Hiding Osama

By sitting on a damning interview with the al-Qaida leader, the Arab network Al-Jazeera proved it's a propaganda outlet, not a news organization.

Published February 3, 2002 12:22AM (EST)

One of the ongoing journalistic sideshows since Sept. 11 and the unfolding war on terrorism has been the debate about the Arabic-language cable news network Al-Jazeera. To its defenders, including many on the far left, such as the media watchdog group FAIR, Al-Jazeera was on a journalistic par with CNN and other all-news networks, just broadcasting from a strikingly different, non-Western perspective. To the U.S. government and other critics, including many mainstream journalists, it not only had an obvious bias -- describing Palestinian suicide bombers as "martyrs," for example -- but is a font of bin Laden sympathizers, riling up Muslim sentiments by making itself a virtual mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden.

So who was right?

On Thursday evening, the people running Al-Jazeera went pretty far toward answering that question.

CNN broadcast that evening what is apparently the only interview with Osama bin Laden conducted before cameras after Sept. 11 and the U.S.-led bombing missions began in Afghanistan. There have been al-Qaida-produced tapes, of course, some of which made it onto American airwaves. There was even the notorious "home video" in which bin Laden discussed his involvement in the attacks. But until Thursday, we had never seen an interview in which anyone got to ask questions and follow-ups of the head of al-Qaida.

"If inciting people to do that [the Sept. 11 bombings] is terrorism," bin Laden says on the tape, "and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists." The leader of al-Qaida also reacted with a "non-denial denial" when asked whether he was behind the anthrax attacks, which were then rattling the nerves of America and clogging the delivery of mail across the country.

The tape belonged to Al-Jazeera, but the network not only refused to broadcast it, it denied its existence. Indeed, the tape only made its way onto the airwaves because CNN acquired a copy through what the Atlanta-based network calls a source "not affiliated with Al-Jazeera ... [or] any government or intelligence agency." Afterward, Al-Jazeera announced it had severed its business relationship with CNN over the airing of the tape. But according to CNN representative Christa Robinson, CNN's contract with Al-Jazeera gave the network "express right to use any and all footage owned or controlled by Jazeera, without limitation."

This isn't the first we've heard of Al-Jazeera's bin Laden video. Western intelligence sources apparently intercepted the interview shortly after it was taped and British Prime Minister Tony Blair actually read from a portion of it in the House of Commons on Nov. 14 -- though at the time it was unclear where the quotations had come from. At the time, Al-Jazeera denied that an interview had taken place -- even to CNN, to which the Qatar-based network apparently had a legal obligation to make the tape available. Later, Al-Jazeera representatives alternated between explanations, saying first that the interview was not newsworthy, and then that their reporter had been intimidated by bin Laden. On Friday, an anonymous Al-Jazeera journalist, quoted by Reuters, said that the network had held off on airing the tape because "we decided under the circumstances at that time that airing the interview would have strengthened the belief that we are a mouthpiece for bin Laden."

As a number of commentators have noted, some of Al-Jazeera's explanations contradict others; but the similarity connecting each of them is that none passes the smell test. Al-Jazeera's main argument has been the interview's lack of newsworthiness -- that highly elastic and often inconsistent standard that U.S. networks have also used to resist showing bin Laden material.

But last fall, al-Qaida produced tapes of self-serving propaganda that broke no real news. And yet Al-Jazeera broadcast each of the videos al-Qaida representatives gave it. These, by definition, are more self-serving than even the most sycophantic journalist's interview. Bin Laden answering questions from a journalist -- even an intimidated one -- can't be less newsworthy than bin Laden filmed by an al-Qaida cameraman and prepped by his spokesman.

"As a journalist, I'm mystified that they held it back," says Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden," and one of the few Western journalists ever to interview bin Laden. "The notion that this was not newsworthy is ludicrous."

Al-Jazeera's improbable rationales force us to consider a host of less flattering explanations. And there's no shortage of possibilities.

One rumor that has circulated widely among journalists and in the Arab world has it that bin Laden's harsh rhetoric during the interview toward the Emir of Qatar, the owner of Al-Jazeera, got the tape shelved. But as Bergen points out, any small mentions of the Emir could have easily been edited out of the interview, which runs some 60 minutes. Others have speculated that, as the anonymous Al-Jazeera reporter commented to Reuters, the network held off because it was stung by Western charges that it was acting as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden. But this explanation hardly works either since Al-Jazeera continued to air bin Laden videos as late as the end of December, when it broadcast the tape of the then-enfeebled bin Laden attacking the U.S. for causing civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Bergen actually does not find any of the explanations of Al-Jazeera's decision fully convincing and believes there must be some missing part of the puzzle we are not yet aware of. "Surely it's the TV scoop of the last 20 years. It's the only TV interview of bin Laden after Sept. 11. It would be one thing if this were some minor al-Qaida functionary. But that's hardly the case," he said. "It certainly doesn't add up." (Representatives in Al-Jazeera's Washington office did not return calls by Salon for comment.)

But with so many of the explanations falling apart on close scrutiny, one remains. It would turn out to be the most damning.

From the start, Al-Jazeera's defenders have argued that it is as legitimate a journalistic enterprise as any other -- just one that appears (from a Western perspective) as biased or inflammatory since it operates from such a different worldview. The network's detractors have claimed quite the opposite: Al-Jazeera operates under a patina of journalistic professionalism and objectivity, they argue, while actually acting in sympathy with al-Qaida. To its critics, Al-Jazeera had an interest in making al-Qaida look good and America look bad. And indeed, when the bin Laden interview is seen in the context not of today but of three months ago, bin Laden looks worse -- guilty, boastful, full of hate -- than he did in his al-Qaida-produced performances.

At the time, it was almost two months before the United States released the home video -- which, again, was released by the U.S. government and not from Al-Jazeera -- in which bin Laden detailed his intimate and detailed knowledge of the attacks. By late October, Americans were more than convinced that bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. But that certainty was far from widespread in the Muslim world. And there were questions even in the United States about whether bin Laden had actual operational control over the attacks or whether he was simply their instigator and funder. In other words, in late October the interview was extremely newsworthy and would have fatally undermined those still arguing that bin Laden might be innocent of the crime. Such as Al-Jazeera.

Another key part of the tape is bin Laden's evasive non-denial of responsibility for the anthrax attacks in the United States. Law enforcement officials now seem increasingly convinced that the anthrax mailings were a case of domestic, and not al-Qaida-related, terrorism. But that certainly wasn't the assumption three months ago. In late October, the United States was in the throes of the anthrax scare and it was widely believed that al-Qaida was behind the attacks. In that climate, bin Laden's refusal to deny responsibility for the anthrax attacks would have been almost as damning as his quasi-admission about Sept. 11.

It's in the nature of journalism to always err on the side of publishing information rather than retaining it. And thus it was always difficult to question Al-Jazeera's decisions to broadcast bin Laden's rants, even when U.S. networks decided to refrain, because whatever their inflammatory effect, they had an undeniable news value. Al-Jazeera still can't be dismissed out of hand. It remains an exception to the rule of government-controlled media in the Arab world, and has broadcast on many topics that the government-controlled media ignore.

But the irony of this apparent denouement of the long-running debate over bin Laden videos is that Al-Jazeera's credibility as a journalistic rather than a propagandistic entity has apparently been sealed not by what it chose to broadcast, but what it chose not to.

That Al-Jazeera didn't deem the interview fit to print raises a nauseating, and inevitable, question: Did the network refuse to show the tape because it was too unfavorable to bin Laden? In the face of Al-Jazeera's lame excuses so far, it seems a logical conclusion.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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