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Al-Jazeera sentenced to heavy fine for "defamation"

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has condemned a 20,000 dinar fine (approx. 50,000 euros) imposed by a court in Kuwait City on 17 January 2008 on Qatar-based satellite TV, al-Jazeera, over a programme judged to have defamed Kuwait.

The case related to an exchange of insults between an Egyptian political analyst and a Kuwaiti journalist on a February 2002 political programme, al-Ittijah al-Mouakiss (Counterclockwise).

Trouble flared when host Faisal al-Qassem asked his guests to comment on a possible United States invasion of Iraq and the Egyptian commentator accused Kuwait of "stealing Iraq's oil".

A complaint was laid by four Kuwaiti lawyers who claimed the channel had "damaged Kuwaiti national sentiment" and "distorted the history of the country".

One of the four plaintiffs, Mohammed Taleb, told Agence France-Presse that he had complained against al-Jazeera after the broadcast of the programme because "Kuwait was accused of being to blame for the Iraqi invasion" of the emirate in 1990.

Al-Qassem told Reporters Without Borders that al-Jazeera was not responsible for what had happened and "does not always share the opinion of its contributors". The journalist also said it was impossible to control the excesses of its guests on live debates.

Al-Jazeera has said it will appeal. Lawyer for the channel, Machaal al-Namach, also told Reporters Without Borders that the four lawyers had decided to appeal, because they considered the damages too low.

"As soon as al-Jazeera is involved, courts in the Arab world seem ready to condemn the channel without taking account of the facts," said the worldwide press freedom organisation. "It is incomprehensible that the channel should be punished for remarks made by guests, who the presenter had in fact tried to calm down".

"The amount seems to us disproportionate and the accusations unfounded," the organisation added.

At a 2003 hearing, al-Jazeera had been acquitted of paying provisional damages of 5,000 dinars (approx. 12,460 euros) to the plaintiffs.

The channel's studios in Kuwait have twice been shut down, in 1999 and then between 2002 and 2005 following a report on US-Kuwaiti military exercises.

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