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Movie captures Al Jazeera in war's early days

Director explores media objectivity, propaganda in film 'Control Room'

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2004

Years before she began making documentaries and working in the media, Cairo-born film director Jehane Noujaim's world view was informed by Egypt's state-run television.

She was finishing her bachelor's degree at Harvard when the Qatar-based news outlet Al Jazeera was founded in 1996. The importance, and the novelty, of the network was obvious. It was one of the first free independent news sources in the Arab-speaking world.

"People in the Arab world are so hungry for their unfiltered information," Noujaim said. "Growing up you could never believe what you were listening to. You knew it was heavily censored."

Noujaim's latest film, "Control Room," is an 86-minute glimpse behind the scenes of the network in the first days of the current war in Iraq. It explores the issues of objectivity and propaganda, as the mostly Muslim staff reacts to the information provided by Central Command and pieces together its own perspective.

"Control Room," not rated, plays at the Gold Town Nickelodeon at 7 and 9 p.m. today and 4, 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

"You do feel when you're in the station that you're around people who are working for some bigger goal or some wider mission, and they're excited," Noujaim said by telephone from New York City. "They see themselves as bringing free speech to the Arab world.

"They're broadcasting reports that are critical of many of the regimes," she said. "And by deciding to work at Al Jazeera there's a possibility that they might not be able to go back to their home countries."

Al Jazeera has been denounced by the governments of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it "Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece." And the station has fared no better with Iraq's interim government. On Aug. 7, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi announced the station's Baghdad bureau would be shut down for reasons of national security.

"They have been showing a lot of crime and criminals on TV," said Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib, quoted on CNN.com. "They transferred a bad picture about Iraq and about Iraqis. They have encouraged the criminals and the gangsters to increase their activities in the country."

Closing the bureau won't stop the station. Al Jazeera still has reporters in other areas of Iraq, and the country's residents can easily receive the channel on satellite dish. The controversy merely seems to make the station more popular, Noujaim said. More than 40 million viewers in the Arab world tune in.

"There seems to be no difference between the censorship from the U.S. now and the censorship under Saddam's regime," Noujaim said.

"They're being labeled in the West as this propaganda tool for bin Laden and other terrorist groups, and they're labeled in the Arab world as Zionist supporters of American imperialism because they show speeches from Rumsfeld and Bush," she said. "I think their general attitude is, 'Look, if people think we're pro-bin Laden, pro-terrorist and pro-U.S., we've got to be doing something right."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com



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