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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK

US urges curb on Arab TV channel

Washington has asked Qatar to rein in the influential and editorially independent Arabic al-Jazeera television station, which gives airtime to anti-American opinions.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, confirmed after a meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington that he had been asked to exert influence on the Qatari-based channel, which can be received almost worldwide.

It was al-Jazeera which carried the faxed statement purportedly from Osama bin Laden, calling upon Muslims to fight the US, and broadcast unconfirmed reports that members of the US special forces had been captured in Afghanistan.

It has also been re-transmitting an exclusive interview with Bin Laden conducted three years ago, and featuring a number of anti-American analysts on its talkshows.

Al-Jazeera's apparent independence in a region where much of the media is state-run has transformed it into the most popular station in the Middle East.

Its confrontation of controversial issues and string of scoops, which have included footage of the infamous Taleban destruction of ancient Buddha statues, has earned it praise both within the Arab world and beyond.

Free media

The US is not the first to feel aggrieved by al-Jazeera coverage, which has in the past provoked anger from Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt for giving airtime to political dissidents.

Correspondents say that its coverage of the Palestinian uprising, already known to infuriate Israel, is not helpful to the US at a time when it is desperately wants Arab countries to see peace in the Middle East.

Sheikh Hamad, the ruler of the oil-rich Persian Gulf state, reminded of the need for "free and credible media" after his meeting with Mr Powell, who is trying to build up a global alliance against international terrorism which includes Arab states.

He said he viewed the request as "advice".

The visit by the emir was of particular importance as he is also the chairman of the Organization of Islamic Conference, which includes 56 countries.

After his meeting with Mr Powell he pledged Qatar's full-co-operation. But in an interview with al-Jazeera television he also stressed that the focus of the US campaign must be well considered.

"What happened in the United States has indubitably harmed the reputation of the Arabs," he said. "But the American people must understand that terrorism is not confined to the Arabs."

The US has been at pains to stress that its war is against terrorists and not against Islam.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is currently on tour in the Middle East in a bid to shore up support among Muslims.

Thursday October 11, 9:46 PM

Qatar's Al-Jazeera repels US attacks citing press freedom

DOHA, Oct 11 (AFP) - Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite channel has firmly rebuffed US attacks on its coverage of the Afghan crisis, vowing to continue to give air time to prime terror suspect Osama bin Laden in the name of press freedom.

"We will continue our work in a professional manner whether it be in Afghanistan or elsewhere ... offering a margin of freedom in the Arab world," Al-Jazeera chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani pledged Thursday.

Al-Jazeera is revelling in the scoops bin Laden's tapes have provided since US and Britain air strikes on key military installations and training camps of the Saudi-born Islamist's Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan that began Sunday.

The White House warned Wednesday that bin Laden, blamed for the devastating September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, may be using the taped statements to give coded orders to his followers to kill more Americans.

It urged television networks to reconsider airing them in their entirety.

"At best, Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans. At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

His comments followed those of US Secretary of State Colin Powell accusing Al-Jazeera of giving too much air time to Islamic extremists and others with radical views in its coverage of the US-led war on terrorism.

"There have been comments from the United States and we have listened to them. If there are errors, which is possible in any journalistic work, it will be normal to rectify it," Sheikh Hamad said.

"Yes, we will do it," he said when asked if the channel would continue to broadcast bin Laden's video messages, adding it would also go after "scoops whatever their origin ... and news wherever we find it."

During the 1991 Gulf War "CNN broadcast speeches by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein without being accused of incitement" against the West, Sheikh Hamad reasoned.

One diplomat in Doha told AFP that the issue "risks harming Qatar, whose leaders do not seem to be able to take stock of the deep anger of the United States."

Another diplomat said that, "up until now, the United States has supported Qatar. But America's national interests are now at stake ... if Qatar does not cooperate on Al-Jazeera's broadcasting of bin Laden's messages, it risks a lot in a geopolitical context in complete transformation."

After a conference call with Condoleezza Rice, US President George W. Bush's national security advisor, executives from US television networks ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox agreed Wednesday not to broadcast videotapes of remarks by bin Laden or his aides without reviewing them first.

That did not, however, prevent CNN from broadcasting live footage of Al-Jazeera's anchorman in the station's Doha studios and correspondent in Kabul on Thursday with simultaneous translation into English.

Despite US accusations that Al-Jazeera peddles "inflammatory rhetoric", President George W. Bush has also not ruled out an appearance on the Arabic station -- the only 24-hour news channel allowed to operate in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan.

Bin Laden has borne fruit in his championing of the Palestinian cause and of the decade-long suffering Iraqis on top of his rallying cry to liberate the Arabian peninsula -- the cradle of Islam.

Demonstrations have erupted around the Muslim world from the Palestinian territories to Iraq, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Powell raised the matter of Al-Jazeera last week with Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar who, as the station's main backer, has been projected as a champion of the free press.

That move drew angry responses from the network as well as press freedom advocates who said the United States was trying to muzzle one of the few independent voices in the Arabic-language media.

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