Reporters and crew for al-Jazeera, the Arab world's most popular news network, are among the thousands of journalists covering the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Staff members of the Qatar-based Arabic-language channel, operating out of their own skybox but relying on ABC News for production and technical services, arrived at the FleetCenter a week ahead of time to plan coverage.
One of the first things they did was string a banner emblazoned with al-Jazeera's name and logo across their skybox. They said they had received e-mailed approvals for the banner from convention organizers early in July and had complied with placement, design and dimension requirements for the 12-by-4-foot sign.
But when Nader Abed, al-Jazeera's operations chief, was on the floor July 19 coordinating his team, he looked up and saw that the sign was gone.
"For 24 hours, there was confusion, outrage and real disappointment," said Stephanie Thomas, the Washington bureau manager.
By July 20, ABC was trying to mediate, she said. Only on Friday did Thomas get an answer from a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee's host committee. The al-Jazeera banner, she was told, would have been seen in every wide-angle cutaway shot to the audience. It was removed, even though no other banners in the same sightline were taken down, Thomas said. Meanwhile, no one could locate the al-Jazeera banner.
"At first we were very upset," Hafez Mirazi, al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief, said in a telephone interview from Boston. "But people from the DNC we dealt with were very embarrassed and, I believe, very sincere." The sign was finally found in a storage area in Burlington, Mass., 15 miles away, he said, but the circumstances of its removal are still a mystery.
In the past, top U.S. officials have complained about al-Jazeera's commentary and its handling of gruesome footage from Iraq. The network counters that it carries interviews with U.S. military and civilian officials as well as their news conferences.
Even though the sign is still down, the al-Jazeera staff is enjoying the publicity surrounding what happened.
"American journalists have expressed so much solidarity with us. Whoever wanted us to be less visible has really promoted us by pulling the sign down," Mirazi said. "There is no news so far, and everyone is busy covering me. Wolf Blitzer interviewed me over the weekend, I am about to be interviewed by ABC's Peter Jennings, and a Christian Science Monitor columnist is here covering the coverage of the coverage," Mirazi joked.
Mirazi said he has 16 staff members covering the convention. The network has scheduled 12 hours of coverage through tomorrow, more than the time allotted to the convention by major U.S. networks, he said he was told by ABC's Ted Koppel.
Most of al-Jazeera's intensive coverage, Mirazi explained, falls into prime-time viewing for Arab Americans in the United States. But the live coverage is late for viewers in the Middle East because of the difference in time zones. In the Arab world, people can catch the beginning of the coverage before going to bed and some of the late coverage the next morning, he added.
Hundreds of foreign dignitaries, politicians and diplomats are at the FleetCenter this week, invited by the National Democratic Institute.
According to Jean Freedberg, media coordinator for the institute's International Leaders Forum, about 700 officials, politicians and diplomats from around the world are attending the convention. They will meet with Democratic Party luminaries such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright. The foreign visitors also will attend lectures, including a program organized by the American Enterprise Institute on U.S. domestic policy.
Among the foreign dignitaries at the convention is Tony Leon, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance in the South African Parliament. In an interview Friday, Leon said he enjoyed observing the American democratic process, adding that Americans never shy away from asking tough questions.
"We have had a very undemocratic past. It will be a time before we have competitive politics," Leon said of South Africa, where the governing African National Congress controls two-thirds of the seats in the Parliament. "Again, no party in the world can be blamed for accumulating too many votes," he said with a taut smile.
"We have a very progressive constitution. The danger is when the ruling party basically controls the judicial branch and the media, the others are not using the democratic spaces available," he said, joking that his day job is to be "the government's critic-in-chief."
A decade after the end of South Africa's racist system of apartheid, Leon said, there are clear differences between his party and the African National Congress.
"The ANC believes in African nationalism; we do not," he said. "I am in favor of affirmative action, but not in favor of racial percentages." After 150 years of systemic racial imbalance, he acknowledged, it is necessary to provide redress for the past. "But I am opposed to social engineering of that kind," he said.