Al-Jazeera not all bin Laden, all the time, D.C. bureau chief says

No, al-Jazeera is not a Zionist front, assures Hafez al-Mirazi.

Not that the Qatar-based Arabic news network’s Washington bureau chief hasn’t been told that the Mossad is signing his paychecks.

“In Egyptian newspapers, I saw a cartoon of some of our anchors with King David’s star over their heads,” said al-Mirazi in a packed lunchtime speech before roughly 200 onlookers Oct. 3 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

The network has been accused of existing in order to “help the West, [to] divide and conquer Arab vs. Arab.” He’s also been told, “‘You must be an agent of the Mossad; you’re too pro-Israel.’ We invite Israeli guests and officials to speak on our station, so the label came out that we’re this Mossad-CIA project.”

Accusations that al-Jazeera is anti-American, anti-Israel or anti-Semitic are just the latest “antis” that al-Mirazi has heard.

“I used to listen to Arab media and hear how we’re anti-Egyptian, anti-Saudi, and now I find we’re anti-American as well,” he said indignantly.

Regarding al-Jazeera’s airing of Osama bin Laden’s videos, he noted that the network “has no specific relationship with al-Qaida.

“We have the same relationship the Unabomber had with The New York Times, the same relationship Bob Novak might have with someone in the CIA….[Americans] deal with the international media with a different standard than what they deal with their own.”

The Egyptian-born al-Mirazi claims that his network is the most unbiased in the Middle East when it comes to reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Al-Jazeera anchors, he pointed out, have a map superimposed behind them with Israel on it. Israeli stations, he contends, don’t show the West Bank and Gaza on the map as al-Jazeera does.

He admits that commentators have accused Israelis of masterminding 9/11 or have spouted other anti-Semitic canards, but said that such quotes are taken out of context. Usually, they are uttered on “Crossfire”-style debate shows, and were always countered by more moderate Arab or Israeli voices.

In his own capacity as the host of the weekly show “From Washington,” al-Mirazi — a D.C. resident for the past 20 years — said he made certain to quash rumors of Israeli complicity in 9/11 by reminding viewers of the number of Israelis killed in the Twin Towers.

If the San Francisco audience disagreed with al-Mirazi’s contentions that his network is unbiased and objective, it largely kept quiet about it. During the Q & A session following his speech, handled via cue cards, only one question took a confrontational tone in accusing al-Mirazi of presenting “a naive view.”

Al-Mirazi was clearly upset over accusations of bias from members of the U.S. television media, which he accused of “waving flags on the screen” and “not only losing their professional detachment but mixing journalism and patriotism.”

He claimed his network has spent “hundreds” of times more hours broadcasting speeches by Americans — President Bush, Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld — than speeches by bin Laden. Contrary to American claims, he said, al-Jazeera is not “All bin Laden, all the time.”

He also said the U.S. government was being unfair in vilifying al-Jazeera for showing footage of American POWs or battle casualties.

“We carried footage of Iraqi POWs before from American networks, so why carry one POW and not the other?” he asked.

Regarding images of dead soldiers, he received a standing ovation when he coolly noted: “If you are frustrated by images of people killed and are complaining of al-Jazeera putting footage of casualties in war, there is a simple way to do it. Instead of not allowing images of people who are killed, stop killing those people.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.