Bombing out dissent

Published : Feb 10, 2006 00:00 IST

The Al Jazeera television station in Kabul after it was bombed during the American invasion of Afghanistan. - YANNIS BEHRAKIS/REUTERS

The Al Jazeera television station in Kabul after it was bombed during the American invasion of Afghanistan. - YANNIS BEHRAKIS/REUTERS

A secret document leaked to the British press by two Labour Members of Parliament provides evidence of the Bush administration's long-suspected intention to bomb the offices of Al Jazeera.

IN the second week of January, British newspapers reported that two Labour Members of Parliament had openly defied the United Kingdom's Official Secrets Act by giving out details of a secret British document that provided evidence of the United States' plan to target the Arabic satellite television channel Al Jazeera. Reports that appeared in the American and British media in late 2005 said that President George W. Bush was on the verge of ordering the military to bomb the offices of Al Jazeera in mid-2004.

Washington and London were openly critical of the coverage given by Arabic channels, especially Al Jazeera, to the struggle of the Iraqi resistance against the foreign occupation forces. Al Jazeera's coverage of the civilian carnage inflicted during the siege and capture of the city of Falluja infuriated the top U.S. military brass. The U.S. proposal to bomb its offices came during the siege of Falluja. The U.S. Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, described the channel's coverage of the American military's attempt to subdue Falluja as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable". Senior Bush administration officials have on various occasions criticised the channel for its reportage.

The Bush administration seems to have been serious about its intentions regarding the network. Al Jazeera's offices and correspondents were targeted during the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Its office in Kabul was targeted with cruise missiles. After American forces captured Baghdad, the offices of three Arabic satellite broadcasters were bombed in the Iraqi capital. Not surprisingly, the Al Jazeera office was among the targets. The U.S. military still claims that it was not a case of deliberate targeting.

David Keogh and (below) Leo O'Connor outside Bow Street Magistrates Court in London on January 10. The civil servants are charged under the Official Secrets Act with leaking the transcript of a conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush.

Al Jazeera has been banned from operating in Iraq since last year. The management of Al Jazeera has called for an inquiry into the allegations. Al Jazeera director-general Wadah Khanfar, sent a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in late November last year asking him to clarify whether President Bush had suggested the bombing of the station. The spokesman for the television broadcaster said that if the documents that had surfaced were genuine, it would cast serious doubts on the U.S. government's assertions that its military had not targeted Al Jazeera's offices and personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rumsfeld defended the targeting of radio stations supporting the Taliban in a taped interview in October 2001. He said that there could not be a distinction between civilian and military targets in a "total war" against terrorism. The Bush administration has on several occasions characterised Al Jazeera as an ally of "terrorism". The Al Jazeera correspondent in Spain, Taysur Allumi, is in prison charged by a Spanish court with being a member of Al Qaeda. Allumi's live coverage of the bombardment of Kabul had received international acclaim. He was one of the few correspondents on the ground when American bombs were raining on the country before the fall of Kabul in 2001. Al Jazeera was the prime source of footage for the rest of the world's media during the invasion of Afghanistan.

Alumi's colleagues in the international media have testified to his professional integrity. Al Jazeera has called on journalists worldwide to take up his cause. More than 100 journalists working at Al Jazeera have signed a petition asking the Bush administration to end its "attacks and incitements against Al Jazeera". After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Pentagon awarded the Rendon Group, a public affairs firm, a $16.7 million contract to monitor the media in the Islamic world. It was specifically given the task of keeping a close watch on Al Jazeera bureaus and correspondents and report on their political affiliations and biases.

During the war in Yugoslavia broadcasting stations were the first to be targeted by allied forces. This correspondent visited the charred remains of the headquarters of Serbian State Television and Radio (RTS) in Belgrade in 1999. The station was bombed at a time when it was packed with journalists and other staff. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) headquarters had declared at that time that strikes against television transmitters and broadcast facilities were part of the "campaign to dismantle the propaganda machinery" of the Serbian government.

Al Jazeera, though it enjoys the patronage of the Qatar government, is no propaganda organ. Professional journalists, many of them former employees of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America (VOA), founded it in the mid-1990s. Their aim was to set up a truly free Arabic network, devoid of the propaganda churned out by Western broadcasters as well as the state-controlled television stations in the region. Its popularity in the Arab world is an illustration of its credibility. The station has never been shy of dealing with internal Arab politics, angering many of the governments in the region. It has invariably been the first to broadcast tapes by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zarqawi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This fact has particularly infuriated the hawks in the Bush administration such as Rumsfeld.

Initially, both White House and Whitehall tried to fend off the media allegations by characterising them as frivolous. White House spokesman Scott McLellan said in November 2005 that he was "not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response". At around the same time Blair denied that the satellite broadcaster was ever mentioned as an object of military targeting during his discussions with Bush. However, the Labour MP, Peter Kilfoyle, who once held the Defence portfolio in the British Cabinet, has said that a document in his possession contains the transcript of a meeting on the subject between Blair and Bush in April 2004.

According to the transcript, published on the front page of the British newspaper The Daily Mirror, it was the British Prime Minister's persuasive powers that stopped Bush from giving the go-ahead to the U.S. military to bomb the Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The documents were given to Kilfoyle by Tony Clarke, who until recently was an MP. Clarke's office got the papers from David Keogh, an official working in the Cabinet Office of the British government. The British government has initiated criminal proceedings under the Official Secrets Act against the civil servants involved in the leak of the documents.

Many British journalists have taken strong objection to the bullying tactics adopted by the Blair government against those who dared to publish the truth about Bush and Al Jazeera. The British government has responded that such steps were taken to pre-empt embarrassment to Bush and the British government.

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