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Al-Jazeera's Tricky Balancing Act

By David Ignatius

DOHA, Qatar -- What do people in the Middle East think five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks? To get a quick snapshot, I paid a visit here to Ahmed Sheikh, the editor in chief of al-Jazeera television. It was reassuring, in a perverse way, that he views the situation in his region the same way that most Americans would -- as a dangerous mess.

Sheikh told me he had been mulling this week how al-Jazeera should cover the Sept. 11 anniversary. "Five years after that catastrophe, the Arab world is much more divided than it used to be," he reflected. "The image of Islam has been tarnished to a great extent. We are weaker than we used to be against Israel. Development is absent." When he stands back and looks at the region, Sheikh says, "All the threads and problems are intertwined. It's very difficult to trace where they begin and end."

Sheikh fears that Iraq is headed toward a calamitous civil war that will spill over to other countries with mixed Shiite-Sunni populations, such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. "If the Americans can prevent civil war from happening, their presence would be useful," he says. But after three years of American failure to stabilize the country, he is doubtful.

The al-Jazeera editor remains militant about Arab causes. "What doesn't change for our viewers is indignation against U.S. and Israeli policies," he says. But with the exception of the Palestinian struggle and the Iraqi resistance to American occupation, he says, most of the so-called jihadist battles have actually produced what the Arabs call fitna , or self-destructive internal strife.

Sheikh works out of a small office just off the main newsroom. He joined al-Jazeera when it was founded in 1996 after working for the BBC and other TV news channels. Dressed in shirtsleeves, just back from the morning story conference with his editors, he looks a bit like an Arab version of Lou Grant.

Al-Jazeera has been attacked by American officials as a propaganda tool for Osama bin Laden and other Muslim radicals. And as a journalist, I have often found its coverage unbalanced. It tries too hard to present the Arab news, rather than just the news. That said, I was struck, in talking to Sheikh, by how complicated it has become for al-Jazeera to cover this part of the world.

Take coverage of Iran. Al-Jazeera recently reopened its bureau there after it was closed by the Iranian authorities for 18 months. The network's crime was that it had sent a camera crew into southwestern Iran and reported complaints of the Arab minority there that they were treated unfairly by the central government. After the broadcast aired, there were protests and civil unrest in the region -- and the Iranians decided to pull the plug.

Iraq poses a worse problem. Because al-Jazeera reported from behind the lines of the Sunni insurgency, Iraqi Shiites became indignant about its coverage. The network was expelled by the Shiite-led government in September 2004, but Sheikh says he would be reluctant to go back now. Relations with the U.S. military are better, but because of Shiite anger, it would be "very, very dangerous" for al-Jazeera.

"People say we are the channel of the insurgents. It's not true. We are the channel of everybody. We are critical and balanced. That is what a journalist is supposed to do -- not drum the official point of view but criticize, try to evaluate."

Syria and Lebanon also pose tricky problems for an Arab satellite network. After al-Jazeera broadcast an exclusive, hour-long interview with Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, it was attacked by Sunni militants known as "Salafists" (who back al-Qaeda and consider the Shiites apostates). And after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denounced other Arab leaders as "half men" for failing to support Hezbollah against Israel, Sheikh says it was hard to find a balanced on-air commentator.

I've been a proponent of al-Jazeera, despite its tendency to spin coverage, because it was the first step toward real broadcast journalism in the Arab world, as opposed to the old state-run propaganda channels. And my conversation with Sheikh reinforces that conviction. After 10 years, al-Jazeera is confronting one of the abiding truths of honest journalism: that the world is damned complicated, and that it's very hard to know who the good guys and bad guys are. That's a start. If we can have common standards for covering the news in the Middle East, maybe we can eventually do something to fix the problems we all agree are there.

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 David Ignatius
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