Prime Time for the "Arab CNN"

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Osama bin Laden is seen at an undisclosed location in this television image

If the Gulf War belonged to CNN, this newest fight is the province of an upstart Arab cable news channel called Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based station is the only media outlet with a correspondent and cameras in Kabul, and it has scored significant coups in broadcasting statements from Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization after the attack. Too significant, from the Bush Administration point of view; the White House Wednesday asked media outlets to exercise restraint in showing al Qaeda video because it may contain secret messages to terrorists.

Because it is the only source of the money shot of modern warfare, video of U.S. attacks from the ground of the city being hit, Al Jazeera has been very much in demand. Other U.S. news organizations protested loudly when CNN attempted to wrap up exclusive rights to show Al Jazeera's Kabul video (CNN later backed down, and the video feeds are available to all media outlets) and the "Arab CNN" now finds itself as the channel of the moment.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]That's not surprising. Since its inception five years ago, Al Jazeera (its name means "the Peninsula" in Arabic) has been the toast of Western media. American newsmagazines (including TIME) and newspapers sang the praises of the channel's defiantly novel approach to reporting news in the Middle East. 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 governments of the Gulf States, many of which went to great lengths (including in one case 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. That came into play last week, when the U.S. officially asked the channel to tone down what the Bush Administration believed were anti-American sentiments in broadcasts. 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 last 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." For Al Jazeera, with each passing day in Kabul, that credibility is rising.