[Media-watch] FW: War of words at al-Jazeera

Tim Gopsill TimG at nuj.org.uk
Fri Oct 8 13:50:42 BST 2004

Chris Tryhorn
Thursday October 07 2004
The Guardian

Senior editors at Arabic satellite TV channel al-Jazeera have acted to prevent staff at its English-language website describing the continuing American-led military involvement in Iraq as an "occupation".

The channel insisted all its services refrain from using the controversial terminology since the US-led coalition handed over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government three months ago.

But staff at the website disagreed with the policy and continued to use "occupation" until last month, describing militants in the country as a "resistance" movement.

"The English website did not change for some while," said a source at al-Jazeera. "It went backwards and forwards and the channel told the website to stop using 'occupation' and 'resistance' - so it did, for about a week.

"The manager of the internet section thought the channel was wrong, so it went backwards and forwards again, until he was overruled by the managing editor, Waddah Khanfar."

The source said many journalists at the channel's Qatar headquarters were unhappy with the policy and believed it glossed over the reality of what was happening in Iraq.

"Most of us here feel it's still an occupation but, at the same time, we work for al-Jazeera and have to follow a policy," the source said. "For the majority of us, if we could still use the term [occupation], we would."

Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for al-Jazeera, said he was "unaware of any major debate", adding that the website's use of the words 'occupation' and 'resistance' over the past three months must have been caused by "a malfunction in communicating policy".

He said the channel had decided to follow the United Nations in dropping the word 'occupation' after the interim government took over in June.

Although power has officially changed hands, troops from the US, UK and other countries remain in Iraq and are still involved in heavy military activities, including air raids on the city of Falluja, the stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr and his rebel forces.

"Whatever terminology we use has to have reference to internationally recognised terminology," Mr Ballout said. 

"When we used [phrases such as] 'forces of occupation', before the handover of authority to the interim government, this was a definition used by the UN, even by the US itself. 

"It was legitimate then to talk about occupation forces and, consequently, about resistance. We changed at the end of June. It was a very tough call."

He said al-Jazeera - which has regularly incurred the wrath of the Americans, who believe it is biased against them - had received no pressure from the Iraqi or US governments to change its guidelines.     

"The only pressure is from ourselves. We want to be as objective as possible without losing sight of the context," he said.

"We do not have a political platform, which gets us through this minefield of what terminology to use. We do not aim at pleasing people or displeasing people."

The UN refers to the "situation in Iraq" and describes the country as "war-torn" on its website.

Although the UN security council did not sanction the war and its secretary general, Kofi Annan, recently called the US-led invasion "illegal", the UN is working with the interim Iraqi government towards holding elections in Iraq in January.

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