UPI International Editor
Washington (UPI) Nov 24, 2005
The hurricane season officially ended Nov. 20, yet there will be no respite for President George W. Bush. Having barely recovered from the fallout of Hurricane Katrina, the president is now facing the full brunt of Hurricane Al Jazeera.
A document leaked to the London Daily Mirror reported that Bush raised the idea of bombing Al Jazeera's main offices in Doha, the capital of Qatar, but was restrained by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The British newspaper reported that Blair advised against such action, saying it would provoke a backlash, the result of which could hurt U.S. and British interests.
The alleged conversation is reported to have taken place in April 2004, during a meeting Blair had with Bush in Washington. At that time it is believed that the two leaders -- and allies in the Iraq coalition -- disagreed over certain aspects of the war. One of the primary concerns of the British government centered on U.S. military tactics used in Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni resistance to the U.S. presence in Iraq.
But conflicting sources offer different arguments. One of the Daily Mirror's sources waved off the remarks as "humorous, not serious," while another unidentified source claimed the president was "deadly serious."
The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. diplomat as saying the report "sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke."
"The mere thought of joking with the lives of 400 people is macabre," Kamal Samari, Al Jazeera's London-based European media officer told United Press International.
Al Jazeera and its employees are not laughing. And neither is the British government. According to British press reports, two British civil servants face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act for leaking a classified memo of the meeting between the president and the prime minister.
The memo, it seems, turned up in May last year in the office of a British member of parliament, the Daily Mirror reported. On its front-page story headlined "Bush plot to bomb his ally," the Daily Mirror reported that Bush had planned to attack the Arabic satellite television station headquartered in Doha.
U.S and British bombers are based near Doha and the U.S. military Central Command headquarters from where the Iraq war was being conducted is only a few miles from Al Jazeera's main studios.
No. 10 Downing Street refused to comment, as did the White House in Washington.
"This is a very serious charge with grave implications for the safety of media professionals. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair should at once set the record straight about what was said or not said during their April 2004 meeting," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Refusing to address these reports in a substantive way only fuels suspicions."
Officials of the Bush administration, particularly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have been harsh and frequent critics of Al Jazeera, decrying its coverage of the invasion and subsequent war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld has accused the network of "consistently lying" and "working in concert with terrorists." Other officials have labeled Al Jazeera's programming "inflammatory and anti-American."
Yet the Bush administration has repeatedly dismissed allegations it had ever targeted the network. Many in the media -- particularly the Arab press - remain skeptical.
During the battle for the capture of Baghdad in April 2003, a U.S. missile struck Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. The U.S. military claimed it was an error, saying they were responding to hostile fire at the time, an assertion vehemently denied by Al-Jazeera and other Western journalists present there.
CPJ has repeatedly demanded that the U.S. military conduct and make public a thorough investigation into the incident, but is unaware of any military inquiry that was ever launched.
The U.S. military also bombed Al Jazeera's bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2001. At the time of the bombing the Pentagon asserted, without substantiating its claim, that Al Jazeera's bureau in Kabul was a "known al-Qaida facility." The Pentagon also claimed it did not know the building housed the offices of Al Jazeera.
Britain's attorney general Wednesday threatened newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of the document allegedly relating to a dispute between Blair and Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq.
"It is believed to be the first time the Blair government has threatened newspapers in this way," said the Guardian newspaper, which leads one to conclude the seriousness of the matter.
In the past, the government has obtained court injunctions against newspapers, it has never prosecuted editors for publishing the contents of leaked documents, "including highly sensitive ones about the run-up to the invasion of Iraq," according to the Guardian.
For its part, the employees at the HQ and the bureaus of Al Jazeera sent out an e-mail to several news organizations calling for their intervention. They asked the press to "investigate so as to fully uncover the news published by the British Daily Mirror about the American president's intention to bomb Al Jazeera's HQ in Doha and some of its bureaus abroad."
If the American president's reported comments prove to be true, Al Jazeera says it "would confirm previous American threats against Al Jazeera."
The memo goes on to say, "It would also confirm that bombing Al Jazeera bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad, and the consequent death of our colleagues Tariq Ayyoub and Rashid Wali, in addition to targeting other Al Jazeera reporters, were deliberate and premeditated acts against Al Jazeera and its journalists."
If proven to be true, concludes the memo from the Arab satellite channel, "it is not an act against Al Jazeera only, but against the freedom of expression and a distortion of the meaning of democracy and freedom."
"It would mean that journalists have become legitimate targets by democratic governments," Samari told UPI.
If indeed proven to be true, it would, as Samari points out, be truly ironic to order the silencing of journalists while trying to spread democracy.
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