Al Jazeera  — friend or a foe?

Frequently condemned in the West and occasionally bombed by the United States,  the famous Arab news service  Al Jazeera gives a fresh perspective on world news. Now it has recruited acclaimed former BBC Tv reporter Rageh Omaar, who gives The-Latest. his  verdict.   

Al Jazeera, with its headquarters in Doha, Qatar, often covers topics most other 24/7 news operations, such as CNN, Sky News or even the BBC, do not. But the contents are a well-tested mix of hard-hitting news, documentaries, interviews and lighter material. Al Jazeera Arabic was launched in 1996 as a news and current affairs satellite TV channel. It rose from the ashes of the BBC World Service's Arab TV service, closed down after the co-owner, the government of Saudi Arabia, demanded it to be censored.

The Emir of Qatar, who regards Al Jazeera as his country's greatest export, provided an initial US$150m grant to help launch the channel, and has continued financial support since. Today Al Jazeera provides a whole network of TV channels, including a sports and a children's channel.

Launched in November 2006, Al Jazeera English is broadcast via satellite and internet to bring news from a Middle Eastern perspective to a global audience. The launch can be seen as taking on  "the big boys" of global rolling news at their own game. Many of Al Jazeera's employees have come from other big news agencies. Sir David Frost is perhaps the biggest name among the many BBC recruits. The 66-year-old has interviews with seven US presidents (including the first post-Watergate interviews with Nixon) and six British prime ministers under his belt.

Rageh Omaar is also one of the top recruits to the channel's English service. An Oxford-educated journalist, who moved to Britain at the age of six from Somalia, he previously worked for the BBC as its Iraq and Africa correspondent.

He said:  "Our newsroom is by far the most diverse newsroom I have ever worked in. Other broadcasters have very global audiences as well. But if you broadcast to 30 different cultures and 80 per cent  of your newsroom is British, how can you speak to those people?"

The objectives of Al Jazeera's English service are to emphasise news from the developing world, reverse the North to South flow of information and set the news agenda. It is the first ever channel to be broadcast from the Middle East in English, with a bold mission  "to introduce nations, cultures, and civilizations to each other". It is aiming to become the  "last great 24-hour news network".

 "The BBC and CNN would say we are their main competitors. They enjoyed a nice situation, like Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola. But now the audiences have somewhere else to go, and they have to improve, which is good for everyone," says   Omaar.

"We are covered the Nigerian presidential elections live. This is the country where one in four people of Africa live, 15 per cent  of America's oil comes from there, yet nobody is bothering to  properly report  the elections."

For many people in the West - especially in the United States - the name Al Jazeera first sprang into consciousness after the September 11th attacks that felled the twin towers in New York. Al Jazeera Arabic was sent tapes by Osama bin Laden, some of which it broadcast, demeaning the US and praising the attacks that killed around 3,000 people.

Considering that most Americans do not pay much attention to foreign news, the fact that they heard about Al Jazeera for the first time in this context hardly did the channel any favours. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence at the time, accused Al Jazeera of telling  "vicious lies" and becoming the  "distribution method of choice" for Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda.

Al Jazeera has gained a reputation as an unusually independent voice in the Middle East. In 1999, Jordan ordered the closure of the Al Jazeera bureau in its capital Amman, accusing it of  "intentionally attacking the Jordanian people and regime".   Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt also have complained about the channel's coverage.

Omaar admits that the channel has an image problem to overcome in the US. He emphasises that, contrary to rumours, Al Jazeera has never shown kidnappings or beheadings. He defends showing the Bin Laden tapes.  "Viewers we able to see them in many countries so Al Jazeera made them available to news outlet throughout the world."

Al Jazeera's   English service  is not yet broadcast nationwide in the US, as no cable network provider has included the channel in its programming. It has been available via You Tube since April 16. Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News is the most watched cable news channel in the US. It regularly has the Stars and Stripes flag decorating its news studio, such is media moghul Murdoch's bias.

Omaar, however, is optimistic about Al Jazeera's prospects in the US.  "We in Europe think America is so much behind but they have the most powerful anti-war movement. Bloggers, protesters, alternative media ... even actors in Hollywood. They are far ahead of Britain."

Over the years, Al Jazeera's operations have encountered some serious attacks. In November 2001, a US missile destroyed Al-Jazeera's office in Afghanistan. In 2003, journalist Tareq Ayyoub was killed when the network's Baghdad bureau was struck during a US bombing campaign. The US claims both attacks were mistakes.

Last year it was revealed that British prime minister Tony Blair talked George Bush, the US president,  out of bombing the broadcaster's Doha headquarters during a meeting between the two leaders in April 2004.

Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj has been held by the US as an  'enemy combatant' in Guantanamo Bay since 2002, even though his treatment has been widely condemned by international human rights and press freedom groups. He is believed to be the only journalist from a major international news organisation being  held there.

Al Hajj, who has reportedly started a hunger strike recently, responded to the allegations by saying:  "With all due respect, a mistake has been made because I have never been a member of any terrorist group."

This married man is likely to mark his fifth anniversary in Guantanamo  in June, with his wife and son in Qatar. The US military has said he faces at least one more year at the detainment camp. Reporters Without Borders cited his case when it dropped the US to 53rd place in its 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

Taysir Allouni, the only journalist to have interviewed Osama bin Laden post 9/11, was arrested in Spain in September 2003. Allouni was sentenced in September 2005 to seven years in prison for being a financial courier for al-Qaeda, despite his own and Al Jazeera's protestations of his innocence. He was set free in October 2006 and placed under home detention due to ill health.

Al Jazeera English service  is watched by an exceptionally diverse audience. It is worth remembering that most Muslims do not speak Arabic. For example, Pakistan has a population of nearly 170 million, whereas Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. A BBC study of viewing patterns among Asians has found a  "deep lack of trust" of the broadcasters' coverage of Islam and relations between the Middle East and the West.

Witness, the show Omaar presents which,  "always tries to do fresh stories that haven't been told, by filmmakers from societies in Africa, Asia and Middle East  — not forgetting Europe." For example, the story of a girl from the Masai tribe in Kenya who, after various ups and downs, gains a scholarship to a university in Chicago. And no, Uncle Sam is not always bad, nor is Masai culture always the best.

Al-Jazeera was awarded the prestigious Index on Censorship prize for upholding freedom of expression in 2003. The judges said:  "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 willingness to give opposition groups a high-profile platform has left it with a reputation for credible news among Arab viewers. But that same quality has enraged Arab governments and the US  — which have sought to have the station more closely controlled."

When talk turns to Iraq, Omaar's voice grows stronger and optimism fades. The country, Iraq,   from where he reported live during the second Gulf War, and where he made many friends,  "has been completely destroyed".

 "Four million, mostly well educated, people have left Iraq. It is the largest movement of people in the Middle East since the creation of the state of Israel. American soldiers, 160,000 of them, cannot protect themselves. So how can they protect 24 million Iraqis?" he asks.

What  Omaar finds interesting is that the politicians are now starting to blame the Iraqis themselves, saying things like maybe the  they are not ready or do not want democracy. Omaar says, wryly:  "I don't think we have accepted our responsibility in the West. This will come back to haunt us. Iraq has strengthened al-Qaeda."

To decide for yourself, go to youtube.com or see Al Jazeera 's English serviceas a part of   Welho's Forte   package, if you have cable. Otherwise you can receive it for free from the satellite dish Hotbird or check it out online.

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