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It's good to be the emir of Qatar. In February, his satellite channel al-Jazeera signed a content sharing deal with Telesur, the TV network promoted by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Not done there, the controversial Qatari news station plans to unveil this spring an English-language channel featuring, among others, ex-BBC host David Frost and a former US Marines captain.
If only it were this easy to make liberal inroads in the Middle East.
Launched in 1996, al-Jazeera ("The Peninsula") revolutionized Arab media with its on-the-ground reporting and feisty political talk shows, but it is clear, a decade on, that the station alone will not bring democracy to the region. Some critics even charge that the channel's pan-Arab focus on Iraq and the Palestinians distracts from local issues, such as the lack of elections in Qatar.
Al-Jazeera owes its existence in equal parts to the BBC and the emir of Qatar. In 1994, the British state-owned channel brokered a deal with Orbit, a Saudi subsidiary, to create BBC Arabic Television - a promising venture that tanked, says former station manager Ian Richardson, after the Saudis tried to censor reports on the royal family.
Though Orbit mothballed the studio, the BBC-trained staff found work with His Royal Highness Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar. The emir promised editorial freedom, and the reporters delivered the rest. Says Richardson, "On the whole, the Al-Jazeera staff who worked for BBC took with them a strong commitment to fairness and balance."
Today, more than 35 million Arabs around the world tune into the widely popular satellite station. "It is a unifying factor," says Muhammed el-Nawawy, co-author of Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. "You have Arabs all over the region, watching the same programs at the same time."
But while running a pan-Arab news station boosts little Qatar's regional profile, it is also a fabulously expensive business - made all the more so by skittish advertisers and al-Arabiya, a toned-down Saudi rival launched in February 2003. Qatar reportedly put $140 million into al-Jazeera and budgets an additional $100 million each year to keep it running.
"If it were not for the funding," says el-Nawaway, "al-Jazeera would cease to exist."
Not that too many governments would cry if it did. Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait and the Palestinian Authority have all at one time or another banned its correspondents for reporting the news. Sudanese security forces seized al-Jazeera broadcast equipment in December 2003, while Algeria shut off power to a whole city to block a TV show on the country's civil war.
Al-Jazeera also stands accused of playing to the region's anti-American sentiment with gory war footage from Iraq and ever-ready Osama bin Laden videotapes. In March 2003, the Qatari station even broadcasted the interrogation of American POWs, a violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which protects captured soldiers from "insults and public curiosity." [I am waiting for a comment from al-Jazeera regarding these charges.] Still, Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at al-Quds University in Ramallah, worries about the news channel's obsession with American forces in the Muslim world or Israelis in the territories. "There is an element of escapism here," he says. "Instead of dealing with local problems, the viewer escapes to Palestine and Iraq."
Indeed, pointing fingers at powerful outsiders is much easier than effecting democratic change at home. Case in point, according to a recent report by the UN's Program on Governance in the Arab Region, al-Jazeera has soft-peddled Qatar - its absolute ruler and largely disenfranchised population, its trade office in Tel Aviv and its playing host to American troops at the al-Udeid Air Base.
El-Nawawy insists that al-Jazeera is changing the Arab political culture, just not at the speed of a corporate mega-merger. He says politicians are much more open than they once were to adversarial interviews, and countries no longer pull their ambassadors out of Doha everytime al-Jazeera upsets them. What's lacking are the real institutions on the ground to mobilize people.
"Al-Jazeera can be conducive to facilitating democracy," he says, "but it'll take years and years before it is translated into action at the civil society level."