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Al Jazeera and the Net – free speech, but don't say that

You can say what you like, so long as not too many people notice

Arabic satellite TV network Al Jazeera's efforts to build an English-language web site have run into another speed bump. Akamai Technologies, whose "Accelerated Networks can stand up to unpredictable traffic and flash crowds for even the largest events," fired Al Jazeera last week.

Akamai issued a statement saying it had worked "briefly" last week with Al Jazeera, but that it had decided "not to continue a customer relationship" with the channel. No reason was given for the decision, but an Al Jazeera spokeswoman told the New York Times that companies were coming under "nonstop political pressure" to refuse to do business with the channel.

Al Jazeera launched an English-language web site at the end of last month, and this immediately came under fire on several fronts. It was hacked, DDoSed, Network Solutions was tricked into allowing the domain to be hijacked (which inspires confidence), and US host DataPipe gave it notice after what Al Jazeera claimed was pressure from other customers. The English language site was up at time of writing, but Al Jazeera clearly needs to find a robust, long-term solution, and this is equally clearly going to be very difficult indeed.

There are many ironies to the multi-decked 'get Al Jazeera' campaign; one attack suppressed the site with the slogan "Let Freedom Ring!" (only up to a point, presumably), while practically none of those busily denying themselves the right to access it can have had time to read it in the first place. So at this point it's worth trying to put a little perspective on the network's offering, and consider what it is that it has done that is so bad that Tony Blair spinmeister in chief Alastair Campbell has described its offering as "complete fiction".

For what it's worth, the English site's headlines this morning would not have looked particularly out of place from one of the more liberal Western news sources, and the site's British forces take over Basra report was perfectly straight, and pretty much in line with what the BBC has been reporting today.

Al Jazeera protests, in fairly mild terms, that it is "increasingly appearing to be subject to a campaign designed at limiting its access to Western audiences," and this does look awfully like the truth.

Al Jazeera's sins, it would seem to us, are as follows. First, it has been Osama bin Laden's propaganda outlet, taking delivery of his videotapes and broadcasting them. Second (and this is the one that has raised ire most recently), it has shown footage of the bodies of two dead British servicemen, and of captured troops paraded by the Iraqis. Third, it shows far more harrowing pictures of civilian casualties than western outlets are prepared to run, and fourth (a sum total of the first three) it is therefore peddling Iraqi propaganda. Which is also the accusation currently being levelled at many Western journalists, including recently-ex NBC staffer Peter Arnett, and the Independent's Robert Fisk, recently described as a "Saddamite buffoon" in the Telegraph.

Essentially Al Jazeera's 'Iraqi propaganda' activities are no greater (perhaps even rather less) than those of many liberal media outlets. In the UK many of these have also been criticised by the government, but they have not been the subject of major hacking attacks, nor have hosting and services companies declined to do business with them. We should also clarify something regarding the footage of the prisoners and the dead servicemen; military spokesmen to the contrary, reproducing such images is not a breach of the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention is directed at governments, and does not cover news organisations. Al Jazeera has arguably broadcast images of the Iraqi Government breaching the Geneva Convention, but that is not the same thing.

To get this into perspective, note that one of the most striking pictures from the Vietnam war was of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a prisoner - do we argue that this should not have been published? If Al Jazeera had footage of an Iraqi shooting a British prisoner, should that be broadcast? The other way around? Are our standards today different from those of the 60s, or do the criteria differ depending on the nationalities of the participants and/or the audience? The answers are not straightforward, nor should they be. In deciding whether or not to report a story and how to report it news organisations have to take into account the motivation of the people they're covering, standards of taste and decency and likely impact on people involved, such as friends and family.

By Western standards Al Jazeera may have breached standards of taste and decency, and may not (again by Western standards) have sufficiently contextualised bin Laden and Iraqi exercises in propaganda. But by Middle Eastern standards Western media could similarly be accused of too readily parrotting propaganda in the other direction, and of too frequently operating a system of self-censorship. There's some merit to both points of view, the demise of Arnett being a good example of self-censorship, but there's no good reason for casting Al Jazeera into outer darkness - unless of course the problem is that its coverage has been increasingly reaching a Western audience.

Or an Internet audience. Back in the irony department Yahoo!, which you may recall had some trouble with the French government a while back over Nazi memorabilia, is one of the companies declining to carry Al Jazeera advertising owing to "war-related sensitivity," and there's probably a high correlation between people who want Al Jazeera run off the web and people who oppose virtually any kind of internet censorship. Al Jazeera meanwhile has racked up millions more new TV viewers than it could possibly hope to gain via a web site, and its service has continued to be available in the US during the war. So why is the Internet different?

To some extent, it possibly isn't. Al Jazeera seems to have been able to run an Arabic web site without coming under serious fire until it introduced the English version. Similarly, it's been able to run an Arabic TV station without Western companies trying to pull the plugs on it, and with Western governments denouncing it on the one hand while using it in order to get to its audience on the other. So it's possibly OK if it's over there, in Arabic, but not if it's over here, in English (if it goes ahead with its planned English TV service later this year, then we'll no doubt find out).

The Internet is different, however, in that despite it being, allegedly, the New Frontier, the ultimate medium for free speech, it's also eminently suited to the suppression of free speech. Sure, anybody can set up a web site and say whatever they like, but only if not too many people read what they say, and only if they're careful about what it is they say. Say something controversial that enough people don't like, and you'll get attacked. Say something particular pressure groups don't like, and you'll get attacked on multiple fronts, bombarded via email, mail and voice phone, indirectly via your neighbours, other people in your organisation, hosts your organisation deals with, other outfits using the same hosts who don't like the publicity...

Even before patriotism and peddling enemy propaganda come into the equation, controversy plus high profile plus the Internet adds up to a great deal of expense and considerable difficulty in finding outfits brave/foolhardy enough and technically robust enough to do business with you. There's a clear hypocrisy to this, because the outfits who'll terminate your contracts are precisely the same outfits who'll have been taking your money so long as nobody noticed, or at least so long as only Arabic speakers noticed. And these are also the outfits who'll protest that they're only the plumbers and the message has nothing to do with them, and who'll howl freedom of speech when it suits them, yet shut it down if it looks like being bad for business.

It can be like this for TV and print media too, but Al Jazeera's satellite TV operations are to a great extent proof against such perils. The signals can't be stopped readily, unless you jam them, ban dishes or get them kicked out of their satellite deals, and you can't readily get to the company for as long as it has tolerant governments prepared to host it. That doesn't amount to complete invulnerability, because political and commercial pressures can still be exerted in order to quieten it down, but the position is a hell of a lot more favourable than is the case for the Internet. Think about the lengths you'd have to go to in order to produce a similar level of invulnerability via the Internet, and you'll maybe conclude that free speech is a lot less freer than you thought. ®

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