CNN’s airing of an Al-Jazeera taped interview with Osama bin Laden last week triggered a heated war of words with the Qatar-based independent Arabic news Network. Al-Jazeera alleged that CNN had obtained the tape, which Al-Jazeera itself did not air, through illegal channels;
“Al-Jazeera denounces the fact that CNN resorts to such illegal ways to obtain this tape. Al-Jazeera would have expected CNN to use its judgment and respect its special relationship with Al-Jazeera by not airing material that Al-Jazeera itself chose not to broadcast.”
CNN fired back saying that the broadcast of the tape was within their legal agreement with Al-Jazeera and that they retain the “the express right to use any and all footage owned or controlled by Al-Jazeera, without limitation.”
However, the debate was taken up a notch when CNN anchors Wolf Blitzer and Paula Zahn, among others, lambasted Al-Jazeera for not broadcasting the tape, accusing Al-Jazeera of bias because the tape allegedly incriminated bin Laden and his stooges. Experts were quickly rushed into CNN studios to lay blame on Al-Jazeera and raise the spectre that Al-Jazeera was hiding self-incriminating evidence that bin Laden was directly responsible for the tragedy of September 11.
“Why didn’t they air the tape when they first had it,” asks a bewildered Zahn.
This is not the first time that Al-Jazeera has been in the scope. In October, after the airing of several bin Laden statements, Al-Jazeera was accused of acting as his mouthpiece to incite the Arab world to further hatred and violence. Secretary of State Powell criticized Al-Jazeera for acting without government control; Powell’s statement was ridiculed by Arab nations because it underscored Al-Jazeera’s mission to be a free, democratic-style news station. They speak of democracy and then stifle it in the Arab world, was the outrcy.
Is Al-Jazeera hiding something? No, but CNN certainly is. A day after tearing up Al-Jazeera’s code of journalistic merits and ethics, CNN Headline News reported that U.S. Vice-President Richard Cheney had visited Qatar the day before Al-Jazeera had conducted the interview with bin Laden. Headline News anchor Andrea Thompson said that Cheney had discussions with the Emir of Qatar, in which he discussed the need to prevent Al-Jazeera from becoming a vehicle for bin Laden’s propaganda. Repeat broadcasts of Headline News buried the Cheney link until it was ‘lifted’ off the airwaves altogether.
Al-Jazeera, it seems now, bowed to U.S. pressure not to run the tape (which U.S. and British officials have had a copy of since October) and instead denied its existence. When pressed by CNN for the tape in November, Al-Jazeera, still under pressure from Cheney, cited that the tape was not newsworthy and not of broadcast standard.
Nevertheless, despite evidence of Cheney’s pressure on Al-Jazeera, CNN went full-throttle and implied that Al-Jazeera was covering up for bin Laden. Not surprising, then, that Al-Jazeera has now severed all ties with CNN, including sharing footage and allowing interviews.
CNN owes Al-Jazeera an apology for implying the latter was working in collusion with bin Laden; Al-Jazeera owes its audience an apology for letting politics determine its broadcast agenda.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Muslim Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast.