When the Baghdad office of Al Jazeera was shut down this summer, it was a serious setback for press freedom in the Middle East. It also reignited controversy about the United States government's commitment to support independent news media in Iraq. Though it was the interim Iraqi government and not the U.S. that imposed the sanction, the move sparked new concerns about how U.S. officials are responding to challenges presented by the increasing influence of transnational news networks around the world.
Iraqi officials said they closed the office of the Arabic-language news network on August 7 for a month because Al Jazeera had incited violence and racial hatred. "I had to make a decision to protect the lives of innocent people," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said at the time. The government later extended the closure indefinitely.
Al Jazeera denied the charges. "What we are trying to do is provide a comprehensive picture of what's happening in as much of a balanced way as possible," spokesman Jihad Ballout told AJR in an interview. The network continued to cover events in Iraq. "Our audience actually expects us to show them blood, because they realize that war kills," Ballout says. "If we were not to show it, we would be accused by our viewers ... of perhaps hiding the truth or trying to sanitize the war."
Al Jazeera News Editor in Chief Ahmed Al Sheikh said showing images of civilian casualties and hostages did not exacerbate or instigate those situations. Iraqi officials should "treat the causes that led to the spread of these events instead of attempting to silence Al Jazeera," he said on the network's Web site.
The closure was the latest in a series of sanctions against Al Jazeera. In January 2004, for example, the Iraqi Governing Council barred the network from covering official activities for a month.
Other Arabic-language news media also have been sanctioned, but the moves against Al Jazeera are especially telling because of its global influence. The network, based in Qatar, estimates it has more than 40 million viewers worldwide. It has Web sites in Arabic and English. Many staffers previously worked for the BBC, and the network has broken major stories carried by U.S. news organizations. Al Jazeera also has video-sharing...