BOB GARFIELD: During the coverage of the war on terror the independent TV news service Al-Jazeera had unique access to the Arab street and even to the terrorist group Al Qaeda. Now it is well placed to cover any future war with Iraq. While it often has scooped the Western press, Al-Jazeera has been charged with bias as well against Israel and against several Arab governments too. Ibrahim Halal is chief editor of Al-Jazeera, and he joins us on the phone from Doha, Qatar. Welcome to On the Media.
IBRAHIM HALAL: Thanks a lot.
BOB GARFIELD: If CNN owned the first Gulf War, is it your desire to "own" this one?
IBRAHIM HALAL: Actually if we think like we are trying to be exclusive and to be the prominent channel in any coverage, I think it will distort our editorial judgment. It's much easier to think editorially where and when and how we should cover, and if we do that carefully and as perfect as possible, I think we can do better job than anybody else, like we have done in Afghanistan. We invested in Afghanistan. We thought of being there two years before any crisis. I think this was a good planning from our management. In Iraq we are trying to do the same. We are trying to be in the appropriate places, in the appropriate time.
BOB GARFIELD: How well situated are you to cover the war from within?
IBRAHIM HALAL:To be honest with you, it's not an easy job. Even when we speak about any future of Iraq after Saddam, it's really sensitive for them to deal with us in Baghdad. Because we are transmitting in Arabic and we are widely watched in the Middle East, they monitor us, and when we mentioned in any interview a future of Iraq after Saddam, it's really a, a headache for our correspondents in Baghdad.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me go back to the last war or I guess it's still going on in Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera and, by the way, not alone in this regard, was criticized for focusing on what the Pentagon calls "collateral damage" to civilians during the prosecution of the war. First of all do you think you were an evenhanded broker of the war in Afghanistan, and have you learned lessons in covering that war that you'll carry forward to a war in Iraq?
IBRAHIM HALAL: The most important lesson we learned from Afghanistan war is we must have a backup for any important place, because when we lost Kabul after the collapse of the Taliban regime, our office was considered a target for American planes, and it was bombed. That's why we lost the coverage for a couple of days until we -- thanks to our coalition with CNN -we managed to return back to the scene. When, when it comes to civilian casualties, focusing on the humanitarian issues in any war or even in any crisis is-- appreciated! Because if we lost our concern to humanitarian issues, we don't deserve to be in, in this world.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you about Saddam Hussein. There's been a lot of debate in the Western press about the prospects for a war in Iraq -- most of it, I would say, especially in Europe against a U.S. pre-emptive assault on Saddam Hussein. But at the same time it's in the context of a press that agrees pretty much unanimously that the man is a tyrant; the man is a mass-murderer; a threat certainly to Israel and to his own population and possibly to America and the rest of the world. Does that framework extend to Al-Jazeera? Do you begin with the presumption that Saddam Hussein is an evil force in the world that eventually has to be reckoned with or are you hyper-neutral on this issue?
IBRAHIM HALAL: Really, we, we, we must be aware of the history. Saddam Hussein was ruling Iraq for more than 22 years now. And nobody talked about Saddam Hussein as a tyranny or a of as a mass murderer or something like that, because it was very important for the West to have a coalition with Saddam Hussein against Iran threat. If you talk now about Saddam Hussein as a tyranny, why you don't talk about the Gulf area rulers as tyranny? Why you don't talk about some rulers in the Middle East apart from the Gulf area as tyrannies? Al-Jazeera is an Arabic channel. We have people from different Arab countries. We are living in this region, and we know better than anybody else the history of this region. We must stop talking about any threat to America or any threat to Israel. We must just talk about the disarmament and the monitoring operation, the observers and the return of UN inspectors. This is, bluntly, the only thing we can talk about, and this is the only thing could be convincing for the Arab viewers, including the Iraqi viewers.
BOB GARFIELD:I have my opinions about Saddam Hussein and any prospects for a war, and I'm a subjective reporter and I try to separate to the degree that I can my personal opinion from my reporting. Other reporters who are ostensibly more objective -- news reporters with the New York Times and ABC and CNN and what have you -- also have their opinions but according to Western standards, do their best to keep their personal biases separated from their coverage of any given story. Do your biases or your personal point of view about the situation in Iraq and in Iraq vis-a-vis the Arab street and in Iraq vis-a-vis the West -- does your opinion represent the institutional position of Al-Jazeera?
IBRAHIM HALAL: First of all let me ask you what do you mean by "more objective" in the very early part of your question?
BOB GARFIELD: Well I mean keeping a, a, a tr-- keeping balance, fairness, trying to keep your personal viewpoint away from your coverage. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
IBRAHIM HALAL: It's really, it's really, it's really, it's really-- no, no, no - it's really weird, it's really weird from an American journalist to call the Western media "more objective" than Al-Jazeera because what was proven after September 11th -- that your media was not objective any more after you were very subjective to your sensitivities and to orders you got from your officials regarding Afghanistan. I mean we are fighting the same battle. We are fighting against bad information --against blockage of information - against squeezing the information and ignoring the context of the information.
BOB GARFIELD: Ibrahim Halal, thank you very much!
IBRAHIM HALAL: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Ibrahim Halal is chief editor of Al-Jazeera. He spoke to us from Doha, Qatar. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Dick Armey -- new crusader against big media? And what news consumers can learn from the Cuban missile crisis.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.
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