Reporters Without Borders has protested at persistent harassment of Arabic-language satellite TV al-Jazeera as the channel said on 26 January Saudi Arabia had refused to allow it to cover the Mecca pilgrimage for a third consecutive year.
Since the start of 2004, al-Jazeera has been harshly criticised by Saudi Arabia and the United States, has been censored in Algeria, Iran, Tunisia and Canada and, from 7 August 2004, had its Baghdad bureau shut down by the Iraqi interim government.
Broadcasts on the channel, launched in Qatar in November 1996, aggravate some leaders since it gives airtime to their opponents and to viewers and because it broaches political and social issues seen as taboo.
"We regret that some governments have no hesitation in censoring al-Jazeera, the leading Arabic news channel, to protect their political and diplomatic interests. These methods demonstrate their intolerance of critics," said the worldwide press freedom organisation.
Reporters Without Borders called on Iraq's interim government to cancel its decision to ban the channel from operating in Iraq and to allow it to reopen its Baghdad offices as soon as possible.
It also urged the US authorities to explain the reasons for its detention of al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj at Guantanamo or to release him immediately.
The Saudi authorities have refused to allow the channel to cover the pilgrimage to Mecca since 2003, refusing all requests for accreditation. Contacted by telephone by Reporters Without Borders, presenter M'hamed Krichen explained that the authorities made no distinction between al-Jazeera and the Qatari government.
A crisis in diplomatic relations between the two countries entails a freeze in the channel's work in Saudi Arabia. CNN and the BBC both operate in Saudi Arabia and are seen as less of a problem since their Arabic audience is smaller than that of al-Jazeera, which has daily viewing figures of between 35-40 million worldwide.
The channel has been blocked in Algeria since June 2004. It is the first time in ten years that a foreign channel has been subjected to such a ban. The authorities used the pretext of a reorganisation of the work of foreign correspondents and press in the country but only the Qatar-based channel was affected by the changes.
Various sources agreed that the step followed the broadcast of a debate about Algeria in the programme "El-Itidjah el-Mouakass" in which opposition figures made trenchant criticisms of the Algerian generals and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's national reconciliation policy. It also made public the results of its own poll in which 72% of viewers considered things had not improved in Algeria.
Journalists from al-Jazeera currently obtain accreditation only for major international events. A renewed request for accreditation was unsuccessful.
Iran has threatened sanctions against the al-Jazeera bureau there on several occasions. In November 2004, Tehran told the channel to remove a cartoon it considered offensive from its website or face the consequences. The foreign media director at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation, Mohammad Hossein Khoshvaght, said, "Unless this animation disappears and if such abuses continue, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation will be forced to take the necessary steps to considered restricting the channel's work in Iran".
The channel was threatened with expulsion a second time soon afterwards for referring to the "Arabic Gulf" and not the "Persian Gulf".
In Tunisia, the authorities refused the channel's application to open an office and to accredit its correspondents. Al-Jazeera sought accreditation to cover the October 2004 presidential elections but the authorities said they would only allow it if they could choose which correspondent the channel sent.
In January 2004, al-Jazeera was banned from covering government activities in Iraq for one month following a broadcast that was viewed as "provocative" in which one of the participants made accusations against some political leaders. Al-Jazeera's Baghdad bureau has been closed since 7 August 2004 to "protect the Iraqi people", according to the official decision. The interim Iraqi government accused the channel of "incitement to racial hatred and tension". In November 2004, the Iraqi Defence Minister, Hazem Shaalan, fulminated against al-Jazeera calling it a "terrorist channel". "May God curse all those who terrorise Iraqi citizens and Iraq's children, whether they are journalists or others. The day will come when we deal with al-Jazeera in other ways than with words," he threatened.
In April 2004, the United States also accused the channel of stoking up anti-American feelings in its coverage of events in Iraq. Contacted by Reporters Without Borders, Jihad Ballout, spokesman for al-Jazeera, said that the channel's editorial line would not be influenced by the attacks. "We are simple observers, and not actors. We do not apply any political judgement and we try to present a balanced coverage of the conflict. We give equal airtime to the Iraqi people as to the insurgents and the US forces," he added.
Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj, a Sudanese national, has been held by US forces since the start of 2002 at Guantanamo military base in Cuba. His wife has had no news of him for 18 months and the reasons for his detention remain unknown.
In Canada, several conditions have been slapped on al-Jazeera's distribution. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that the distributors had to monitor its programmes 24 hours a day. Moreover, the CRTC authorised the operators "to modify or cancel al-Jazeera programmes (…) to avoid distribution of offensive remarks."