Al Jazeera enters the 'information war' - in English

"More pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli than the others," or "much better than CNN or BBC"?

aljazeera logo 88 (photo credit: )
aljazeera logo 88
(photo credit: )
Beginning Wednesday, November 15, the sometimes called "CNN of the Arab world," will be out to capture the rest of the world as Al Jazeera International debuts on TV screens globally - in English. The new satellite station will run 24/7, broadcasting 12 hours a day from Al Jazeera's home base in Doha, Qatar, with another four hours each from Washington DC, London and Kuala Lumpur. For star power it will have David Frost doing interviews, with Wednesday's "scoop" scheduled to be his talk with Tony Blair. In its decade on the air, Al Jazeera in Arabic has become the most influential Arab communications medium in history. With some 50 million viewers, it is the most-watched TV news station among Arabs, including Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. And as the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestine bureau has been one of the most important, most watched news-gathering operations for Al Jazeera, so it will be for Al Jazeera International. This no doubt strikes fear in the hearts of many Israelis, friends of Israel, and Americans. Here as in the US, Al Jazeera is widely thought of as the unofficial communications arm of Al Qaeda. It got that reputation from its post-9/11 interviews with Osama Bin Laden, and its subsequent exclusive broadcasts of Al Qaeda propaganda tapes. The station, however, insists that it broadcasts these interviews and tapes simply because messages from Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are very, very big news, not because it supports the terror organization. Like its parent station, Al Jazeera International is owned by the royal family of Qatar. Al Jazeera, which means "the island," was founded by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, because "Qatar is a small country, and he was a young man who had visited the West, who understood the importance of media, and who rules a small, weak country without resources [except oil], and he figured Al Jazeera would be his army, his source of strength. It turns out he was right," said Haifa University communications Prof. Gabriel Weimann. AL JAZEERA INTERNATIONAL turned down The Jerusalem Post's request for even a brief interview before its debut, with PR head Charlotte Dent saying by e-mail, "We are currently all focusing on launch preparations and are not inviting media into our bureaux yet." So Al Jazeera International will not be here to defend itself against charges leveled by Israeli government spokespeople. But that doesn't really leave the station at such a disadvantage, because Israeli government spokespeople who've been working with Al Jazeera in Arabic for many years have surprisingly little to complain about. In fact, Daniel Seaman, head of the Government Press Office, said, "I have only the utmost respect for Al Jazeera in Israel. They've tried their best to be fair, and even if I disagreed with their coverage at times, it was not one-sided. Given their audience, they show the Arab side, the Palestinian side of the conflict, but they also present Israel's side." Asked if he thought Al Jazeera was fairer to Israel than, say, CNN and BBC, Seaman replied, "Absolutely, they're much better than CNN or BBC." His main complaints against the station are that it often gives too little time to Israeli spokespeople, and sometimes translates their remarks imprecisely. But he applauds the station for "giving Israel a stage [on Arab TV] that it didn't have in the past." Noting that Al Jazeera has introduced Western journalistic values of open debate and criticism of the powers-that-be to Arab media, Seaman said he "hoped for this level of professionalism and more from the English-language version." Atira Oron, the Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman to the Arab-language media, is considerably more critical of Al Jazeera than Seaman is, saying that as a matter of course, CNN and BBC are much less biased against Israel. "During the war in Lebanon, Al Jazeera did not go down into the bomb shelters with Israelis, something that CNN and BBC did." Furthermore, Oron said, Al Jazeera "naturally" blames Israel for everything in its conflict with the Arabs, lingering on graphic footage of Arab casualties, and exaggerating Israeli "threats" such as the marginal movement to conquer the Temple Mount. "But this bias is diminishing," Oron said, adding that Al Jazeera's reports "are careful to show the Israeli side, even if it isn't given that much time." A LOOK AT Al Jazeera's English-language website a week ago showed a much more balanced report of the lead Israeli-Palestinian story than its critics would probably expect. The story of the IDF's withdrawal from Gazan population centers and the fighting that continued afterward was titled, "Gaza killings mount as tanks withdraw," and began: East of the Jebalia refugee camp north of Gaza city, three Palestinians, including one woman, were killed when a shell struck the home of Jemila Shanti, a Hamas activist, Palestinian sources said. The Israeli army said a tank opened fire after two rocket-propelled grenades were launched at their soldiers. It said it was responding to the attack and did not target a specific house. The rest of the story continued in the same basic format - first the Palestinian casualties, then an official Israeli response. It read pretty much like a report of a bloody day in Gaza by any reputable international news medium. A feature story told in glowing terms of an Israeli-Palestinian art exhibition that had been held in Ramat Gan, and noted that it included an artwork by Aliza Olmert, the prime minister's wife, which contained the text: "Jews do not evict Arabs do not evict Jews do not evict Arabs..." The website's op-eds of the day, however, revealed a strongly pro-Islamic, anti-Western, anti-Israeli attitude, with one column lauding Hizbullah and the Palestinian militias for fighting Israel while the Lebanese government and Palestinian Authority are afraid to, and another saying Pope Benedict had it backwards - that it was really the West that turns instinctively to violence while Islam is open to dialog. Yet the website's editorial cartoon of the day, which looked at the Taliban's comeback in Afghanistan, showed the Islamic terrorist movement in the worst possible light, depicting a Taliban fighter leering through grotesquely large teeth, lolling barefoot on the ground next to a NATO soldier he has just killed. Seaman says the GPO has given Al Jazeera International every cooperation in setting up here. "We've cut red tape for them even more than we ordinarily do for other foreign news services because we certainly hope they will have a positive effect in the Arab world." HOWEVER, THE experience of Arabic-language Al Jazeera staffers in Israel, especially at the hands of the IDF, has not been so pleasant, to say the least. One of its reporters, Awad Rajoub, was arrested at his home near Hebron a year ago and held for six months in administrative detention. The IDF said he had "threatened state security," and was under suspicion for activities apart from his journalistic work, but an Israeli court ordered his release last May on account of insufficient evidence. "I was beaten and treated like an all-out criminal," Rajoub said afterward. An Al Jazeera crewman was shot in the foot by Israeli soldiers while filming in Nablus after the start of the summer war in Lebanon. At just about the same time, the station's Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid al-Umari, was arrested twice and questioned whether he was broadcasting the precise sites of Hizbullah's rocket attacks to help Hizbullah gets its range. Both times al-Umari was released after a few hours, and Seaman confirmed his statements to investigators that Al Jazeera's footage did not divulge where Hizbullah's rockets were landing. The station described the IDF's shooting of its crewman in Nablus as a deliberate "attack," further accusing Israeli authorities of "constant hindrance and obstruction of their work" from the time the war began. Reporters Without Frontiers accused Israel of initiating "repeated, deliberate acts of violence against the staff." Khaled Amayri, who edits local material for Al Jazeera's English-language website, was quoted as saying the network's journalists were "often arrested [by the IDF] and then released without anyone knowing what they are accused of. What's more, not only are we often stripped of our accreditation, but we are also often told it is treason to work for Al Jazeera." Neither Seaman nor Oron would comment on these accusations. If Israel has been hard on Al Jazeera's people, the US has been much harder. In recent years American forces have bombed the station's headquarters both in Kabul and Baghdad - accidentally, according to the US - in the latter case killing a correspondent. Al Jazeera reporter Sami al-Hajj has been sitting in Guantanamo since 2001, when, on his way to Afghanistan, he was detained as an "enemy combatant" by American forces. A couple of years ago the US-sponsored Iraqi government shut down Al Jazeera's office. A year ago the British tabloid Daily Mirror, citing an unpublished British government memo, reported that in a meeting with Blair, President George W. Bush suggested targeting Al Jazeera as an enemy operative, but that Blair talked him out of it. The US derided the report as "outlandish" and Blair called it a "conspiracy theory," but this likely did little to allay Al Jazeera officials' suspicions that they were in America's gunsights. Another Al Jazeera reporter, Taysir Allouni, who interviewed bin Laden after 9/11, is serving a seven-year sentence in Spain - the victim of a major 2004 Al Qaeda terror strike - for being a financial courier for the organization, a charge he has denied. YET WHILE Al Jazeera has angered the US, Israel and some other Western countries with its coverage, it has angered several Arab regimes much more. The station was shut down in Algeria after it reported on army massacres there, and in Bahrain, where it was reportedly accused not only of being anti-Bahrain, but also of being pro-Israel! The Saudi royal family's reaction to Al Jazeera's criticism was to set up, in 2003, a rival Arabic-language TV station, Al Arabiya. Al Jazeera is the first Arab TV station to give full access to homegrown critics of Middle Eastern regimes (except the Qatari regime, its owner). This has won the station widespread praise for bringing a new, even revolutionary, freedom to Arab world debate. However, the dominant homegrown critics of Middle Eastern regimes happen to be Islamic fundamentalists, not democratic reformers, and while the reformers do get air time, the fundamentalists get much, much more. This can be defended as sound journalism - giving proportional weight to differing views - but it also serves the political ideology of Al Jazeera - and Qatar - which is Islamism, according to Weimann. Thus, Al Jazeera embodies something that is believed in the West to be a contradiction, an impossibility - democratic Islamism. The station's slant is "pan-Arabic, pan-Islamic," said Weimann. "It serves the Muslim world community. It certainly tends toward an anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israeli view in its depiction of clashes between the West and the Islamic world. It clearly takes the Muslim side, the Palestinian side in those clashes." But at the same time it does give access to liberal Muslim democrats, and to American and Israeli voices, which was previously unheard of on Arab TV. The station promulgates Islam by featuring talks by religious leaders, but these sheikhs often discuss Islam's view of personal, family matters, including even topics such as impotence and homosexuality, which is certainly a first for Arab television. Al Jazeera also put on a greater proportion of women presenters and reporters than is customary for an Arab station, Weimann noted. Yet then again, Al Jazeera opens itself to charges of serving the cause of terrorism, Weimann continued, with its exclusive broadcasts of Al Qaeda's incendiary calls to arms. "No one on Al Jazeera will ever speak in favor of terror, of course, yet the station airs interviews and tapes of Al Qaeda without any comment, without any critical discourse," he maintained, noting that Al Qaeda's leaders are apparently satisfied with this arrangement. BY STARTING a global English-language station, Al Jazeera is showing that its ambitions stretch beyond the Muslim world. And based on the popularity of its English-language website, Al Jazeera International has considerable potential, said Weimann. Aside from aiming at the English-speaking audience in general, it is specifically going after the millions of Muslims born or bred in Western countries whose mother tongue is not Arabic. It is also targeting the Western media. "Foreign media are very eager to use Al Jazeera's material, but they've had to translate it into Arabic. Now they'll have it English," Weimann noted. Since it is trying to reach Western viewers, expectations are that Al Jazeera International intends to be more "friendly" to them than the Arabic-language station might have been. "They're going to be under a microscope now to prove that they can uphold journalistic standards," said Seaman. Weimann, however, says that while the English-language network's style may be "less hostile" to the West, and show more "soft" features, the underlying pro-Islamic message will not change. "Al Jazeera serves the world Muslim community," he stressed. This will make the "information war" a lot harder for Israel, Weimann maintained. "There will be a global channel in English that tends to be more pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli than the others, and it will not be preaching to the converted. It will not be trying to win over the Jewish community in the US or Europe. It will be speaking to a neutral audience, to the uncommitted, the uninvolved, the uninformed," he said. "Israel doesn't have an answer to it. Israel has no global TV channel." Seaman, as noted above, considers Al Jazeera to be fairer to Israel than CNN or BBC, so he views Al Jazeera International much more optimistically. He notes that the Jerusalem bureau, headed by CBS and AP veteran Tony Headley, has hired "one of the very best producers in the foreign media here," Ghosun Bisharat, an Israeli Arab who worked for ABC and Sky. The Foreign Ministry's Oron, whose opinion of Al Jazeera falls somewhere between Weimann's and Seaman's, says the ministry has no plans for a hasbara "counteroffensive" against Al Jazeera International. She's skeptical whether it can compete with its established English-language rivals. "We'll see how they do," she said, adding that at least for now, "We're not afraid." (Al Jazeera International, like its parent channel, will be available to Israeli viewers through either the Hot or Yes subscription cable stations at no extra cost, or by hooking up a satellite of one's own.)