Qatar's Al-Jazeera, the only satellite television channel continuously reporting from Taliban-ruled territory in Afghanistan, is living up to its reputation as "the Arab world's CNN." "We are the only (television) present in the Taliban-controlled zone" in the buildup to the anticipated US military offensive against Afghanistan's ruling militia, Al-Jazeera chief editor Ibrahim Hilal told AFP Tuesday, September 25.
Hilal said Al-Jazeera, with two correspondents, would give "the best coverage of the (anticipated) war against the Taliban," which is giving haven to Usama Bin Ladin, the Saudi-born Islamist who is Washington's prime suspect in the September 11 anti-US attacks.
Since its launch in November 1996, Al-Jazeera has gained considerable popularity among viewers in the Arab world, while annoying many governments for tackling political, social and sometimes sexual issues previously regarded as taboo, as well as providing a platform for Arab dissidents.
The channel's star program, called "The Opposite Direction," has triggered protests from many Arab governments, unused to hearing dissenting views, much less prepared to accept them.
Even the US embassy in the Qatari capital of Doha made a strong protest after calls to strike US interests were made during the program in early 1998, a time when Washington was threatening Baghdad.
The debates the channel hosts often degenerate into fierce on-camera arguments, and opinion polls show that Al-Jazeera continues to enjoy high ratings in the Arab world.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein chose Al-Jazeera as his window to the Arab public on several occasions, and it was also through that channel that he called on his countrymen to resist the December 1998 US-British blitz on Iraq.
Bin Ladin too used Al-Jazeera as a platform to appeal to Muslims in June 1999 to "target all Americans." His call was made in an interview conducted in Afghanistan in late 1998. Al-Jazeera gave the Islamist militant, who was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, more than an hour to air his views and reminisce about his childhood.
On Monday, it was again Al-Jazeera that carried an appeal by Bin Ladin to his "Muslim brethren in Pakistan" to "repel the American crusader forces" expected to use their country as a springboard for an assault on Afghanistan. The call, coming shortly after the Taliban claimed to have lost track of Bin Ladin, was contained in a statement that purported to carry his signature and which Al-Jazeera received by fax.
The channel airs financial, cultural, religious and sports programs, in addition to its continuous news coverage. The Qatar-based station, whose reach extends to Europe and the US, also plans to launch two new channels, one documentary and the other economic, in early 2002.
Al-Jazeera, which projects itself as "the first independent Arab channel," has enjoyed a measure of freedom that has upset the Arab broadcasting landscape. Thus, Abu Dhabi's satellite television is now following in Al-Jazeera's footsteps and trying to prove a match for its Qatari counterpart.
Abu Dhabi TV, which is currently covering Afghanistan from Peshawar and Islamabad, plans to send correspondents to Afghanistan "before war breaks out," an official at the UAE channel told AFP. ― (AFP, Dubai)
by Habib Trabelsi
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )