Reporters Without Borders condemns persistent harassment of al-Jazeera
Friday January 28, 2005
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders* has protested at what it calls the "persistent harassment" of Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera.
And it has called on the Iraqi government to reverse the August 2004 decision made by the interim leadership to shut down al-Jazeera's Baghdad office.
Reporters Without Borders said that since the start of 2004, al-Jazeera has been "harshly criticised" by Saudi Arabia and America and has been censored in Algeria, Iran, Tunisia and Canada.
The press freedom organisation said that the channel, launched in Qatar in November 1996, annoyed some countries by giving airtime to their opponents and by breaching political and social taboos.
"We regret that some governments have no hesitation in censoring al-Jazeera, the leading Arabic news channel, to protect their political and diplomatic interests," said the group.
The interim Iraqi government accused the channel of "incitement to racial hatred and tension" and in November last year the defence minister, Hazem Shaalan, called al-Jazeera a "terrorist channel".
"May God curse all those who terrorise Iraqi citizens and Iraq's children, whether they are journalists or others. The day will come when we deal with al-Jazeera in other ways than with words," Mr Shaalan said.
Last year the US accused the channel of stoking up anti-American feelings in its coverage of events in Iraq.
And Saudi Arabia has banned al-Jazeera from covering the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca for the third year in a row, the latest in a long line of obstacles put in the way of its operations in many countries.
One of the channel's presenters, M'hamed Krichen, said the Saudi authorities have refused all requests for accreditation to cover the pilgrimage since 2003.
Krichen said the Saudi authorities did not distinguish between al-Jazeera and the Qatari government, with which diplomatic relationships have broken down.
In Canada, TV distributors are only allowed to carry al-Jazeera's broadcasts if they monitor them around the clock and agree to censor or cut them "to avoid distribution of offensive remarks".
The channel has also been blocked in Algeria since June 2004, the first time in 10 years that a foreign channel has been banned.
Reporters Without Borders said the Algerian authorities used the pretext of reorganising the work of foreign correspondents and press in the country to inflict the ban, but it transpired that only al-Jazeera was affected by the changes.
The watchdog said the ban followed the broadcast of a debate about Algeria in which opposition figures criticised the government.
Iran has threatened sanctions against the al-Jazeera bureau in its country on several occasions. In November 2004, the government in Tehran told the channel to remove a cartoon it considered offensive from its website or face restrictions on it operations in Iran.
The channel was threatened with expulsion a second time for referring to the "Arabic Gulf" and not the "Persian Gulf".
Tunisian authorities refused the channel's application to open an office and to accredit its correspondents to cover the October 2004 presidential elections. The Tunisian authorities said it would allow the channel in if it could choose which correspondent was sent.
Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout said the channel would not change its editorial line because of the attacks.
"We are simple observers, and not actors. We do not apply any political judgment and we try to present a balanced coverage of the conflict. We give equal airtime to the Iraqi people as to the insurgents and the US forces," Mr Ballout said.
Reporters Without Borders also urged the US authorities to either explain its detention of al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj at the Cuban military base at Guantánamo Bay, or release him immediately.
Al-Haj, a Sudanese national, has been held by US forces since the start of 2002 at Guantánamo Bay. His wife has had no news of him for 18 months and the reasons for his detention remain unknown.
And al-Jazeera is growing increasingly alarmed about the health one of its journalists who is awaiting trial in Spain on terrorist-related charges.
Tayseer Allouni - a Syrian-born Spanish citizen and one of the channel's top journalists - was arrested in September 2003 on what al-Jazeera believes are politically motivated, trumped up charges.
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