Al-Jazeera TV sacks chief after row over spy papers

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The Independent Online

The satellite television company al-Jazeera announced yesterday that it had sacked its chief executive, who was named in documents procured by a British newspaper in Baghdad and which appeared to link him with Saddam Hussein's intelligence services.

The papers appeared to carry the letterhead of the intelligence services and alleged contacts between agents and three members of al-Jazeera staff. Another document, headed "Presidency of the Republic, Mukhabarat Service", purported to show contact between the Iraqis and Mohammed Jassem al-Ali. However, there was no evidence that the Iraqis had subverted him in any way.

The station denied that the departure of Mr Jassem Ali, who had also been its general manager since its launch eight years ago, was linked to allegations that the Iraqi Mukhabarat had infiltrated the organisation.

Jihad Ballout, a senior company official, said Mr Jassem Ali would remain on the board of directors but would hand over the day-to-day running to someone else. "Mohammed Jassem al-Ali was seconded from Qatar Television to set up and run al-Jazeera and what has been decided is that this secondment be ceased and for him to go back to his normal job," Mr Ballout said. He added: "Changes take place for various reasons and for Mohammed Jassem al-Ali to remain on the board means that all these rumours and allegations about al-Jazeera are not taken at face value whatsoever."

However, Mr Jassem Ali's colleagues were convinced that the move followed the intense political pressure that the Qatar-based station had faced since the war. The high-profile network, which has an estimated global audience of 50 million and has become known as the "CNN of the Arab world" has been the chosen means of communication by Osama bin Laden. During the Iraq war, the channel received wide-ranging access to officials in Baghdad and its coverage was criticised by the American and British governments. Al-Jazeera journalists were killed when the company's offices in Baghdad were hit by "accidental" American air strikes.

The channel came in for criticism from American and British officials for broadcasting footage of Allied soldiers killed and imprisoned during the war. But it was also criticised by the Iraqi authorities for what they called its pro-American coverage. Al-Jazeera correspondents were temporarily banned from the New York Stock Exchange and from reporting in Iraq.

After the fall of Baghdad, documents were found in the wreckage that allegedly revealed the Iraqi intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, controlled three agents working within the company.

The files claimed that another two agents worked as cameramen within the broadcasting organisation.

Other papers found among abandoned ministries and palaces maintained that Iraqi intelligence had stepped in and prevented the broadcast of footage of the notorious 1988 gas attacks on the Kurdish town of Halabjah. It was said that, through its contacts in the channel, Saddam Hussein's regime could control its output.

Al-Jazeera gained international renown after the 11 September attacks on the United States by airing exclusive audio and video comments from Bin Laden and other senior members of al-Qa'ida. Al-Jazeera's coverage of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq boosted its popularity among Arab-speaking television viewers.