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Freedom under fire

Al-Jazeera is getting it from all sides and Tehelka was almost brought to its knees for exposing corruption, writes Dr Dasgupta.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2005 20:04 IST

Two emails crossed my inbox today. The first related to the fact that Al-Jazeera's English language website was hacked by American hackers, and the second was an appeal to help in its fund-raising efforts.

I was struck by the ironic similarities of the two situations: The world’s most powerful democracy and the world’s largest democracy, both going hammer and tongs after two media outlets, who dared to hoist the democracies with their own petards and paid a price for it.

The story of Tehelka is a well known one. A website-based newspaper, which exposed corruption deep within India’s political and military establishment. It tried to show how political parties were willing to take bribes and how military officers were similarly guilty. The result was rather depressingly familiar - the publishers were victimised by the state organs, financially ruined and the paper almost brought to its knees. It is now attempting to rise again.

On the other hand, poor Al-Jazeera is getting it from all sides. Arab governments complain about Al-Jazeera all over the place. The Saudi’s are upset because Islam is debated on air, Yasser Arafat is upset because Hamas is interviewed, Hamas is upset because of the penetrating and uncomfortable questions asked, the Syrians are upset because of questions of corruption and the fact that Israeli politicians are invited to speak, and Jewish organisations are upset because of anti-Semitic pronouncements on air. Egypt complained about reports of election irregularities and the fact that convicted terrorists and assassins were given air time.

In fact, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak peeked into the modest pre-fabricated building of Al-Jazeera during a visit to Doha, Qatar, he asked: "All this noise comes from this matchbox?"

Mostly, the various regimes protest, because political dissidents are given air time to complain about them. Perhaps the ultimate compliment was given to Al-Jazeera from The Jerusalem, which said about Al-Jazeera: "The tiny sheikhdom of Qatar is now producing a commodity much in demand in the Arab world: Freedom".

While saying that, the freedom is not complete. One thing which Al-Jazeera doesn’t do is to discuss Qatar and Qatari politics itself. No responses are forthcoming from either the Qatari Authorities or from Al-Jazeera on this point.

What is surprising, is the reaction of the United States and United Kingdom to this channel. Prior to 9/11, the reaction was positive - it was praised, perhaps due to the fact that it was started in 1996 by ex-BBC personnel. BBC still has a very strong reputation around the world for its balanced approach and good reporting standards.

The channel talked about women’s rights in Islam, about the lack of democracy in the region, political dissidents, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pros and cons of peace with Israel and a whole host of issues which were dear to the hearts of western democracies, as well as both the right wing and left wings of the western population.

After 9/11, the situation changed. Vituperation and scorn was poured over it, mainly after Al-Jazeera broadcast the Bin Laden tapes and statements. One of the reasons given was that Bin Laden could pass on messages to his constituent cells via his television and voice tapes. The simple fact, that there are so many other ways to pass on the same message such as chat rooms, email, letters, radio communications, telephones, faxes, etc., seems to have skipped the scrutiny.

The misdirected bombing of the Al-Jazeera studio in Kabul ranks at about the same level, as the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and questions were raised about the oft-praised bombing accuracy of the Allies. While saying that, both Tony Blair and Colin Powell have appeared on Al-Jazeera to push their agenda.

The heat was turned up even more during the war, when Al-Jazeera was accused of violating the Geneva Conventions by showing TV pictures of captured US Soldiers and of showing too graphic, almost offensive, images of casualties and injuries. The fact that the former was also done by all TV commentators (including BBC, CNN, SKY and FOX) was glossed over. The picture of the boy with his head split open is just another view of war.

The Western audiences think that war is a grainy gun-camera video with cross-hairs on a building and few seconds later, a satisfying bang. If they don’t think so, at least the western leaders think that their populations should be protected from such images. The New York Stock Exchange refused to let the Al-Jazeera reporters report from the floor, citing that only networks with "responsible" coverage were allowed. This was followed by furious editorials from the New York Times and others on the left and accusations of Jihad TV from the right in the National Review.

This lays both, the UK and US governments, open to a charge of hypocrisy. Freedom of press is a cherished article of faith in the British and American democracies. It is mentioned in the Bill of Rights in the First Amendment, and ferociously defended in the British and American Courts. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 19 which says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers".

The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights is slightly disingenuous as it states in section 12.d: "There shall be no bar on the dissemination of information provided it does not endanger the security of the society or the state and is confined within the limits imposed by the Law".

Such behaviour is shocking and frankly beneath the dignity of nations, who claim to be the world's largest democracy, the world’s most powerful democracy and the country which gave the Magna Carta to the world. The UK and US are fighting in Iraq to give freedom to the Iraqi people.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are integral parts of this aim and it would be a shame if the UK and US are accused of doing exactly the same thing, which the undemocratic nations of the Middle East are blamed of. As for India, one can only sigh and hope someone’s conscience is pricked, but I don’t hold out much hope for that.

What happened to, "I may disagree with your opinion but I will defend your right to your opinion to the death"? Has it changed to, "I will defend your right to your opinion, as long as I don’t disagree with it"?

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently working on a doctorate at Kings College in International Relations and Terrorism, also holds a Doctorate in Finance and Artificial Intelligence from Manchester Business School. He works in the City of London in various capacities in the Banking Sector. He also lectures at several British Universities.)

First Published: May 31, 2003 12:19 IST