By C.J. KARAMARGIN and MICHAEL MARIZCO
Arizona Daily Star
June 29, 2005
Al-Jazeera planned to launch the series this week with coverage of a Phoenix rally by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a volunteer civilian border-watch group that has attracted international media attention.
"I wanted to cover the story from the human point of view," said Nasreddine Hssaini, the Washington-based Al-Jazeera reporter behind the series. "I wanted to go to Tombstone and Sasabe. I wanted to tell the story of democracy in action."
The network canceled the project, Hssaini said, after Minuteman organizer Chris Simcox refused to cooperate and then notified the Border Patrol and members of the state's congressional delegation about Al-Jazeera's plans.
"They decided it wasn't worth it," the reporter said.
Al-Jazeera has attracted millions of viewers throughout the Arab world with its coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its airing of tapes of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
But Al-Jazeera's growing popularity has brought greater scrutiny. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the Qatar-based network of encouraging militants by airing hostage executions.
For Simcox, Al-Jazeera and al- aeda are virtually one and the same. They wanted to come to Arizona "to do reconnaissance," he said. "I will not have a part in that. I will not work with the enemy."
U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., noting that Al-Jazeera has been known to broadcast messages from the al Qaeda leadership to terrorist cells around the globe, was outraged that the network planned to visit Arizona.
"It is insane policy to allow Al-Jazeera to film Arizona's unsecured border with Mexico and then broadcast it to the very people who perpetrated 9/11," Franks said. Hssaini, who described himself as a Moroccan-born citizen of Canada working legally in the United States, dismissed the suggestion that his motive for coming to Arizona concerned something other than journalism.
"I am a professional journalist. They think bin Laden himself is sending me out there," he said. "I find it a little bit racist."
Local journalism professors sided with Hssaini and defended Al-Jazeera as a serious news outlet.
"They are a legitimate news organization," said Jacqueline Sharkey, head of the journalism department at the University of Arizona. "There has been criticism in some of the ways they have covered the war in Iraq - just as there's been criticism of the way some of the U.S. media have covered the war in Iraq."
The U.S.-Mexico border has also been the source of much concern that terrorists could easily slip across it. U.S. officials have been saying since the Sept. 11 terror attacks that a group such as al Qaeda might use the open border with Mexico to slip across.
With constant news that Middle Easterners may try to slip through Mexico, it's no wonder that an Arab news channel would also be interested, said Alan Weisman, a UA journalism professor.
"Al-Jazeera is a legitimate news organization. If we have the right to go into Middle Eastern countries to cover issues, why on earth shouldn't we allow them to come here, particularly since we allege that Middle Easterners might try to cross the border? That's a story of great journalistic interest," Weisman said.
"I certainly defend the right of any journalist to go anywhere to cover any story."
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