Al-Jazeera suffers both US and Arab hostility

Al Jazeera The story of al-Jazeera, from its humble beginnings in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in 1996 to today's global network that is required viewing for major policy makers, is a reminder of the incredible power the media can have to influence international politics.

More than ten years after the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, scrapped his country's censorious Information Ministry and commissioned a radically different Arab media outlet, al-Jazeera persists with its frank political reporting and taboo-breaking, live-to-air debates. The satellite broadcaster has unleashed a ripple effect among its pan-Arab competitors, who are now attempting to emulate its brash, free-wheeling style. The region's state broadcasters know their traditional news fare — staid reports chronicling the national leader's daily activities — no longer appeals to the masses.

While al-Jazeera English struggles to reach audiences (a year after its inception the station has yet to find a US cable carrier and in Australia the only provider offering the channel is the niche UBI World TV), its Arabic component is intent on expanding its influence, with a pan-Arab newspaper set for launch in late 2007. This would further chip away at Saudi Arabia's domination of the pan-Arab media establishment.

To the chagrin of the government in Riyadh, al-Jazeera provides a regular platform for exiled Saudi dissidents to take potshots at the monarchy. In response, Saudi Arabia's vast economic clout has effectively coalesced to boycott the channel.

Not that finances are a problem. Although al-Jazeera features some advertising, the bulk of funding flows from the Emir, who contributes a reported US$30 million per year. The channel 'won't be financially independent in the near future', says Ezzeddine Abdelmoula, of the al-Jazeera International and Media Relations department.

The station's management claims state funding comes without editorial interference. The common explanation is that al-Jazeera's own headline-making reputation suits Qatari ambitions for the tiny emirate to punch above its weight in the region. Any attempts by the leadership to rein in the feisty broadcaster would backfire.

But for many Arab governments al-Jazeera remains a nuisance. At the broadcaster's Doha newsroom, staff sit at open-plan desks in front of multiple flat-screens. Above them an electronic ticker scrolls by in Arabic script with the phrase 'al-ra'y wal-ra'y al-akhar', reminding employees that the channel has a duty to show 'the opinion and the opposite opinion'. This commitment to showing a multitude of views has exposed many rifts within Arab politics and unravelled concocted notions of national unity. Within the Palestinian Territories, al-Jazeera was highlighting Hamas opposition figures long before the group stunned policy makers with its electoral victory last year.

Arab governments are not amused. During its decade of broadcasting, al-Jazeera journalists have been arrested or forced to close their bureaus in Jordan, Algeria, Kuwait, Egypt and post-Saddam Iraq. Bahrain, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have been off-limits from the start.

States' attempts to combat the lively broadcaster have become legendary. In 1999 Algeria is said to have timed a power cut to interrupt an al-Jazeera talk show featuring one of its government representatives facing off with an exiled critic.

For all the talk of the new English-language channel bringing a non-Western-centric perspective to audiences, the spin-off broadcaster is, perhaps strangely, a slightly tamer version of the Arabic trailblazer.

There are clear differences between the two. While priding itself on following modern journalistic ethics of impartiality, the original al-Jazeera is unashamedly an Arab station. And this is most apparent in one distinguishing editorial policy: every Palestinian killed by Israeli troops is called shaheed, a martyr.

It's a cultural thing, says Ayman Gaballah, Deputy Chief Editor of al-Jazeera, explaining how the 'Palestinian issue' gets such an emotional response in the region. 'It's in the heart of every Arab,' he says. 'It is the common denominator.'

Al-Jazeera's relationship with the US government has had its ups and downs. It was once hailed as a hopeful sign of emerging democracy in the Arab world, but the American approach to the station soured when al-Jazeera started receiving and airing tapes of Osama bin Laden after October 2001. As the bin Laden clips were broadcast around the world, with the al-Jazeera logo conspicuous in the corner of the screen, it is not surprising that the messenger and the message were often conflated in popular perception.

Al-Jazeera English marketers also had to contend with a widely-believed myth about their network — that it has broadcast footage of hostages being beheaded. The persistent rumour was given credibility in 2005 when then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld espoused it at a security conference in Singapore. The repeated surfacing of the myth has some al-Jazeera insiders wondering if it is part of an orchestrated smear campaign.

A US missile destroyed the empty al-Jazeera office in Kabul in November 2001. An al-Jazeera correspondent in Iraq, Tariq Ayoub, was killed in April 2003 when the Baghdad bureau was bombed by US forces. In both instances, the US government denied targeting the sites. Al-Jazeera employees are reluctant to argue differently without proof, but many see a pattern of intimidation against the Arab world's freest media outlet.

'The Americans have practised what all the other Arab regimes have tried before, using pressure and sometimes more than pressure,' says Gaballah. 'In the end, they discovered it doesn't work.'

Michael MehrMichael Mehr is a Sydney-based writer. He studied al-Jazeera as part of his Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University.



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Existing comments

I suspect the tame English version, a CNN/BBC World lookalike, is to accommodate Western sensibilities on styles of reporting which includes the graphic human cost of war in Iraq and life on the West Bank, and a very robust debating style. Nonetheless it is good to see and hear debates in English from across the Arab and Muslim world which are remarkably divergent in their viewpoints. It is a shining light of democracy in the Middle East, which is why various powers wish to emulate it.

Jan Forrester | 29 November 2007  

Hello Michael Mehr, your article was very interesting. My question -- if al-Jazeera calls Palestinians killed by Israelis, "martyrs" what do they call all those Muslim women and children killed by Muslim suicide bombers?

Richard L. Provencher | 05 April 2008  

Perhaps you should make western accented people speak to wetern areas, and reverse in reverse areas to help make everyone thing it's hteir own that's pointing out thier morons or are hypocrites eitehr way.

If that's the issue

Oh and maybe you should stop siding with merchants, and route for faith and vlaues as a community effort as filteration

Julien Coallier | 17 December 2009  


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