… The “execution” – the cold-blooded, appalling murder of Margaret Hassan, the Care worker who was a friend as well as a contact of mine – is among the least terrible of the scenes that lie in the satellite channel’s archives.
Kidnapped by men in police uniforms, it is now November, 2004, and Margaret has already made her last appeal. Viewers saw her begging Tony Blair to help her, to withdraw British troops from southern Iraq. “I beg of you to help me,” she says in a voice of great distress. But there was then another tape which Al Jazeera refused to show, in which Margaret was coerced into claiming that she gave information to American officers at Baghdad airport. A man’s voice prompts her to keep to a text. “I admit that we worked with the occupation forces …” she says. It is untrue, of course. Margaret was against the whole Anglo-American invasion. She would never have spied on Iraqis …
… It was Margaret who took leukaemia medicines donated by readers of The Independent to the child cancer victims of Iraq back in 1998 after we discovered that hundreds of infants were dying in those areas where Western forces used depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Gulf War. She was a proverbial tower of strength, and it was she – and she alone – who managed to persuade Saddam Hussein’s bureaucrats to let us bring the medicine into Iraq. The United Nations sanctions authorities had been our first hurdle, Saddam Hussein our second. It is all history. Like Margaret, all the children died.
“We’ve trained ourselves not to go to the maximum in our feelings when we see terrible things like this,” Ayman Gaballah, Al Jazeera’s deputy chief editor, says bleakly. And I can see why. There are other tapes, other outrages too terrible to show. George Bush wanted to bomb the station’s headquarters in Doha but staff have shown great sensitivity with what they show the world from Iraq. There is no proof that any of Al Jazeera’s reporters was ever tipped off about anti-American attacks before they happened – in Iraq, I investigated these claims in 2003 and 2004 – but plenty of proof that some things are too awful to see …
… Stories abound of the day that George Tenet – then America’s CIA chief – turned up in Qatar to give the Emir a dressing down for Al Jazeera’s reporting. There was a stiff row between the two men before the Emir walked out.
In Washington, he was invited to meet Vice-President Dick Cheney, only to find that Mr Cheney had a thick file on his desk when he walked in. It was Mr Cheney’s list of complaints against Al Jazeera. The Emir told him he would not discuss it. “Then that is the end of our meeting,” Mr Cheney announced. “It is,” the Emir apparently replied. And walked out. The “meeting” had lasted 30 seconds.
But those are the high points, the drama of Al Jazeera. The dark moments are on those terrible tapes. I asked some of the reporters how humans could commit such atrocities. None of them knew.
One suggested that 11 years of UN-imposed sanctions had somehow changed the mentality of Iraqis. And I do recall, back in 1998 – when Saddam still ruled Baghdad – an NGO official tried to explain to me what was happening to Iraqis. The Americans and British “want us to rebel against Saddam,” the official said. “They think we will be so broken, so shattered by this suffering that we will do anything – even give our own lives – to get rid of Saddam. The uprising against the Baath party failed in 1991 so now they are using cruder methods. But they are wrong. These people have been reduced to penury. They live in shit. And when you have no money and no food, you don’t worry about democracy or who your leaders are.”
That official was Margaret Hassan.