Al-Jazeera has a track record of accurate reporting - which is why its journalists have been criminalised and its offices bombed
When US forces recently demanded that a team from the Arabic TV station al-Jazeera leave Falluja as a condition for reaching a ceasefire with the local resistance, it came as no surprise at the network's headquarters in Doha. Reliable sources there say that coalition officials threatened to close down the al-Jazeera bureau in Baghdad earlier this year and last week sent a letter accusing the network of violating the Geneva convention and the principles of a free press.
Since the "war on terror" began, al-Jazeera has been a thorn in the side of the Pentagon. "My solution is to change the channel," Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said this month in Baghdad, "to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources."
The trouble for Kimmitt is that millions of people in the Middle East disagree. Al-Jazeera has become the most popular TV network in the region - with a daily audience of 35 million - precisely because it has shown the human carnage that US military onslaughts leave in their wake. If it became a "legitimate, authoritative, honest news station" of the kind that routinely censors the realities of US military operations, it would lose its audience.
The al-Jazeera reports of US snipers firing at women and children in the streets of Falluja have now been corroborated by international observers in the city. Perhaps it is natural that a military force should seek to suppress evidence that could be used against it in future war crimes trials. But it is equally natural that a free media should resist.
Democratising the Middle East may have been the neo-cons' case for the conquest of Iraq. But on the ground, the US is acting against the flowering of Middle East media freedom, which al-Jazeera initiated.
The station was launched in 1996, by disenchanted BBC journalists, after Saudi investors pulled the plug on the Arabic TV division of the BBC News service. Since then, it has spawned a plethora of competitors such as EDTV, Abu Dhabi TV, the Lebanese Broadcasting Company and, most significantly, al-Arabiya. Like al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya has been banned by the US-appointed Iraqi governing council for weeks at a time for "incitement to murder", after airing tapes of Saddam Hussein. Two of its journalists were shot dead by US forces at a US checkpoint in March.
Last November, George Bush declared that successful societies "limit the power of the state and the military ... and allow room for independent newspapers and broadcast media". But three days earlier, an al-Jazeera camera man, Salah Hassan, had been arrested in Iraq, held incommunicado in a chicken-coup-sized cell and forced to stand hooded, bound and naked for up to 11 hours at a time. He was beaten by US soldiers who would address him only as "al-Jazeera" or "bitch". Finally, after a month, he was dumped on a street just outside Baghdad, in the same vomit-stained red jumpsuit that he had been detained in.
Twenty other al-Jazeera journalists have been arrested and jailed by US forces in Iraq and one, Tariq Ayoub, was killed last April when a US tank fired a shell at the al-Jazeera offices in Baghdad's Palestine hotel. It was an accident, the Pentagon said, even though al-Jazeera had given the Pentagon the coordinates of its Baghdad offices before the war began.