By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross*
In early January, I was at Radio America’s Washington, D.C. studios, about to give an interview on Mahmoud Abbas’s impending election as Palestinian prime minister. Before the show, as I was chatting with host Blanquita Cullum about the issues of the day, she handed me a rather remarkable e-mail. It was a press release from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies about an upcoming program that would expose financial links between Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and a number of Arab press figures.
This expos? was to air on al-Hurra, the U.S.-funded Arabic satellite network launched in February 2004 that today reaches 120 million people in 22 countries. Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, served as al-Hurra’s reviewing expert for the program. One intriguing detail I gleaned from the press release was that al-Hurra’s show would air newly-discovered tapes of Saddam’s sadistic son Uday meeting with Arab media figures who appeared to be taking bribes from the Ba’athist regime, including a managing director of the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network.
A few months earlier, I’d seen a dramatic example of how ethical lapses in the media could capture the American public’s attention, as Rathergate became a household word during the 2004 election campaign. Thus, I naturally expected that financial ties between Saddam Hussein and Arab media outlets like al-Jazeera would become a similarly big story. I was, in fact, so confident in this assumption that I didn’t think it was worth my time to write about the al-Hurra tapes.
The Al-Hurra Tapes
But once I realized how far below the radar this news had fallen, I began to investigate the story behind the al-Hurra tapes in earnest. The resulting article, “Uday’s Oil-for-News Program,” which I co-wrote with my friend Erick Stakelbeck, was published in the May 16 issue of the Weekly Standard.
The Weekly Standard piece discusses the al-Hurra tapes in depth. Some passages from my article in the Standard are reprinted here, as the facts are worth knowing. Indeed, al-Hurra’s expos? is nothing short of explosive, and the footage it aired of Uday’s meetings speaks volumes. This footage had been recorded by Saddam’s regime itself, a standard practice for the megalomaniacal Ba’athists.
One Arab media figure caught on tape meeting with Uday is former al-Jazeera managing director Mohammed Jassem al-Ali. Al-Hurra’s documentary explains how, in the context of current allegations that have been rocking al-Jazeera, this meeting is significant. The documentary notes the commonality of views that al-Jazeera and Saddam’s government held for eight years, since the station’s inception, and asks, “[H]ow can we account for this chance meeting-of-the-minds lasting this long? . . . The elements of the ‘coincidence’ premise began to crumble immediately following the fall of the regime in Iraq and the ground started to shake under the feet of al-Jazeera’s board of directors as news of financial scandals, shady dealings and secret communications with the fallen regime started to emerge.”
Al-Hurra broadcast footage of a March 13, 2000, meeting between Uday and al-Ali while al-Ali still served as al-Jazeera’s managing director that can only leave one with the impression that al-Ali was part of Saddam’s web of corruption. Their conversation makes clear that they’d met before, and that al-Jazeera had complied with the directives that Uday had previously offered. Referring to how his advice had affected change at al-Jazeera, Uday said, “During your last visit here along with your colleagues we talked about a number of issues and it does appear that you indeed were listening to what I was saying since changes took place and new faces came onboard such as that lad, Mansour.” That “lad” is Ahmed Mansour, an al-Jazeera journalist who has been criticized for pro-insurgency reporting.
Uday went on to mention that some people had relayed to him al-Ali’s comment that al-Jazeera is the station of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime “both literally and figuratively.” Al-Ali never denied this remark; instead, he provided Uday every reason to believe that it was true. Al-Ali, for example, gave Uday his “unequivocal thanks for the precious trust that you put in me so that I was able to play a role at al-Jazeera, indeed I can even say that without your kind cooperation with us and your support my mission would have failed.” Al-Ali also told Uday, in reference to al-Jazeera’s mission to serve Iraq, that “the lion’s share of the credit goes to you personally sir, yet we would be remiss not to mention our colleagues here who constantly strive to implement your directive.”
Another of Uday’s meetings that was caught on tape was with Hamida Naanaa, a Syrian writer based in France who was known for her pro-Saddam slant and who al-Hurra alleges to have received coupons from the oil-for-food program. Al-Hurra states that Saddam’s regime would hand out two types of oil coupons to Arab media figures: Silver coupons which entitle their holders to a maximum of 9-million barrels of oil, and Gold coupons which are good for even more. According to al-Hurra, Naanaa had received a Gold coupon.
Footage of the meeting between Naanaa and Uday reveals that bribery evidently yields its privileges. After Uday greets Naanaa, she gushes, “Hello to you, the dear son of the dear and the precious son of the precious. Hello, is kissing allowed?” And in the course of their conversation, an incredibly sycophantic Naanaa refers to a “beautiful and sweet letter” that Uday had written to her, telling him, “I was so always looking forward to seeing you.” She also bemoans the attempted assassination of Uday in 1996, saying, “[W]e got worried about you, you know. . . . I just lost it when I heard the news.”
Although al-Jazeera initially claimed that the footage aired by al-Hurra was part of a conspiracy against it, al-Jazeera never denied its authenticity. In fact, it appears that al-Jazeera attempted to preempt the issue altogether by firing al-Ali shortly after the Ba’athist regime collapsed, without providing any reason for his termination.
The information unearthed by al-Hurra matters because certain segments of the Arab media?al-Jazeera in particular?have been unstinting opponents of U.S. interests in the Middle East, and hold tremendous sway over public opinion in the region. While al-Jazeera had once unflinchingly supported Saddam’s regime, its coverage seamlessly transitioned to support for the insurgency. As Walid Phares told me, “Al-Jazeera cooperated with the regime which was the target of the international coalition. Even after the regime was gone, they continued to support the jihadists.” Phares even dubbed al-Jazeera “Jihad TV” in an article for National Review Online that discusses how the network transparently attempted to manipulate American opinion against the war by airing footage of dead American soldiers as well as the interrogation of American prisoners of war.
Phares believes that the al-Hurra tapes should serve as a “watershed.” That is, the tapes expose the kind of backroom dealings in which the network has been engaged. The newly-aired footage also provides an opportunity for reflection on representations of the “Arab street” seen on al-Jazeera and other regional media. After all, certain segments of the same media that assured us that Arab opinion uniformly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq also apparently served as paid shills for Saddam’s regime.
Moreover, Phares intimates that the dealings exposed by al-Hurra may only be the tip of the iceberg. “How many other regimes have been paying this media?,” he asks. Mouafac Harb, al-Hurra’s director of network news and executive vice president, claims that it is a “widespread practice” for Arab leaders to intimidate or bribe leaders of media outlets, or even individual journalists.
It is important that we learn the right lessons from these revelations. The first and most important lesson is that the Arab press matters. The al-Hurra tapes were for a long time virtually unknown in the United States not because a biased U.S. media was intent on covering up the story, but because we are still too parochial in our understanding of how the media affect us. Even though it is not on our screens every day, al-Jazeera has a tremendous effect on U.S. interests and, given its anti-U.S. agitation, part of the price may be paid in American lives.
A second lesson is the need for an unbiased Arab media. Both Reuel Marc Gerecht and Steven A. Cook have called for the creation of an Arab or Iraqi C-SPAN, a station that broadcasts unfiltered political debate to the Arab world. By broadcasting coverage of democracy’s inner workings, such a station would be a genuine and valuable educational tool. Harb, on the other hand, thinks we should focus on creating a more vibrant media market in the Middle East. He states that the lack of a real media industry in the region leaves management and journalists open to the lure of alternative revenue streams, such as bribery.
Ultimately, it is in the U.S. interest for media free of the shackles of government manipulation and financial corruption to be enjoyed the world over.
*Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is an international counterterrorism consultant, and also works as an attorney at the law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner.
THE FRIENDS OF AL-JAZEERA
The Arab satellite network al-Jazeera gained international notoriety after 9/11 when it aired taped messages from Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda henchmen. Dubbed the CNN of the Arab world, it is now going global, having announced plans to be a “World Channel for the 21st Century,” including an international channel in English.
Writing in Salon.com, Corey Pein reports that the management team of the new “Al-Jazeera International” includes former executives from the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, CNBC and the BBC. He says the managing director, Nigel Parsons, previously worked at the television arm of the Associated Press.
As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s article shows, al-Jazeera’s coverage has been compromised and shaped by outside agents with an anti-American agenda. The firing of its general manager, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, was significant. Al-Ali had set up and run the network since its inception in 1996. He had previously worked for Qatar television; al-Jazeera is based in Qatar, but repeatedly aired exclusive footage provided by Iraqi officials during the war. The firing came after the London Sunday Times reported that Iraqi intelligence agents had successfully penetrated the network and converted it into an “instrument” of the Iraqi regime. Al-Jazeera spokesmen had denied any connection between the reports and al-Ali’s removal. Now we know that al-Ali was caught on tape with Iraqi officials.
The Times obtained documents from top secret Iraqi intelligence files that cover the period from August 1999 to November 2002. The files show three Iraqi agents worked inside the network. Their mission was to secure favorable coverage by the network for the Saddam Hussein regime.
The news of al-Ali’s dismissal received widespread coverage in Europe and throughout the Middle East. In the U.S., wire-service stories were picked up by a number of local dailies and the Fox News Channel ran a brief piece. But the mainstream media ignored the story altogether. Now we have the cover-up of the compromising tapes.
The truth must be told. If the U.S. loses the battle for freedom in Iraq, some of the responsibility will fall on al-Jazeera.
Dorrance Smith, a former executive producer at ABC’s “Nightline,” wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal noting that, “Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al Qaeda have a partner in al-Jazeera and, by extension, most networks in the U.S. This partnership is a powerful tool for the terrorists in the war in Iraq. Figures show that 77% of Iraqis cite TV as their main source of information; 15% cite newspapers. Current estimates are that close to 100% of Iraqis have access to satellite TV, 18% to cell phones, and 8% to the Internet. The battle for Iraqi hearts and minds is being fought over satellite TV. It is a battle today that we are losing badly.”
Smith adds, “The collaboration between the terrorists and Al-Jazeera is stronger than ever. While the precise terms of that relationship are virtually unknown, we do know this: Al-Jazeera and the terrorists have a working arrangement that extends beyond a modus vivendi.”
At a State Department briefing, Lorne Craner, deputy assistant secretary for democracy and human rights, told reporters that al-Jazeera “is quite different” from news organizations that criticize the war effort. “They go a lot further than ‘New Yorker’ Magazine or CBS,” he said, referring to coverage of alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He said al-Jazeera was guilty of “incitement of violence” against U.S. troops. These statements alarmed a reporter named Ehmed Mekay of Inter Press Service, who wrote a piece complaining that the statements “were the last in a series of high-level U.S. moves to muzzle the TV network, which has so far managed to outpace many U.S. news sources in covering the U.S.-led attack and occupation of Iraq?”
This was an interesting way to put it. How has al-Jazeera managed to “outpace” the U.S. media? Perhaps the answer lies in the network’s terrorist ties. Spanish authorities arrested a correspondent for al-Jazeera, Tayseer Allouni, accusing him of having links to al Qaeda. The group called “Friends of Al-Jazeera” has launched a campaign to have him freed. Former CNN producer Danny Schechter is counted among those “friends” and recently reported that he was “a guest of al-Jazeera’s first TV production festival” in Qatar to show his film critical of media coverage of the Iraq war.
One of al-Jazeera’s most popular programs is a 90-minute hit show called “Religion and Life,” which features Sheikh Al-Qaradawi, who promotes suicide bombings and hopes to die by beheading.
Al-Qaradawi is known for penning the theological justification of suicide bombing that appears on the Hamas website. It’s therefore not surprising that on March 7, 2003, Al-Qaradawi delivered a sermon on Qatar Television in which he called Hamas the mouthpiece of the Islamic nation and said that groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Abu-Ali Brigades are not terrorist organizations, but defensive groups which should be praised. “The mujahid becomes a ‘human bomb’ that blows up at a specific time and place, in the midst of the enemies of Allah and the homeland, leaving them helpless in the face of the brave Shahid.” Suicide bombings are “the supreme form of jihad” and are “heroic operations,” the cleric maintains. In 1999, Qaradawi was banned from entering the U.S.
Here is a sampling of comments made by the sheikh on “Religion and Life,” as provided by the Middle East Research Institute:
? June 19, 2001, al-Jazeera aired a “Religion and Life” show on the Prophet Mohammed as a Jihad Model. Al-Qaradawi stated that Mohammed was the “epitome of religious warriors” and had been ordered by Allah to “fight for religion.” About suicide bombing, the sheikh said that act “is not a suicide?He kills the enemy while taking self-risk, similarly to what Muslims did in the past?He wants to scare his enemies, and the religious authorities have permitted this. They said that if he causes the enemy both sorrow and fear of Muslims?then he is permitted to risk himself and even get killed.”
January 24, 1999: Al-Qaradawi made comments on his show about the imminent conquest of Rome by Islam. “Islam entered Europe twice and left it,” the sheikh explained. “Perhaps the next conquest, Allah willing, will be by means of preaching and ideology. The conquest need not necessarily be by the sword?Perhaps we will conquer these lands without armies.”
April 25, 2004: Sheikh Al-Qaradawi explained his support of suicide bombing: “This is divine justice. [God] gives the weak a weapon for self-defense that the strong, despite his military and nuclear arsenals, can do nothing against.”
June 20, 2004: Even though he has previously said he is for “tolerance” and “dialogue” Al-Qaradawi stated he is against the Jews and against conducting dialogue with them and that they are all iniquitous. On the same show, the sheikh demanded that the Islamic nation obtain the nuclear bomb, saying, “In order to shed this backwardness, we must produce a nuclear bomb, as did Pakistan, and as perhaps Iran is doing. However, we are besieged so that we will continue to be weak.”
July 13, 2004: Al-Qaradawi explained his objections to including Jews in the May 2004 Conference of Islamic-Christian Dialogue in Doha. The sheik said, “There is no dialogue between us except by the sword and the rifle.”
On July 5, 2004, Al-Qaradawi was promoting the European Council for Fatwa and Research, which he heads. A conference held by the organization in Stockholm, Sweden, was titled, “Jihad and Denying its Connection to Terror.” It featured Al-Qaradawi stating, “The martyrdom operations carried out by the Palestinian factions to resist the Zionist occupation are not in any way included in the framework of prohibited terrorism, even if the victims include some civilians.”
The sheikh also issued a fatwa calling for the abduction and killing of American civilians in Iraq. The Middle East Research Institute reported this occurred at a convention held on “Pluralism in Islam” in Cairo in August of 2004.
The sheikh sees himself as on a mission from God, ever since the age of nine when he says “the people of my village gave me the title ‘sheikh.'” Al-Qaradawi says he is not afraid of the Mossad, which he claims has threatened to kill him. Even so, the sheikh claims that Allah will grant him “martyrdom [shahada] for His sake and that my life will end by my dying at the hands of the enemies of Islam.” According to the London Arabic-language daily, Al-Hayat, the sheikh hopes to die “a virtuous death” which means “that the head would be severed from the body.”
What You Can Do