BOB GARFIELD: If Afghanistan under the Taliban presents a formidable military challenge, the journalistic one is just as daunting. Western journalists are forbidden entry to the country, and as we have seen with the arrests of British and French reporters, subject to harsh Taliban justice. One news organization, however, has wide access not only the Kabul but also to the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. It is the independent satellite TV station called Al Jazeera. The 5 year old news channel has drawn criticism from Arab and Western governments alike for its coverage. Recently Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the emir of Qatar to ride herd on the news service. Elaine Sciolino is a senior writer for the New York Times. She says it's not the first time an American government has tried to put a lid on Al Jazeera.
ELAINE SCIOLINO: The Clinton administration protested Al Jazeera to the-- to Sheik Hamad, the leader of the Emirate of Qatar after Osama bin Laden did an extraordinarily inflammatory interview back in 1998. It's a double-edged sword though because the administration is tring to make the case that it's irresponsible, but it's operating in a vacuum, and I would argue that in a part of the world where there is an absence of democracy, an absence of civil institutions that allow people to participate -- that allow people to have a voice -- a vehicle like Al Jazeera has a power that's all out of proportion to what really is, which is one television station.
BOB GARFIELD:Osama bin Laden has certainly used Al Jazeera to spread his message. Does it strike you that it would be smart for the West to do approximately the same thing -- to take advantage of Al Jazeera to get its message across to the Islamic world?
ELAINE SCIOLINO: Absolutely. Look, information is a weapon in any war. The fact that very few American officials are willing to go on Al Jazeera and be interviewed! -- I, I was speaking to Hafez Al-Mirhazi who's the Washington bureau chief. He told me he's been begging American officials to explain the American point of view. He even said exploit us! You know please, come, come talk to us!
BOB GARFIELD:Now Tony Blair did - the prime minister of England - did an interview with Al Jazeera. Why is Am-- the United States so reluctant?
ELAINE SCIOLINO: It's not a total reluctance. In fact Colin Powell did give an interview to Al Jazeera. I know that Al Jazeera has asked for an interview with President Bush and at first they kind of were dismissed, but now that, that Al Jazeera's become so important I understand that the White House is actually considering it. So again, if the United States wants to wage a, a war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world it's got to fight with the weapons that the Arab world has.
BOB GARFIELD: We-- on our show just about make a living ridiculing the Fox Newschannel for what--
ELAINE SCIOLINO: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
BOB GARFIELD:-- we regard as letting people vent fairly extreme positions and then being uncritical of them. Is Al Jazeera just sort of the-- maybe the Fox Newschannel of the Arab world, on--only moreso?
ELAINE SCIOLINO: [LAUGHS] Well, I, I would say - I'd, I'd paint it just a little bit in a more complicated landscape that at its best Al Jazeera is the BBC and at its worst it's, it's the worst of Fox. When governments or when institutions like the media try to become more open, it's a, it's a very complicated picture -- in Iran for example there has been an explosion of newspapers and-- television programs since the first election of President Hatami back in 1997. I mean some of the journalism has been superb, and some of it has been full of rumors and excesses.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well! Elaine Sciolino, thank you very much!
ELAINE SCIOLINO: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD:Elaine Scioliono is a senior writer for the New York Times and auther of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran just released in paperback by Touchstone.