Between the Lines: Al-Jazeera, Gaza and a message to Qatar

Al-Jazeera has a very selective interpretation of press freedom.

Gaza dark 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Gaza dark 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
'I thank God, the praised and the almighty, I thank the people of the media... specifically the Al-Aksa and Al-Jazeera stations, and all the stations that showed pictures of the pulse of the Palestinian majority. Thank you to all those who gave support in presenting the pulse of the Palestinian majority, which says we will resist until the Day of Judgment." That was Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar this week, speaking on the movement's own Al-Aksa station and praising the Qatari-funded satellite news channel whose defamatory and inflammatory coverage of the Israeli military operations in Gaza raised tensions and sparked unrest across the region. Al-Jazeera's coverage of Israel has been problematic since its inception a little more than a decade ago, including accusations by Israeli officials that it directly colluded with Hamas two months ago in exaggerating the fuel shortage situation in Gaza during a staged "black-out" there. Despite this, Jerusalem has cooperated with Al-Jazeera and allowed it to operate freely here, because of the rare platform it has given to Israeli officials and personalities to speak directly to the Arab world. But this week, the government had enough of the station's demagogic coverage of the Gaza situation, in particular the fact that it continued to refer to "Israeli officials threatening the people of Gaza with another Holocaust" even days after former Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i had clarified that Reuters had misquoted his use of the word "shoah" (disaster) in remarks he made on Army Radio last Friday. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni blasted the station in a briefing to foreign ambassadors, and one Israeli communications official told The Jerusalem Post this week that the station's coverage was largely responsible for sparking the attack by an Arab crowd on two municipal workers in east Jerusalem on Monday. As a result, the Foreign Ministry and Government Press Office said this week that for the time being they would maintain an unofficial ban on handling requests by the station's local bureau, although Aviv Shir-On, head of the ministry's Media and Public Affairs Department, said that earlier press reports according to which the government would "boycott" the station were exaggerated. No press credentials of Al-Jazeera personnel have been suspended, and several Israeli spokespeople said they would continue to appear on the station's English-language channel, while shunning the main Arabic station for the time being. "There are some real professionals in the English side of the operation," said one hasbara official, "and we hope they can have an influence on their Arabic colleagues in helping them understand to what degree that pressure from the station's management in Doha [Qatar's capital] is making them distort their coverage here." THERE'S A background to Al-Jazeera's coverage of Gaza - and specifically its relationship with Hamas - that should be noted, as well as recent developments in the regional media industry landscape that may well affect the station's future here and elsewhere. The connection between Al-Jazeera and Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian fundamentalist Islamic movement with which Hamas is closely linked, both ideologically and organizationally. Over the decades, Qatar has taken in many senior Muslim Brotherhood figures who have been forced to flee Egypt, and have allowed them to set up their own network there. Last year, MEMRI published a report citing links between Al-Jazeera and the Islamic movement, pointing to a piece by noted columnist Mamoun Fandy published in the London-based Arabic daily, Asharq al-Awsat, in which he complained that "the Muslim Brotherhood has at its disposal media that transcend borders, from newspapers to satellite channels, which have taken over the minds of million throughout the entire Arab world. If you watch a debate program presented on Al-Jazeera, you will be amazed at the supreme effort to defend the Muslim Brotherhood." A typical example of that can be found in a laudatory puff piece posted last month on the Al-Jazeera Web site which stresses the Brotherhood's "rejection of all manner of violence," its commitment to "human rights," and notes that "on the women's rights issue they have shown a great deal of openness." (Gloria Steinem would no doubt approve.) Yet funnily enough, in 1999, the ruling emirs of Qatar came to an agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood that it could no longer operate openly as political movement in that kingdom - perhaps because, in return, the organization was given a television platform to preach its brand of radical Islam to the rest of the Arab world. The rest of the Arab world, though, isn't taking this situation lying down. To start with, in 2003, the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) started its own international Arabic news channel, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, which in recent years has begun to overtake the popularity of Al-Jazeera. Part of the reason is that four years ago the Iraqi government, incensed by what it saw as Al-Jazeera's pro-insurgent coverage, indefinitely closed its Baghdad bureau, limiting its coverage from that country. Though Al-Arabiya is no less critical of Israel, it is perceived as relatively more moderate and less sympathetic to radical Islamic groups and ideology than Al-Jazeera. Not surprisingly, this has caused it some problems in Gaza; last January a bomb exploded outside its bureau there, after it had run a report critical of some Hamas officials. Al-Jazeera is also set to face more competition in the Middle East TV market, with the scheduled start next week of the BBC's new highly-touted Arabic news channel. Being caught in a ratings war with serious rivals is perhaps another reason the Qatari station has ramped up its attacks on Israeli policy in recent weeks. The most serious challenge Al-Jazeera now faces, though, is not from another station, but a decision taken last month by Arab League states to create a new "satellite broadcasting charter" that would allow it to more easily censor programs that "negatively affect social peace, national unity, public order and public morals." The charter was initiated by Saudi Arabia and Egypt - and supported by every country except Qatar and Lebanon, because it is seen as primarily directed against Al-Jazeera and the Hizbullah-operated Al-Manar station. "Media institutions should be watching [the conduct of] governments, not the other way around," Al-Jazeera news editor Ahmad Shaikh told Reuters. "These are politicians who want to set the style in which we operate through a wide-ranging document that can have a million interpretations." While censorship of this sort is yet another indication of the Arab regimes' resistance to democratic reforms, Al-Jazeera itself has a very selective interpretation of press freedom: one that allows it to brazenly broadcast exaggerated and outright false reports about Israel, but not give proper critical coverage to either its own sponsors in the Qatari regime or the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas rulers of Gaza. Al-Jazeera is already banned in Algeria, Tunisia and Iraq, and that list may well grow thanks to the impact of the Arabic satellite broadcasting charter. Ironically, it is here in the Jewish state and the region's only genuine democracy that the station is probably given its greatest latitude to freely report.