30 Mar 2003 11:42 BST
Al-Jazeera defends coverage
"I think the audience has the right to see all aspects of the battle," said Jihad Ballout, spokesman for the Qatar-based Jazeera, seen by many as being a major influence in shaping Arab opinion over the U.S.-led war. The 24-hour, Arabic-language, broadcaster deliberated carefully before beaming pictures that could be especially troublesome to viewers, he said, and denied any political bias. "We're not catering for any specific side, or any specific ideology. What we are doing is our business as professionally as possible," Ballout added on Sunday. Images of bombed Baghdad buildings, bloodied and screaming Iraqi children and slain or captured U.S. and British troops seen by millions of viewers anger Washington and London which seek to portray the war as one to liberate Iraqis. "If there's a perceived imbalance, it's purely a function of access," said Ballout He said if the Americans and British gave the station more access to their troops, who invaded Iraq 11 days ago "you would certainly find as much coverage on the ground from there as you would find from the Iraqi side." The station says it has at least 35 million viewers in the Arab world. In Europe, Ballout said, its subscriber figures doubled to eight million homes in the first week of the war. These came mainly in countries with large Muslim populations such as Britain and France. The Pentagon initially offered Jazeera several opportunities to travel with U.S. combat units but only one of these "embed" offers worked out, he said. The others fell through because of visa headaches from Bahrain, a base for allied warships, and Kuwait, launchpad for many journalists covering U.S. and British ground forces. With many ordinary Arabs protesting angrily at the U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, authorities in some Arab states also object to Jazeera's conflict coverage. The station has also drawn U.S. ire for its cover in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its broadcast messages from al Qaed leader Osama bin Laden and, more recently, for showing video footage of Iraqi interrogation of U.S. prisoners of war. "NEGATIVE LIGHT" "They tend to portray our efforts in a negative light," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview with National Public Radio broadcast last Wednesday. The same day, Powell appeared on Jazeera, as have other Bush administration officials to get their messages to Arab viewers. Britain's military commander in the Gulf, Air Marshal Brian Burridge even suggested the station might have become a tool of Iraqi propaganda and violated the Geneva Conventions. The 1949 protocols bind states, not media organisations. Burridge slammed Jazeera for showing "shocking, close-up" pictures of two British troops later said by Prime Minister Tony Blair to have been executed by Iraqis. "Quite apart from the obvious distress that such pictures cause friends and families of the personnel concerned, such disgraceful behaviour is a flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention," Burridge told a briefing at U.S. Central Command's forward headquarters in Qatar last Thursday. But Ballout, a 45-year-old former London-based journalist of Lebanese descent, dismisses such criticism as hypocritical and self-serving. He said other 24-hour news channels like the BBC and CNN had also used footage of Iraqi POWs, hands bounds and heads bowed, that could have upset viewers. "We have covered similar incidents, similar conflicts, in Serbia, in Bosnia, in the (Israeli-) occupied territories and in Afghanistan, and nobody said a thing," he said. "It just strikes me a little bit funny that all the outcrying is taking place" now.
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