Think Again: Al Jazeera

It is vilified as a propaganda machine and Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece. In truth, though, Al Jazeera is as hated in the palaces of Riyadh as it is in the White House. But, as millions of loyal viewers already know, Al Jazeera promotes a level of free speech and dissent rarely seen in the Arab world. With plans to go global, it might just become your network of choice.

"Al Jazeera Supports Terrorism"

"Al Jazeera Supports Terrorism"

False, though the network makes little attempt to disassociate itself from those who do. This claim is one of the loudest arguments that Western critics have levied against the Arabic-language news channel since its inception 10 years ago, when the Doha, Qatar-based network pledged to present all viewpoints. Just as it describes in its motto, "The opinion and the other opinion," Al Jazeera has lent airtime even to hated political figures and extremists, including prominent members of al Qaeda. It’s this willingness to present terrorists as legitimate political commentators that has prompted outspoken critics such as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to refer to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as "inaccurate and inexcusable."

After all, when Al Jazeera offers its estimated 50 million viewers exclusive interviews of Osama bin Laden, it’s easy to confuse access with endorsement. And when a journalist who conducts those interviews is jailed for collaboration with al Qaeda, as Tayssir Alouni was in a Spanish court last year, the line between impartial observer and impassioned supporter is certainly blurred. In addition, al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group that reaches out to Al Jazeera. Besides the infamous bin Laden tapes — at least six of which the network has still never aired — Al Jazeera has also received tapes from insurgent groups in Iraq, renegade Afghan warlords, and the London suicide bombers.

But the network has never supported violence against the United States. Not once have its correspondents praised attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. The network has never captured an attack on the coalition "live," and there’s no evidence Al Jazeera has known about any attack beforehand. Despite claims to the contrary, the network has never aired footage of a beheading. As for Alouni’s case, conclusive evidence has yet to be presented to the public. And there is nothing to suggest that the network’s funding is illegitimate. Allegations of supporting terrorism remain just that — allegations.

"Al Jazeera Is Anti-Semitic"

Wrong. Just as Al Jazeera has proven willing to present al Qaeda’s "perspective," it has also devoted airtime to and welcomed another regional pariah — Israel. The network was the first Arab channel to allow Israelis to present their case in their own words, in Hebrew, English, or Arabic. This move was a major departure from past practices and truly shocked the Arab public. Until Al Jazeera arrived, most Arabs had never even heard an Israeli’s voice. Al Jazeera regularly airs clips of Israeli officials within news bulletins and conducts live interviews with six to 10 Israelis each month. The network covers Israeli affairs extensively and is widely watched in Israel. In fact, Al Jazeera gives more airtime to Israeli issues than any other channel outside Israel itself.

Although Israel has accused Al Jazeera of bias and anti-Semitism (and some of the network’s guests have certainly fit that bill), the network’s coverage has occasionally been of concrete benefit to the Israelis. When Israel invaded Jenin in the spring of 2002, Al Jazeera’s exclusive television reports from within the besieged city thoroughly dispelled rumors of a "massacre," leading to a U.N. special investigating committee appointed by the secretary-general being unceremoniously disbanded.

Many Israelis even regard Al Jazeera as an important new force for change in the Arab world. Gideon Ezra, former deputy head of the Israeli General Security Service, once remarked that he wished "all Arab media were like Al-Jazeera." Not all Arabs would agree. Although many Westerners think Al Jazeera has a pro-Arab bias, many Arabs believe exactly the opposite. It is widely held in the Arab world that Al Jazeera is financed and run by Mossad, MI5, or the CIA, so as to undermine Arab unity. Just as Bahrain banned Al Jazeera from reporting from inside the country because of a perceived Zionist bias in 2002, Al Jazeera’s bureaus in Arab countries have often been closed down, accused of besmirching the Palestinians or disseminating other kinds of imperialistic anti-Arab propaganda.

"Al Jazeera Is Spreading Political Freedom"

Wishful thinking. It’s true that Al Jazeera established the tradition of investigative reporting in the Arab world and rolled back the boundaries of debate within Arab families, breaking all kinds of taboos about what could be discussed on television. Improving upon the sycophantic Arab news channels that existed prior to 1996, Al Jazeera better informs the Arab public about their leadership and provides Arabs with a forum through which they can more easily ask of their rulers, "Why are we in this mess?"

In fact, Al Jazeera’s programs about Western politics have done more to inform Arabs about democracy than any nation or station. After 9/11, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau started two weekly talk shows to illuminate American democracy for a foreign audience: From Washington, in which the bureau chief interviewed U.S. politicians, including members of the Bush administration; and U.S. Presidential Race, which covered the U.S. elections in great depth, including most of the major primaries.

However, to assume satellite television will transform Arab societies into transparent, just, and equal democracies is to presume that the current state of affairs in the Arab world results from an information deficit, which is not true. Except in the most authoritarian Arab countries, news has long been available to determined citizens via the BBC or Voice of America radio, and neither one of those remade the region.

Al Jazeera encourages free speech in the Middle East, but that is no substitute for real political reform. Just because a woman in Saudi Arabia can now see a debate on TV, and can even contribute in real time, doesn’t mean she can go out and vote in an election or join a political party. Arab autocrats have come to realize that even if information on satellite TV cannot be packaged and manipulated the way it was with state-run media, Al Jazeera may not be as deadly a threat to their regimes as they first feared. They can still ban Al Jazeera from opening a bureau, as has happened in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, or evoke emergency laws to confiscate equipment or arrest journalists, as happens in Egypt. Arab press unions, like Arab opposition political parties, are still prevented from growing strong.

"Al Jazeera Is Biased"

True, but no more so than Fox News or CNN. Al Jazeera employs the same stringent editorial processes as the Western media, but it ends up with a different product. During the war in Iraq, Al Jazeera’s tone was notably sympathetic to the Iraqis and hostile toward the Americans. Similarly in Afghanistan, the Taliban was often presented as the noble underdog and America as the vengeful, colonial aggressor. A general cynicism about Arab regimes allied to America is detectable, and though Al Jazeera has employees from many religions, including Jews, the network is clearly sympathetic toward the Palestinians.

This bias in no way invalidates the network’s news. Knowing it is scrutinized more rigorously than any other news channel in the world, Al Jazeera is fastidious in presenting all sides of a story. Certainly compared to most other Arab news stations, Al Jazeera remains a model of professionalism and objectivity. Journalists around the world treat Al Jazeera with the same respect they treat news from any other major international news network. Al Jazeera has sharing agreements with CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, BBC, Japan’s NHK, and Germany’s ZDF, all of which regularly use Al Jazeera’s footage and reports.

If Al Jazeera has a bias, it is a commercial one. Despite the fact that it enjoys an estimated annual budget of around $100 million, subsidized largely by the gas-rich Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar, Al Jazeera wants to win audience share and it wants to sell advertising. The network has consistently lost money since its launch, which is unsurprising, as no Arab channel makes a profit. The network targets a particular demographic (namely Arab men over the age of 25), and, like the mainstream cable networks or FM radios stations in the United States, it tries hard to pitch itself to viewers by luring them with dramatic trailers and lead-in segments. They often feature montages of violence from the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, or Iraq, accompanied by pounding music. Critics argue that such montages are deliberately inflammatory. The network counters that it is not its job to sanitize images of war. What is indisputable is that Al Jazeera has different standards of taste from Western networks when it comes to showing casualties.

"Al Jazeera Is Censored"

Not yet. Al Jazeera occupies a peculiar space in the Arab media. It presents itself as a beacon of free speech and editorial independence in the region. Yet, the chairman of the network’s board of directors is Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, the former Qatari deputy minister of information. There’s no question that Al Jazeera remains heavily dependent on the emir. And he has proved to be an unflinching sponsor. When he came to power in 1995, the emir calculated that hosting a popular television network would help Qatar shore up Western support in the event that Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia should decide to invade. The gamble paid off, both for Al Jazeera and for the emir.

Despite its dependence on the state, Al Jazeera regularly criticizes Arab regimes, including Qatar’s. For example, when a coup to depose the emir was foiled in February 1996 and the plotters put on trial, proceedings were televised live on Al Jazeera — a first in the Arab world. Al Jazeera’s viewers had a front-row seat when the defense counsel claimed that the defendants had been subjected to torture, and when a spokesman from Amnesty International who had been invited to attend the trial attacked the Qatari criminal justice system. Talk shows on Al Jazeera have discussed whether it was right or wrong for Qatar to host an American air base. At the height of the intifada and in the run-up to the war in Iraq, when America’s allies were being hounded in the Arab world, politicians, guests, and callers frequently attacked Qatar on Al Jazeera.

Yet there remains a deeply held belief from government ministries right down to the Arab street that the Qatari ruling family is the real power behind Al Jazeera. The exact nature of the relationship remains opaque, but it is a testament to the vision of the emir that, so far at least, he has been tolerant. Whether he will continue to keep his fingers off the channel remains to be seen.

"Al Jazeera Wants to Compete with CNN and the BBC"

Yes, and it plans to. Although it wasn’t part of the original launch plan back in November 1996, the network’s incredible success during the past decade has prompted the emir to expand his goals for Al Jazeera. This fall, a sister English-language station, called Al Jazeera International, or AJI, will launch around the world. It expects to reach 30 to 40 million households on its first day. AJI is directly competing with BBC World and CNN International for the world’s English-speaking audience of 1 billion people.

Although it has hired a large number of Western journalists, it won’t look much like CNN. The network’s coverage will "follow the sun" throughout the day, airing from Kuala Lumpur for 4 hours, Doha for 11 hours, London for 5, and Washington for the remaining 4. Reporters and editors in each locale will present news from their region’s perspective, and the entire world will watch the same satellite feed at the same time. "We’re the first news channel based in the Mideast to bring news back to the West," says Nigel Parsons, managing director of AJI. "We want to set a different news agenda." And CNN and the BBC are taking the new global competition seriously. The BBC has unveiled plans for an Arabic-language television news service, slated for launch in early 2007, and both networks are busy reassessing how they cover news in the developing world.

"Only Arabs Will Watch Al Jazeera International"

Not so fast. This venture is the biggest challenge yet for the network. Whereas the launch of the Arabic Al Jazeera network meant competing with the likes of Egyptian, Lebanese, and Saudi television, Western networks are much meatier competition, and Al Jazeera will face them on their home turf. In English.

For its part, AJI has said it will focus on developing-world issues and use more indigenous reporters and freelancers than other channels. It is widely expected to win large market share in Asia, where the Al Jazeera brand already enjoys a favorable reputation and where many more people speak English than Arabic. Pakistan has 160 million Muslims, and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has 215 million Muslims, many of whom will be interested in following events in the Arab world closely.

Of course, it won’t be so easy to break into America. Even securing distribution for AJI has been tough: As of press time, not one U.S. cable company had offered to carry the channel as part of a general news package. Ironically, it is the world’s freest media market that poses the biggest challenge to Al Jazeera.

None of which changes the fact that Al Jazeera has permanently reshaped the landscape of world news to and, soon, from the Arab world. In a region where the United States is engaged in a protracted war in one country and the West as a whole faces a nuclear impasse in another, it hardly makes sense to simply turn the dial — and remain confined to an echo chamber of recycled opinion. If Al Jazeera International hits the airwaves this fall, America would do well to tune in.

Hugh Miles is the author of Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that Is Challenging the West (New York: Grove Press, 2005).

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