By ©Brenda Norrell
The US State Department’s obsession with Al Jazeera, as exposed by Wikileaks in the US diplomatic cables, is a good read for most anyone, especially journalists. Al Jazeera’s top director has already resigned. Still, four years of cables, 2005-2009, reveal how the United States demanded that Al Jazeera pander to US officials and the US perspective.
Besides Al Jazeera, the diplomatic cables reveal US Embassies obsessed with news reports around the world, from a Vanity Fair article that created US backlash in Germany, to media reports in Bolivia, of Evo Morales’ statements of CIA involvement in a planned assassination of Morales.
But no where is the US more upset about the news than when it comes to Al Jazeera, with a stream of US reports analyzing its coverage and repeated meetings with Al Jazeera’s top newsmakers and board members. The US cables expose the US Ambassadors and US State Department’s persistent, uncontrollable need to control the media.
Guantanamo imprisoned cameraman: US wanted me to spy on Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera was so important to the United States that Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj said that while he was imprisoned in Guantanamo for six years, and tortured, that the US pressured him to spy on Al Jazeera for the US.
The revelation comes from US Embassy's Charge d'Affaires Michael Ratney, who writes of al-Hajj’s speech when he returned to Qatar on May 31, 2008.
Ratney writes in the cable, “In his speech, al-Hajj also claimed that he had been interrogated 130 times, mostly relating to his work with Al Jazeera. He asserted that the USG had pressured him to work ‘as a spy’ against the network. Asked by a British journalist if he harbored any hatred, al-Hajj smiled and asked in English, 'For whom?' When the journalist responded, ‘the Americans,’ al-Hajj continued in Arabic, explaining that he held no ill will toward the American people, and that he had even befriended certain guards while in prison. The hardest thing to endure, he claimed was the way U.S. soldiers had denigrated Islam, forcing prisoners to break their fasts during Ramadan, and desecrating copies of the Quran.
US monitoring and pressuring Al Jazeera
The US Ambassadors in Qatar make it clear that the US should spend more time making friends with the leaders of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, in order to make it easier to control the news to the world, especially the Arab world.
Among the avid US cable writers about Al Jazeera was US Ambassador Joseph Evan LeBaron, assigned to Qatar from July 18, 2008--July 29 2011.
After years of bombarding Al Jazeera with reports, meetings, and demands to change content, and turn over tapes, Ambassador LeBaron said things were looking up in 2008. Ambassador LeBaron said Al Jazeera was starting to treat the US better, possibly because of Obama’s presidential win, and possibly because Al Jazeera was giving Obama a chance.
“Embassy intends to take advantage of this positive trend by seeking placement of more U.S. voices, both official and private, on Al Jazeera in the coming months and closely monitoring the performance of producers and interviewers. Al Jazeera's audience of 40-50 million Arabs is too large and important for us to do otherwise.”
For the US, making the US look good included getting USAID on Al Jazeera. This was considered a coup. “Embassy also arranged for six live and taped interviews from November 25 to December 2 on Al Jazeera Arabic and English with the USAID Administrator, the USAID A/A for Public Affairs, the A/S for International Organizations, and the President's Special Envoy for Sudan.”
US apparently disappointed in lack of Iran protest violence coverage
The US complained about the lack of news coverage of the Iran election. Al Jazeera's Director General Khanfar (who recently resigned) explained to the US diplomats that this was because Iran demanded that Al Jazeera reporters stop filming and ordered those on special assignment out of Iran. It appears that Twitter saved the coverage. Ambassador LeBaron wrote in a cable, “Had it not been for Twitter, said Khanfar, the majority of news on the Iranian elections would not have reached Al Jazeera.”
The Wikileaks cables reveal a steady stream of meetings with Al Jazeera, with the US demanding airtime and that their perspective be aired. Al Jazeera broadcasts on the Iraq war and Gaza were high on the US watch list. The US even brought in elite officials like Karen Hughes, US for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, to meet with met with Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera, however, also brought their own concerns, including the US bombing of Al Jazeera offices.
“The AJ team asked for news of Sami Al Hajj, the Sudanese Al Jazeera cameramen arrested on the Pakistan-Afghan border in 2001 and now detained in Guantanamo; and they also complained once again that the USG had bombed their offices in Baghdad and Kabul without offering a word of apology or regret.”
Al Jazeera changed web content in 2005 after US pressure
Finally, there's the cable written in 2005 that ultimately exposed the US demand for Al Jazeera to change content on its website. The US Embassy says that Khanfar removed images of wounded Iraqi civilians from an Al Jazeera report following pressure by the U.S. Further, the US Embassy said that Khanfar was anxious to keep his behind-the-scenes collaboration secret. The cables were the focus of an article in New York Times on Sept. 20, 2011, as Khanfar resigned.
US Ambassador Charles "Chase" Untermeyer states in a cable that under pressure in 2005, Al Jazeera changed its website. This included removing the photo of an African child suffering from starvation and the US exploitation of oil.
The Ambassador is quoting Al Jazeera’s Khanfar in this passage:
“Most notably, he said, he had ordered that the picture of the starving African child be removed and that the mention of ‘US. control of Arab wealth and oil’ be amended. ‘A mistake was made, and it has been fixed,’ he said. He urged PAO to look again at the slide show to verify if the changes made the slide show less objectionable. ¶6. (C) PAO subsequently attempted to retrieve the archived slide show from the website without success and, a couple of hours after the meeting, Al Mahmoud called to say that the slide show had in fact been completely removed from the website on orders from Al Jazeera's managing director, Wadah Khanfar."
What the cables really tell us is that in the end, the people must be the watchdogs, ever-vigilant when anyone, or any government, attempts to manipulate or control the news, so that the news is the voice of truth to the world.
Reference on Vanity Fair backlash in Germany:
US cable: "On January 27 the Bundestag Interior Affairs Committee will examine allegations that a CIA team tracked a suspected al-Qaida supporter in Hamburg and planned to assassinate him before eventually aborting the mission. The story originated from a recent Vanity Fair article on Blackwater/Xe founder Erik Prince."