Al-Jazeera

REPORTER: Geoff Parish

When Osama bin Laden delivered his latest message to the world, it was heard first on al-Jazeera television.

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And today, they broadcast one of his lieutenants warning there were 2 million martyrs waiting to die in the war against America. Broadcast from the small Gulf state of Qatar, millions of viewers are tuning in to al-Jazeera TV. It`s become the preferred news service across the region. They have a journalist still reporting from Kabul, and provided exclusive footage of the American Embassy there being ransacked last week. But giving prime time coverage to bin Laden and repeatedly broadcasting his message is controversial. But that doesn`t worry al-Jazeera.

ACHMED SHEIKH, NEWS DIRECTOR: Osama bin Laden, like it or not, is a party to the present crisis. Now, if we say “No, we are not going to allow you, to give you the air time that is needed,” then we are losing our integrity and our objectivity and the story will become unbalanced.

They`re committed to free speech – a rarity amongst Arab media.

DR ANDREW VINCENT, MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY: This is an independent satellite television system which presents the news not subject to any government controls. Now, the Middle East is pretty well known for having draconian censorship, and each country has a pretty tight control over its national media.

And knowing that war against Afghanistan has turned into a battle for hearts and minds, Tony Blair appeared on al-Jazeera yesterday to defend the bombing and ran into some tough questions.

INTERVIEWER – AL-JAZEERA TV: Osama bin Laden linked his struggle to the Palestinian issue and the Western military presence in the Gulf. Don`t you think it`s time that the West did something about the Palestinian question?

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PM: But we do want to do something about the Palestinian question. In Britain, Europe and the US, we`re desperate to see the peace process back on track.

JOURNALIST: We basically report the truth, what`s out there, we come straight to the point, we get one side and the other side. It`s very important for people to see that.

The ruling Emir or King of Qatar has backed the station financially, but wanted the journalists to have complete editorial independence. The station employs journalists from over 20 Arab countries. Jamil Azar has been a journalist for 40 years and was one of the founding fathers of the station. He says at first it was difficult to convince his staff that they had the freedom to write what they wanted.

JAMIL AZAR, PRODUCER/PRESENTER: It took some time in order to make them see that, say the President is not the news, so to speak, because they would look at every news story and try to find out where did the highest official fit into it and make the news around him, rather than go to the news story as such. So it was quite challenging, but we succeeded, and I think that is what made al-Jazeera popular.

In this morning meeting, there are journalists originally from Jordan, Lebanon, and the more repressive regimes of Sudan and Iraq. Before she fled for her life, Shezan Yacouby used to work for the Ministry of Information in Iraq.

SHEZAN YACOUBY, PRODUCER: In your career it`s a new life, yes. To have freedom to write what you think is true. Not, not, not even it`s true, to write what is happening, in fact, even not from your point of view, but what`s happening.

This is what al-Jazeera TV is all about – 24-hour live news coverage. The producers and directors are trying to juggle three satellites at the same time. They need instant reaction from the players to stay on top. In this case, the viewers get three perspectives on the Middle East crisis – a Palestinian official from Ramallah, an independent analyst from London, and even the Israeli Government spokesperson. Giving the Israelis air time is seen as sacrilege in much of the Arab world, but for al-Jazeera, it`s balance. On air there`s no hint of the behind-the-scenes chaos. The presenters have become stars because of al-Jazeera`s new approach.

EMMAN BANOUR, PRESENTER: I`m not going to talk about myself, I hate that. But I guess I am – I am famous.

On the other side of the Middle East, Palestinian refugees in Jordan are getting news they never had. Before, it was censored news from Jordanian and Syrian government-controlled television, but now, al-Jazeera has empowered them with many viewpoints.

PALESTINIAN MAN (Translation): Talking about our issue, for instance, we didn`t understand much about it before. There was a news blackout on everything. But with the news nowadays, there`s almost no blackout. Everything is clear.

Aside from high-profile interviews, al-Jazeera probably has the greatest impact with its debate and talk shows. Last night, it featured two prominent newspaper editors.

PALESTINIAN INTERVIEWEE (Translation): For more than seven years, we`ve been kissing the Americans` feet in Oslo. We didn`t get a Palestinian state, nor have they talked of a Palestinian state. For seven years we`ve been negotiating, going swimming with them, eating fish with them, taking photos with the, exchanging gifts, eating couscous with David Levy in Tel Aviv, but what happened? We haven`t even progressed by one centimetre.

Al-Jazeera`s uncompromising style has infuriated Arab governments. Ambassadors have been withdrawn from Qatar in protest, and now America has complained strongly about air time given to bin Laden. But it wasn`t so long ago that they were praising the station for its policy of free speech.

DR ANDREW VINCENT: I think the Americans are increasingly concerned that al-Jazeera is not only providing a vehicle for Osama`s views, but they`re also representing anti-American editorial content, they`re focusing on the plight of the Palestinians and the Iraqis – all of the issues which the Americans would like to have swept under the carpet at the moment, for the purpose of their alliance building.

And it seems that millions of viewers are happy for al-Jazeera to keep telling it like it is.