London, March 27 (Reuters): Banned on Wall Street and wiped off the Internet, Arab news channel Al-Jazeera defended its controversial coverage of the Iraq war yesterday and demanded the US come to its aid in the name of a free press.
Al-Jazeera, which angered Washington by showing footage of dead and captured American soldiers, voiced concern after two of its reporters were banned from the New York Stock Exchange and its websites were hacked. The exchange stopped Al-Jazeera broadcasts, saying credentials were only for networks that provided “responsible” coverage.
Al-Jazeera was also denied a request to broadcast live from New York’s Nasdaq exchange.
‘There has to be a national effort to protect the freedom of the press even more,” Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout said. “We appeal to authorities to pay attention to this.”
But, in Washington, US secretary of state Colin Powell criticised Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the invasion of Iraq. “Al-Jazeera has an editorial line and a way of presenting news that appeals to the Arab public. They watch it and they magnify the minor successes of the (Iraqi) regime. They tend to portray our efforts in a negative light,” Powell said in an interview with National Public Radio, broadcast yesterday. He did not comment on Al-Jazeera’s complaints, but said he would wait to see what the channel reports “after we have defeated this (Iraqi) regime”.
“I think at that point the Arab public will realise that we came in peace. We came as liberators, not conquerors,” he said.
Al-Jazeera has taken the Arab world by storm since its launch in 1996, with its controversial reporting and brash, western-style drawing an audience of more than 35 million.
After making its name in the Afghan war with exclusive footage of Osama bin Laden, the Qatar-based satellite channel has also had success in Europe, with viewers doubling since the start of the Iraq war.
But the CNN of the Arab world raised US ire when on Sunday it aired shaken US prisoners of war and dead US soldiers with gaping bullet wounds, prompting the Pentagon to issue an appeal to US networks not to use the footage.
Al-Jazeera yesterday showed pictures of what it said were two dead British soldiers and two British prisoners of war.
In Europe, Al-Jazeera said, it had signed up more than four million subscribers in the past week. But in the US, it has drawn little more than 1,00,000 subscribers.
“In Europe, we’re naturally most popular in countries with big Muslim populations like France. In Britain, we’ve also seen a pick up in non-Arabic-speaking Muslims,” Ballout said.
Viewers, who subscribe through local satellite operators, are glued to the pictures even if they cannot understand the words. There are no English-language subtitles.
Media pundits said the New York Stock Exchange decision smacked of a dangerous opening salvo in a game of media tit-for-tat which could see Western media's access cut off. Iraq last week ordered CNN journalists to leave Baghdad.
”Clearly, it is a violation of press freedom,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a media watchdog group in Washington, D.C.
Al-Jazeera's new English-language Web site (http://english.aljazeera.net), which went live on Monday, and its Arabic-language site (http://www.aljazeera.net) were downed by a hacker attack on Tuesday and Wednesday.