Al Jazeera Remains in the Hot Seat

Judith Gabriel

Al Jazeera’s overnight explosion into global consciousness, thanks to its frontline exclusives and scoops on Osama bin Laden, may have given the Qatar-based satellite channel a reputation as the “CNN of the Arab World,” but it continues to draw the ire of Arab – and American – rulers. What else would one expect from the region’s first 24-hour satellite news network, and the first Arab news outlet that offers uncensored information and free interpretation of political events? 

The attacks from the official quarters in the Arab world are nothing new. Al Jazeera is, in fact, the most watched – and most controversial – station in the region. It has been excoriated for its unabashed coverage of events in the region – coverage which has also won praise from international media watchdog organizations and defenders of freedom of the press. Most recently, it is taking flack for its coverage of more domestic dramas involving Arabs but set in the West. 

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz vented his fury against Al Jazeera at the Gulf Coordinating Council summit meeting held in Muscat at the end of December. According to the Lebanese newspaper Al Anwar, the crown prince was particularly upset over the satellite channel’s coverage of the arrest of a Saudi princess in the United States for alleged “enslavement” of an Indonesian maid. He complained that the TV station had relied solely on the U.S. media’s version of events. 

No one would expect the Saudis to be among the rogue channel’s fans. Al Jazeera had its roots in an extinguished joint venture between the BBC Arab service and the Saudi satellite company Orbit, a cooperative effort that failed under the weight of Saudi demands for editorial control. 

The crown prince’s most recent comments were reportedly made in the presence of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani. Al-Thani, who deposed his father in 1995, is the man who made Al Jazeera possible, offering to fund the nascent Al Jazeera to the tune of $140 million in a start-up grant. The new station had a ready-made BBC-trained staff drawn from practically every Arab country and every political tendency, and was simply required to avoid certain sensitive topics within Qatar. 

U.S. officials asked al-Thani to rein in Al Jazeera in the wake of its controversial broadcast of Osama bin Laden’s tapes. The emir refused, saying at the time that the channel would continue “to follow the same professional path that Al Jazeera has followed” since its launch in 1996 “as a media offering a margin of liberty in the Arab world.” However, according to the Beirut-based Al Anwar newspaper, the emir of Qatar kept an embarrassed silence during the Saudi crown prince’s tongue-lashing. 

Echoing earlier accusations from the U.S. government that Al Jazeera had become “Bin Laden TV,” Crown Prince Abdullah accused it of serving as “a platform for the Al Qaeda organization,” according to Al Anwar’s coverage of the GCC summit. 

The airing of two video-taped statements by bin Laden in October and November 2001, had drawn a round of criticism from the U.S. government, culminating in efforts to muzzle the Qatar channel. In defending the station’s coverage, Ahmed al-Sheikh, chief of Al Jazeera’s news desk, recently told Al Ahram Weekly, “This is the world of news, take it first and fast. We aired bin Laden’s statement because undoubtedly he is the focus of the world’s attention . . . Regardless of the Taliban’s purpose in accepting Al Jazeera, we are giving the world the two sides of the coin, and this is what a television channel should be all about.” 

Ironically, it was CNN, drawing on its exclusive arrangement with Al Jazeera, that broadcast the first actual interview with bin Laden. Conducted on Oct. 21, 2001, by Al Jazeera’s Kabul reporter, the exclusive interview was never aired on the satellite channel, because the channel reportedly found it to be below standard and not newsworthy. Nonetheless, CNN obtained the videotape and aired it on Jan. 31, despite protests from Al Jazeera. The day after CNN started playing the interview, Al Jazeera announced it was severing its relationship with the U.S. station. Mohammed Jassim al-Ali, director general of Al Jazeera, said the channel was taking “the necessary action to punish the organizations and individuals who stole this video and distributed it illegally.” CNN executives denied they had done anything illegal in obtaining or airing the tape, noting that “our affiliate agreement with Al Jazeera gives us the express right to use any and all footage owned or controlled by Al Jazeera, without limitation.” 

In the wake of the earlier broadcast of bin Laden’s taped statements and other programming, the Arab station became the target of efforts by the U.S. government to muzzle its editorial content and was accused of being an Al Qaeda vehicle. In response, Western media watchdog groups such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists leapt to Al Jazeera’s defense. Joel Campagna, CPJ Middle East program coordinator, protested that the network is well-respected as an independent voice in the Arab world, even by moderates. “Is it a biased channel?” Campagna asked. “Sure. But every channel has at least a slight bias. I believe that they do their best to air all points of view.” Yet Campagna noted that recently some journalists at Al Jazeera had become more self-critical. “I think since Sept 11, or even before – that some people would put [on the air] what could be called inflammatory rhetoric or people with outrageous views,” a source at the station told Campagna. “After the crisis and the complaints, I think [the coverage] has toned down. The message was heard and Al-Jazeera adjusted.” The same source explained that any bias at Al Jazeera did not stem from ill intent or organizational policy but simply reflected the reporters’ backgrounds and points of view. 

Al Jazeera (which means “the Peninsula”) has revolutionized Arabic-language television news in a region that for decades has been accustomed to the heavily censored offerings of state-controlled television. It has won over viewers with its bold, uncensored news coverage, its unbridled political debates and its call-in-show formats that tackle a range of sensitive social, political, and cultural issues. Some observers note that there is a striking difference between the channel’s news coverage and its talk shows, leading to widely disparate styles in the programming – from the BBC to Fox News, as one journalist described it. Arab critics have accused the channel’s free-for-all debate shows of being sensational and at times unprofessional, and some point a critical finger at fundamentalist fervor in religiously oriented segments. 

Nonetheless, in its efforts to cover all sides, the channel has aired interviews with Israeli leaders, a phenomenon rarely seen in the Arab world. It allows its guests and viewers who call in to its programs to openly criticize Arab regimes. Its controversial talk show “Al Ittijah Al Mu’akiss” (The Opposite Direction), modeled on CNN’s “Crossfire,” draws viewers and callers from across the Middle East and beyond. “Many people like to describe us as the ‘CNN of the Arab world,’” said Hafez al-Mirazi, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief, as quoted by the CPJ. Al-Mirazi, who is one of more than 50 correspondents for the channel working in 31 countries, notes that “Al Jazeera has a margin of freedom that no other Arab channel enjoys. Our motto is: ‘The view and the other point of view.’” 

Back at the Muscat summit, other GCC leaders also chimed in, according to the Al Anwar newspaper account, which noted that Al Jazeera had frequently run into trouble with several Arab governments, such as Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. These and other Arab governments have complained about Al Jazeera’s programs, which they say go too far in criticizing officials or bruising Arab sensitivities. Some Arab governments have closed down Al Jazeera’s bureaus or recalled their ambassadors to Qatar to protest shows critical of their regimes. Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Egypt have all sought to limit Al Jazeera broadcasts. The Algerian government once arranged a power blackout during a sensitive program. The Palestinian Authority temporarily closed the channel’s Ramallah office in response to a promotion for a program on the civil war in Lebanon, which showed a poster of Yasser Arafat beneath a pair of shoes. Despite all this, nearly 40 million viewers in the region manage to watch it. 

Viewers, too, have had their gripes about some of the channel’s offerings. It was roundly criticized for programs revisiting the Lebanese civil war, as well as for broadcasting a series on the 1970 Black September clashes between Palestinian commandos and the Jordanian army. In an interview last spring in the London-based Arabic language Al Wasat, the newspaper asked Al Jazeera’s director Mohamed Jassem al-Ali what had prompted the station “to exacerbate these wounds in such a way?” He responded that it certainly wasn’t the first time they had “tackled issues that others considered to be a taboo, subjects for which people think that the time is not yet appropriate. To those people, I answer that the timing will not be suitable any day, and thus this excuse should not remain like a sword aimed at us.” Al-Ali added “What we need is not just to heal the wounds but to clean them first. Then healing can begin, so that they will be cured.” Of course, this painful process may be more than some viewers bargain for when they turn on their TV sets. 

Among the American Arab voices critical of the channel is that of Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, who wrote a post-September 11 article about the station in The New York Times Magazine. “Compared with other Arab media outlets, Al Jazeera may be more independent – but it is also more inflammatory,” he wrote. “For the dark side of the pan-Arab worldview is an aggressive mix of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, and these hostilities drive the station’s coverage.” Ajami claimed that “Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.” The bottom line, he wrote, was that “Al Jazeera’s virulent anti-American bias undercuts all of its virtues. It is, in the final analysis, a dangerous force, and it should be treated as such by Washington.” 

Responding in, Eric Boehlert characterized the diatribe as “classic Ajami: a sledgehammer critique of all things Arab, and one that did more to ingratiate him to America’s media establishment than it did to help readers here understand the complexities of the Middle East.” 

Understanding such complexities is still, of course, an agonizing process, one made more circuitous by the way the Middle East is covered by Western media. Even if Al Jazeera adds English-language broadcasts to its programming, as it has announced it hopes to do in the future (in January it added English subtitles 12 hours a day in the U.S.) , the station has a limited pool of potential viewers in America. Right now, there are about 150,000 satellite subscribers in the United States, according to Ghida Fakhry, who covers New York and the United Nations for the station, and who has increasingly appeared on news and talk programs on American television.

“I’m surprised at the charges about the network being biased, because Al Jazeera has been criticized in [Arab regions] for being too pro-American and too pro-Israeli,” she said. “This is a station that’s obviously achieved a reputation for being independent.” She then invoked the classic paradigm for measuring journalistic balance: If all sides are unhappy, the station must be doing something right. If nothing else, it has awakened the rest of the world’s awareness of how much spunk it takes to rise above the media challenges of the Arab world.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, no. 37 (Fall 2001)

Copyright © by Al Jadid (2001)