanistan positions equal air time. "We give equal coverage to both sides and that is our role. We present both sides", said, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, director general of the television station.

The attempt to influence the editorial independence of al-Jazeera comes one week after the US State Department attempted to prevent an interview with the leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, Mullah Mohammed Omar, being aired on the US radio station Voice of America. Speaking of the Voice of America, spokesperson for the US State Department, Richard Boucher, said, "considering the fact that US taxpayers pay for this... We don't think that the head of the Taliban belongs on this radio station".

In the opinion of IPI, the attempt to curtail the news reporting of an independent television station, based in another country, is an infringement of editorial independence and has serious consequences for press freedom. Editorial independence protects news reporting and this includes the freedom to portray often uncomfortable or controversial viewpoints. Without this essential "firewall", media organisations would face the danger of being annexed by governments or other powerful groups within society.

IPI is also concerned that the US State Department may be attempting to develop a two-tiered approach to the reporting of the events that are currently unfolding. An approach which enables balanced news stories to be reported in Western countries while trying to prevent similar news stories being aired in the Middle East. By doing so, the US State Department is seeking to sanitise reporting and is denying individuals the right to "receive information" as protected by article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Bearing the above in mind, IPI would urge the US State Department to examine the apparent dichotomy between acknowledging the rights of the free press in the US while seeking to suppress this fundamental right in other countries. Al- Jazeera has a strong reputation for free and balanced news and both it and the Qatari government have faced continual pressure from Middle Eastern governments to curb its reporting. In 1999, Saudi Arabia and Algeria both sought to apply pressure on the Qatari government over al-Jazeera. Therefore, it is surprising that the US State Department has chosen to use the same methods, thus identifying it with countries whose record on press freedom is truly abysmal.

On a related issue, the 2000 edition of the US State Department's Human Rights Report, when discussing Qatar and al-Jazeera, states, "the privately owned satellite television channel al-Jazeera operates freely." As a result, the US State Department is in the curious position of seeking to restrain the very same organisation which it rightly commends in its publication. A stance that is surely untenable given the fact that the Human Rights Report rightly views a free media as an essential element of any democracy.

Therefore, IPI calls on the Secretary of State to stop applying pressure on media organisations and to allow them to report freely based on their own editorial policy. Finally, IPI notes that the presidential spokesperson, Ari Fliescher, recently said at a press conference, "Watch what you say..." and we would invite the US State Department to work hard to ensure that this statement does not become the US government's guiding policy on the media during this critical period.

We thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

Johann P. Fritz
Director

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  • Posted: Tuesday, October 09, 2001

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