'Al-Jazeera will never change its editorial line,' said Wadah Khanfar, managing director of the controversial Arabic satellite broadcaster. 'Our staff have often been the victims of dictatorial regimes. Some have come from national news services where they were forced to make every headline something about 'His Majesty' or 'His Excellency'. Since we started broadcasting, Arab journalism has changed, and we will not give in to intimidation now.' Mr Khanfar spoke to the South China Morning Post while he was in Britain to investigate claims that US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the possibility of bombing the Arabic broadcaster last year. A British newspaper published the account of an unnamed government official, alleging that Mr Bush suggested bombing the channel but was dissuaded by Mr Blair. US officials have long objected to Al-Jazeera's coverage of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, described Al-Jazeera's reports on the US siege of Fallujah as 'Vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable'. At least Al-Jazeera manages to offend all sides equally. This month, its reporters have been arrested in both Egypt and Israel. According to reports by the channel and the International Committee To Protect Journalists, Egyptian security forces detained an Al-Jazeera cameraman and destroyed his camera and tapes after he had filmed events at a polling station on December 1 (Egypt's latest parliamentary elections were marred by violence). On the same day, Israel detained an Al-Jazeera reporter in the West Bank without explanation. The station is accustomed to such criticism, which has not stopped it attracting 50 million regular viewers. It was recently voted one of the top five brands in the world, and is soon to launch an editorially independent English-language channel, Al-Jazeera International. But tensions with the US have reached a new high since the Bush bomb-threat allegations emerged. It's not yet clear whether the alleged threat was made at all. It could even have been a joke, spoken as part of a private conversation between two friends. Certainly, bombing a civilian target in the friendly country of Qatar - which provides US air forces with a key Middle Eastern base - would hardly be a smart move for the US. 'I'd prefer not to believe the story, actually,' Mr Khanfar said. 'But I have some suspicions.' The story broke amid wider concerns about press freedom and journalists' personal safety. Journalists no longer occupy a protected position in conflict zones. About 70 journalists have been killed in Iraq, mainly by insurgents, while others have been kidnapped by militants or detained by US or Iraqi forces. In particular, Al-Jazeera staff have repeatedly fallen foul of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The station's bureau in Kabul was hit by a US missile in 2002 and a bomb hit its Baghdad office in 2003, killing a reporter. Washington has said both these incidents were accidents. 'We have demanded investigations into the deaths of our staff in Kabul and Baghdad, but have had no response or apology from the US,' Mr Khanfar said. 'All the same, it never previously crossed my mind that anyone would consider bombing our offices in Doha.' When asked whether Al-Jazeera had received previous threats or harassment, Mr Khanfar recalled his time as Baghdad bureau chief. 'Several of our staff were detained and many ill-treated by US forces during the war. One journalist spent 70 days in jail, another was locked up for 34 days. It was as though US soldiers felt we should be prevented from operating. Perhaps this was because of what they heard from their superiors.' Mr Khanfar also said that during the siege of Fallujah, local insurgents claimed US troops had asked them to expel Al-Jazeera's reporters from the city as one of the conditions for a ceasefire. In that context, both the station and the wider Arab world are taking the bomb-threat allegations seriously. 'This story has created a wave of shock throughout the Arab world,' Mr Khanfar said. 'The public response has been amazing. We have received thousands of messages of support.' Al-Jazeera reporter Khaled Hroub, who was in Cairo when the story broke, said: 'It's amazing that almost everyone whom I spoke to regarding the Bush story was not surprised. 'However strange it may seem, I'm afraid that a president who believes he enjoys a direct hotline to God would think seriously of bombing Al-Jazeera. Simply put, he has a lot in common with our own religious fanatics.' It is not known for certain whether such a threat was really made, but British efforts to gag the newspaper in question have fuelled speculation that the government has something to hide. Cynicism about foreign policy is running high in Britain. On Question Time, a BBC show where members of the public quiz politicians, one questioner ironically asked: 'If Bush had suggested bombing the BBC, would Blair have dissuaded him?' The irony is that, throughout the Arab world Al-Jazeera is spoken of as a force for free speech and open political debate - exactly the goals the US says it seeks in the Middle East. Although heavily subsidised by the state of Qatar, the station has been free to air critical political viewpoints, even when many of Qatar's Arab allies withdrew their ambassadors from the tiny emirate in protest. This has had a profound impact on a region where the media has traditionally been monopolised by sycophantic government mouthpieces. Indeed, Mr Khanfar said that before 2001, the US celebrated Al-Jazeera as a force for reform, and criticism came only from Arab governments. Some accused the station of working for the CIA, others said it was funded by the Israeli secret service, or Mossad. Yet since September 11, and since Al-Jazeera started broadcasting critical reports about US actions in Afghanistan, western politicians and commentators have accused the station of being in league with al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. US officials have also objected to the station's screening of video statements by militant groups including al-Qaeda, a practice that has changed under Mr Khanfar's directorship. Although Al-Jazeera used to screen full-length militant statements, now it will select only a few minutes of the most newsworthy points out of an hour of footage, according to Mr Khanfar. Yet the station's image as an al-Qaeda mouthpiece persists in some quarters. Mr Khanfar is particularly angry about persistent accusations that the station broadcasts videos of beheadings, which he is adamant the station has never done. The government of Qatar, which seeks closer relations with the US, has reportedly come under diplomatic pressure from Washington to ask the station to tone down its output, and there are persistent rumours that it will be privatised to fend off such pressure. Mr Khanfar acknowledged that the station was considering 'all kinds of options, including privatisation', but added: 'We would only take that option if it did not compromise our editorial integrity.' So if the station stands for free speech, does Mr Khanfar think he has something in common with the US? 'We have worked for freedom of expression and political reform since we began broadcasting in 1996,' he told the Post. 'We are an original movement coming from within the Arab world, adhering to our own values and our 10-point code of media ethics. If the US wants to promote free expression, we appreciate that, and think the whole international community should work for that cause.' Unfortunately for the US, Washington's criticism of Al-Jazeera is casting doubt on Mr Bush's stated commitment to free speech in the Arab world. 'What Al-Jazeera keeps repeating is that they only report what is really happening in Iraq, however dire and ugly,' Hroub said. 'The US is aiming at the wrong target, the media. Even if the US controlled Al-Jazeera, they could not change the opposition of its policies in the Middle East. They have to change their policies.' The US has also tried to beat Al-Jazeera at its own game by establishing its own Arabic satellite TV station, Al-Hurra, whose name means 'The Free One'. However, viewing figures have disappointed in comparison to Al-Jazeera.