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Al-Jazeera producer: `We are nobodys mouthpiece

The group met in Coppee Hall before Musa’s public talk in Whitaker Auditorium, which was sponsored by Lehigh University’s Global Union and drew nearly 400 people.

In an hour-long session attended mostly by journalism and international relations students, Musa fielded a steady stream of questions about his career and Al-Jazeera, the news gathering operation that reaches 40 million viewers around the world and is often referred to as the "Arab CNN."

The former Reuters and Associated Press correspondent joined the Al-Jazeera television station more than three years ago mainly, he says, "because I got tired of doing stories about waterskiing chipmunks.

"Friends were like, ‘You’re crazy! You’re going to the `all-Jihad, all-the-time’ network?’ But I was interested in broader issues, like the Mideast," Musa said in describing his career path. He then launched into a passionate defense of Al-Jazeera. Widely derided for obtaining and airing videotapes of Osama bin Laden, the Arab-based network was accused of "funding terrorism."

"When CNN bought approximately 60 tapes of Al Queda training camps, they said they paid $60,000," Musa said. "Other reports listed that figure as high as $200,000. We’ve never paid a dime. We don’t fund Al Queda. If anyone did, it was CNN. Al-Jazeera was the only outlet independent and courageous enough to air them, and we shouldn’t be blamed for having good access to sources and for recognizing, early on, that Osama Bin Laden was a force to be reckoned with."

Musa also dismissed the notion that his operation is anti-American.

"We are nobody’s mouthpiece," he said. "We are equally hated by many--Jordon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia--probably because we stand for pushing the envelope of free speech, and working hard to get every side of the story."

Musa detailed the origins of the station, which began broadcasting from Qatar in 1996, after the BBC was shut down by Saudi ownership in 1995. Staffed mainly with former BBC journalists, the network strictly adheres to Western standards of journalism, he said, and resists coercion by any outside forces--including government agencies.

"Over the years, they’ve come to realize that that would be futile," he said. "Of course, we can’t stop them from bugging our phones … or bombing our offices, for that matter. Ultimately, they want mirrors, not windows. We refuse to be a mouthpiece for anyone. We’re a window for people to see. We let them decide for themselves."

Musa also was critical of what he called the "parachute journalism" practiced by American news gathering operations, which dispatch reporters to cover world events with little or no familiarity with the political terrain.

"They drop them in for the story, then take them out when it’s over," he said. "In some cases, the reporter never really understood the local culture, never learned how to speak the language, or didn’t have the opportunity to address cultural sensitivity issues. Whether you’re covering benign topics or not, all of that is still important for credibility."

Does he think Osama Bin Laden is dead or alive?

"Probably alive," he said. "If he weren’t, his people would be making more of an issue out of it, and they haven’t been quoted saying anything about him."

Should Saddam Hussein be taken out?

"Iraq is an evil regime, considered by Arabs to be the most brutal," he said. "There is no love for Saddam Hussein and everyone wants to get rid of him. The issue is how."

His biggest criticism of U.S. foreign policy?

"Outside this country, it is seen as cold, brutal and hypocritical," he said. "Many Middle Eastern people view the American people themselves as warm, tolerant and open. They love all things American--jeans, the culture, the music. They love everything but the foreign policy."

--Linda Harbrecht
lmh2@lehigh.edu

Posted on Tuesday, February 18, 2003

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