Reach Out and Censor Someone?

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Algerian anchor Khadija Ben Guenna on the Doha-based Al-Jazeera network

When national security is at stake, American newspapers and networks take it upon themselves to tread more carefully on controversial issues — a right, rather than a requirement, of democracy. But while few would argue with our right to censor ourselves, our First Amendment alarm bells might start jangling if the government actually tried to set parameters for news coverage. Thus the curious questions raised when the U.S. government, in the interests of national security, is perceived to be reaching across borders and to rein in media coverage in foreign countries.

Ask the folks running Al-Jazeera, arguably the most influential television station in the Middle East. As of this week, the outspoken network has officially been "encouraged" to "balance" its coverage of the region's news — i.e. "tone down" any anti-American sentiment.

This hazy request (or was it a warning?) came during a meeting earlier this week between Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Emir of Qatar, who is also Al-Jazeera's founder and primary benefactor. As is so often the case when First Amendment expectations collide with wartime diplomacy, the parameters of "acceptable censorship" seem to depend entirely upon personal perception. In this case, anyway, Powell's entreaty does not appear to have crossed any serious lines of protocol.

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"The State Department is certainly allowed to request that Qatar rein in its reporting," says Belle Adler, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "The problem is when and if the U.S. government instigates legal proceeding against another country's journalists, doing things like subpoenaing reporters, revoking licenses, or throwing people in jail. We haven't seen that happen here, and I very much doubt it will." Even though the Qataris haven't exactly agreed to acquiesce.

Since its inception five years ago, Al Jazeera has been the toast of most Western media. American newsmagazines (including TIME) and newspapers sang the praises of the Doha-based satellite channel's defiantly novel approach to reporting news in the Middle East. By the late 1990s, CNN was so impressed by the news channel's coverage and influence that the Atlanta-based network added Al-Jazeera to their list of 200 international affiliates, a relationship that allows each network to use the other's video feed and pictures.

Rather than feed its audience the officially-sanctioned, cookie-cutter version of events typical of the region's state-owned networks, Al Jazeera gives equal time to dissident, even revolutionary views of Islam, human rights and the governments of the region. And such irreverence has naturally earned it plenty of enemies among the authoritarian regimes that run the Arab world. But it has also drawn a loyal audience of some 40 million viewers, based everywhere from Washington to Tehran.

Founded in 1996 by Qatar's Emir Hamad bin Khalifa, the fledgling news channel quickly became famous among locals, and infamous among the regimes of the Gulf States, many of which went to great lengths (including turning off electricity to an entire country) to prevent their subjects being exposed to Al-Jazeera's "sensationalist" programming.

While its liberal coverage has raised hackles among members of the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups, Al-Jazeera strives to maintain working relationships with organizations across the region's ideological spectrum. And that inevitably makes it, on occasion, a platform for some fiercely anti-American views. In a rare 1998 interview on the network, Osama bin Laden exhorted fellow Muslims to "target all Americans."

Al-Jazeera's broad mix of views doesn't much bother Washington, except when U.S. interests are perceived to be at immediate risk. In 1998, during a flare-up in tension between Iraq and the U.S., the Pentagon balked at story lines critical of American foreign policy. Washington's complaints went unheeded three years ago, and today, Emir Hamad remains defiant. "Whenever we hear from our friends (on the topic of Al-Jazeera), we consider this as a friendly advice and we listen to the friends and their advice," he told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. "But the issue here is the program that has been put together in Qatar. Qatar is embarking onů a parliamentary life with a democracy, which dictates that freedom of the press should be granted, and that press should enjoy credibility."