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MEDIA GAGGED OVER AL-JAZEERA MEMO

The leaking of an alleged memo revealing U.S. President George W. Bush's apparent plan to bomb the Qatar headquarters of Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera has ignited a storm of controversy and raised concerns among IFEX members about a possible backlash on the media.

ARTICLE 19 says Britain's Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has warned newspapers that they could be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) if they publish the contents of an internal memo that allegedly contains a conversation between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in April 2004. In their meeting, Bush reportedly suggests that Al-Jazeera's office be bombed, and is rebuffed by Blair.

The memo was first cited on 22 November 2005 by "The Daily Mirror", a British tabloid, which said its sources disagreed over whether Bush's idea was a serious suggestion. The newspaper has agreed not to publish any more stories on the subject.

A civil servant, David Keogh, and Leo O'Connor, a former researcher for Member of Parliament Tony Clarke, have been charged under the OSA for leaking the memo.

ARTICLE 19 says only public authorities and their staff should "bear responsibility for protecting the confidentiality of legitimately secret information under their control." Journalists and civil society representatives should never be liable for publishing or disseminating government information unless they committed fraud or another crime to obtain the information, the group argues.

ARTICLE 19 adds that disclosing the contents of the memo would serve the public interest since a deliberate attack on Al-Jazeera would constitute a war crime. "Bombing Al-Jazeera would not only have been illegal under the laws of war but also a blatant attempt to undermine the public's right to be informed about the conduct of the war."

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have urged Bush and Blair to set the record straight on their alleged conversation.

The Bush administration has been a harsh and frequent critic of Al-Jazeera for its coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan but has dismissed allegations that it had ever targeted the network, notes CPJ. Senior officials, including Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, have labeled Al-Jazeera's programming inflammatory and anti-American.

In April 2003, a U.S. missile struck Al-Jazeera's Baghdad bureau, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. The military claimed it was responding to hostile fire at the time, an assertion strongly denied by Al-Jazeera.

In November 2001, the U.S. military bombed Al-Jazeera's bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Pentagon claimed, without providing additional evidence, that the office was a "known Al-Qaeda facility," and that the U.S. military did not know the space was being used by Al-Jazeera.

Visit these links:

- ARTICLE 19: http://www.article19.org/pdfs/press/uk-osa-and-gag.pdf
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=15682
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/news/2005/USA23nov05na.html
- Al-Jazeera Consults Lawyers Over Bush Memo:
http://tinyurl.com/bx4x6
- Don't Bomb Us: http://dontbomb.blogspot.com/
- Media Channel: http://mediachannel.org/blog/node/2054

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