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The request from the White House was polite and guarded, but the message was crystal-clear: U.S. television networks should think long and hard before beaming another prerecorded rant from Osama bin Laden or his al-Qaeda terrorist network to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.

In a conference call with network brass early yesterday morning, Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security adviser, warned that Mr. bin Laden and his followers may be trying to incite fresh violence against the United States.

She asked CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN to "exercise caution" in broadcasting statements from the world's most wanted man and his supporters.

Many in the news media criticized the extraordinary request from the White House yesterday, saying the Bush administration is getting precariously close to declaring war not only on terrorists, but on a free press.

The telephone call from Ms. Rice to TV land came after the release Tuesday of a videotape -- the second from Mr. bin Laden's group in three days -- that showed al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a "good deed" and promising more attacks against U.S. interests. A cameo by Mr. bin Laden appeared Sunday, when the Saudi-born militant thanked God for filling America with fear.

Both tapes were first broadcast on the Qatar-based news network Al-Jazeera, then replayed by CNN. Other networks subsequently picked up the footage, and newspapers around the world (including this one) transcribed the tirades word for word.

Yesterday, ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX and NBC issued statements promising not to air al-Qaeda statements live, without a review.

Grilled by reporters at a press briefing in Washington yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quickly deflected criticism that his government was trying to muzzle the media.

"It was a very collegial conversation," he said. "At best, Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans. At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks."

Only this week, Mr. Bush sought to impose limits on military and intelligence briefings for members of the U.S. Congress over concerns about news leaks.

"This is a request to the media, and the media makes their own decisions," Mr. Fleischer said, adding that newspapers could be urged to show similar restraint.

Ted Magder, a professor at New York University's Department of Culture and Communication, said he believes Mr. Bush's government, in attempting to clamp down on the media, is trying to assuage its own discomfort at having to watch Mr. bin Laden's face plastered on TV screens worldwide.

"They see that reprehensible image and they feel they're losing the propaganda war," Prof. Magder said. "His image is akin to saying to the world, 'We've lost the battle because we don't have him yet.'

"It shows he's alive and kicking, and they're sitting in the White House saying, 'Jesus Christ, there he is. We can't find him! And there he is!' "

Prof. Magder said the White House's suggestion that there are hidden messages in the broadcast is far-fetched.

"Bin Laden and his troops have proved themselves to be so sophisticated that if there was a hidden message in that broadcast, you can be sure there will be other hidden messages elsewhere."

He pointed out that the Al-Jazeera Web site gets between two million and 10 million hits a day, 40 per cent of which are by Americans who speak Arabic. "If you're concerned about hidden messages, you're not going to stem the flow by curtailing the freedom of the press," Prof. Magder said.

Craig Oliver, long-time chief of CTV's Ottawa bureau, concurred that clamming up the news networks will serve no purpose, for journalists or the public.

"Personally, I found it extremely useful to have the al-Qaeda guy saying 'We're out to kill Americans,' " he said. "That's because, like so many other people, I worry I'm hearing American propaganda and this type of broadcast shows us the enemy close up. He suddenly becomes very real."

Prof. Magder believes the call to the U.S. networks is linked to Washington's growing frustration with the the power and scope of Al-Jazeera, the most popular television station in the Arab world and the only foreign television station allowed to have a bureau in Kabul.

On Tuesday, the United States criticized the station, which was founded in 1996 by the Prince of Qatar, for carrying "inflammatory rhetoric," "totally untrue stories" and for acting as a platform for Mr. bin Laden. The government also complained recently to the Qatari government about the rebroadcast of 1998 interviews with Mr. bin Laden, in which he urged Muslims to "target all Americans."

"Make no mistake, this is all about Al-Jazeera," Prof. Magder said of Washington's chat with the U.S. networks.

"Al-Jazeera is a maverick in the Arab world in terms of providing critical news. It's displeased many Arab countries. It was denied membership in the Arab States Broadcasting Union in 1998 because it refused to conform to the union's code of honour, which in part promotes Arab brotherhood and it didn't want to be saddled with the mandate," he said.

"It's legitimate and providing an invaluable service."

Prof. Magder said that now, more than ever, it is essential the U.S. government maintain and demonstrate its commitment to freedom of the press.

"It's one of the values that the al-Qaeda deplores, it's something fundamentalists everywhere find reprehensible," he said.

"If this is a war on pluralism, pluralism begins with a free press."

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