Voice of the Middle East

AJ ENG

Doha-based news channel Al-Jazeera has just launched a new international English-language service, Al-Jazeera English– which will be available free to air across the Middle East. The television station that changed the face of news broadcasting in the region is set to become a major player in the West, but the launch isn’t without controversy and not everyone welcomes the introduction of another Al-Jazeera news channel.

In November 2005 a British newspaper reported on leaked documents that claimed President George W Bush was serious about bombing the Al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha. British Prime Minister Tony Blair allegedly talked him out of it. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001 the coverage from Al-Jazeera has been the subject of regular complaints from American officials. US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld called the channel ‘vicious’ and ‘inexcusably biased’. Secretary of State Colin Powell even appealed directly to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (the Emir of Qatar) to restrain the footage shown on Al-Jazeera, but the Emir – who funded the launch of the station in 1996 to the tune of $90 million – stated that he believes in the freedom of the press and Al- Jazeera enjoys total autonomy. Its Kabul and Baghdad offices were hit by American attacks and although the US military insists the incidents were only accidental, the opinion among the Arabic media seems to be that the US acted in order to prevent the reporting of incidents involving American personnel.

So what is the world’s only remaining superpower so scared of and what do they make of the imminent arrival of Al-Jazeera English, the station’s long-awaited English-language channel? Some are not happy. When Al-Jazeera English finally hits the air on November 15, it will be the first channel based in the Middle East to deliver news to the West in English, although 55 per cent of Americans polled by the Accuracy In Media (AIM) group ‘totally opposed’ Al-Jazeera English being broadcast in the States. The editor of AIM, Cliff Kincaid, told Time Out that he believes the reason was down to ‘the reputation of Al- Jazeera and the Arab government connection to the new channel’. The fact that an Arab government funds the station is clearly an issue for manyin the West, but prior to 9/11 the American government greatly praised Al-Jazeera for independent coverage of Middle Eastern issues. It’s only since 9/11 that it’s been accused of providing a platform for terrorist propaganda.

Mike Holtzman, the US-based spokesperson for Al-Jazeera English, spoke to Time Out and questioned the validity of the poll: ‘The vast majority of Americans will only have this opinion second-hand and through the vast prism of people with a political agenda.’ But he is in no doubt as to why the station is unpopular with many in America: ‘The objective of this channel is to speak truth to power, and some people in power don’t like the truth. You’re going to rub people up the wrong way and that’s fine by Al-Jazeera. They don’t like the reality that Al-Jazeera conveys.’

It’s clear to even the most casual viewer that Al-Jazeera stands out from Western rivals by screening video footage that its opposition can’t, or won’t broadcast, rightly or wrongly. Al-Jazeera reporters defend their live broadcasts that show civilian casualties in Iraq by stating ‘the pictures do not lie’, rightly pointing out that Western media were nowhere near as extensive in their coverage of attacks such as the coalition’s destruction of Fallujah that led to Rumsfeld’s outburst about the station.

AIM editor Kincaid states that: ‘Al-Jazeera functions as a global terrorist entity, providing sympathetic coverage of terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. Its purpose is to radicalise Arab and Muslim populations around the world. Yes, the other news organisations can be biased or inaccurate, but have not, as a matter of policy, provided sympathetic coverage of terrorist groups or incited people to violence.’

At Al-Jazeera, Mike Holtzman believes the opposite is actually true. ‘There appears to be this double standard with the Arabic Muslim world as if they can’t handle the news and as if it’s going to motivate more and more people to become terrorists. Quite the reverse. Al-Jazeera has had the effect of opening up these societies to debate and discussion, and as a result you’ve given them a much better basis for peace and stability in the future. They have the opportunity and an outlet for political expression, which is something they never had before.’

The footage that has consistently caused controversy is that of the speeches that Osama bin Laden (and his deputies) intermittently release, most notoriously in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was Al-Jazeera that broadcast bin Laden’s speech in which he called upon all the Muslim people to start the ‘holy war’. Al-Jazeera has aired over 30 of Osama bin Laden and his deputies’ video messages; all are highly newsworthy and in the public interest, but often a source of inspiration to terrorist groups. So where do you draw the line in terms of accurate and responsible reporting?

‘News channels can cover a video as a news story without airing it,’ Kincaid argues, adding, ‘By airing the videos in their entirety, or major portions, news organisations are acting like propaganda organs for the terrorists. Captured terrorists have said they came to Iraq to kill Americans because of the words and images on Al-Jazeera.’

When asked if Al-Jazeera English will continue to broadcast such videos, Holtzman replies, ‘Absolutely. If it’s newsworthy, we will broadcast it. It’s worth reminding people that the first bin Laden tape was run by CNN and not Al-Jazeera, but nobody gave them s*** about it. Al-Jazeera actually had the tape first and has, at times, declined to run bin Laden tapes and censored them heavily. The BBC ran those atrocious Abu Ghraib tapes, not Al-Jazeera. We cannot hold Al-Jazeera to a different stand to that which we hold the other media, just because this channel happens to be based in the Arabic and Muslim world. That’s racist.’

According to reports, Al-Jazeera received $20,000 per minute for bin Laden’s speech from other stations around the world, which were more than happy to air the same footage that had caused controversy. Likewise, stations such as CNN – which was arguably the leading station in terms of coverage during the 1991 Gulf War – were willing to buy footage from Al-Jazeera to be able to show what was now happening in the region. People may not be entirely happy with what they are showing, there is no doubting that Al-Jazeera is at the forefront of war reporting. But will Al-Jazeera English continue the policy of broadcasting such graphic footage to American and European audiences?

‘It’s a tough question because we ought not to apply double standards,’ Holtzam admits. ‘Al- Jazeera doesn’t shy away from telling the truth as it happens. What other networks shy away from is the reality of life for millions of people who live every day with war, oppression, poverty and deprivation. Their stories deserve to be seen and their voices heard.’

Yosri Fouda, the bureau chief for Al-Jazeera in London, told BBC News: ‘The Western media is highly sanitised. You are not seeing what war, this war, is actually like.’ Holtzman adds, ‘It seems like in wartime the media has to pick sides and if you don’t, you’re equated with the enemy. After 9/11 the media in the West became acquiescent. We weren’t questioning people, and debate was stifled by this sense that there needed to be patriotism in the ranks of journalism instead of adopting free enquiry. ‘When all the stations have democracy on the tip of their tongues, the only one that’s been practising it is Al-Jazeera.’

With many unhappy at Al-Jazeera’s editorial approach and the likes of Donald Rumsfeld calling the network ‘a mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda and a vehicle of anti-American propaganda’, you’d think the station would be the darling of the Middle East. But it hasn’t worked out that way. ‘We believe Al-Jazeera is suspect and represents the Zionist side in the region,’ former Bahraini Information Minister Nabil al-Hamr was quoted as saying, adding, ‘We will not deal with this channel because we object to its coverage of current affairs. It is a channel penetrated by Zionists.’

Its reporters have also, on occasion, been banned in Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority and it has been heavily criticised by Saudi Arabia. Holtzman sees this as a good sign: ‘If you are being accused on one side of being Zionist and on the other of being Al-Qaeda and then of being CIA, you must be doing something right. ‘The key evidence that I would point to is the 50 million viewers, and that’s where the channel has built its credibility and that’s all the credibility it needs. The powerful continue to have an issue with the media as long as they’re not toeing the party line; as long as it’s not sycophantic – and that’s the way it’s been in the Gulf region for so long. Al-Jazeera has been thrown out of just about every country in the region at one point or another because it has been so groundbreaking in its coverage and its ability to challenge conventional wisdom.’

One move that Al-Jazeera English has made before broadcasting to a Western audience is securing the talents of known and trusted faces. Rageh Omar, who made his name reporting from the frontline of Iraq for the BBC, was hired and so was Sir David Frost – one of the most respected broadcasters in the media. They will have news centres in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC enabling them to ‘follow the sun’. With such high-profile talent and infrastructure, there’s a potential market worldwide.

Managing director of Al-Jazeera English, Nigel Parsons, is optimistically cautious that the new channel can have a similar success: ‘We are after a wide audience – the fact we are anchored in the Middle East means that we will have a strong output from this region. We don’t think we will ever be a channel of mass audience in the UK, for example.’ Parsons adds, ‘We are hoping to reach 40 million households, but there is no precise number for how many viewers we will get. I know the Arabic side has some problems getting advertising but we are a global channel and we have a bigger advertising market. I am under no pressure to deliver revenues from day one. We do have a business plan, which says in maybe three to five years we will break even.’ In the US, Holtzman is aware the Arabic station has had a battle to get advertising but says this is a reaction to the purity of the journalism:

‘One of the reasons the Emir has continued to subsidise it is because lots of governments in the region are pissed off at the channel’s coverage, for being so independent, and they won’t allow advertising on it. Al-Jazeera owes nobody anything except its viewers. And that’s the best place for a free press to be – accountable only to the public.’

How Al-Jazeera English fares globally remains to be seen, but there are interesting times ahead and controversy is the best publicity there is. Nigel Parsons is well aware of this: ‘People are queuing up to have a go at us. I’m sure half the audience wants us to fall flat on our face. But this doesn’t get to me. It goes with the territory. My biggest fear is that we launch and people say, “So what?”’

Perhaps the fear and loathing that’s been directed towards Al-Jazeera is not because they report lies, but because they are one of the few media outlets that are in a position to report the uncut truth. And, as a journalist, when governments on all sides dislike you, that’s a sign you’re doing your job well. So well, that allegedly the president of the United States wants to bomb your head offices. Holtzman explains that they are investigating those claims but states that ‘Al-Jazeera reporters would wear that as a badge of honour . They are telling truth to power and that is the mandate of this channel. A free press is dangerous to vested interests, anywhere they exist. The whole point of a free press is to shed light into closed debate and liberalise and democratise information. If that’s a threat then so be it.’

From Time Out, December 2006

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