A network that owns a little emirate

As the Egyptian uprisings prove, Al Jazeera has the power to make or break Middle Eastern leaders.

Al Jazeera Backlash 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Al Jazeera Backlash 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WADAH KHANFAR  IS A 45-year-old Palestinian man who was born in the northern West Bank city of Jenin and studied engineering, African studies and philosophy. According to the Davos Economic World Forum, he is one of the most influential men in the Arab world.
Khanfar left Jenin for Jordan to study in 1985. He joined Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based Al Jazeera news network, soon after it was established in 1996, working first as a correspondent in South Africa, then as correspondent and bureau chief in Baghdad – a position that made him into one of the most recognized faces in the Arab world. For the past five years, he has been Al Jazeera’s director general.
In this position, Khanfar oversees the network that has revolutionized Arab media, and played a major role in promoting free thinking and democracy in the Arab world.
Indeed, millions of people throughout the world, and especially the Arab world, have followed the dramatic broadcasts from Cairo on Al Jazeera over the past weeks. And when the Egyptian leaders attempted to block Al Jazeera’s reporting, there were worldwide protests – and the station found sophisticated technical ways to get their message on the air and broadcast the scenes of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations throughout Egypt.
There were demonstrations in Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah, too – but for very different reasons: these were demonstrations against Al Jazeera, organized by the Palestinian leadership.
And indeed, Al Jazeera’s handling of the “Palestinian Papers,” which it revealed in January, together with its reporting from other Arab countries and from Egypt, raise significant questions regarding its true goals and its role in the Middle East.
MODERN COMMUNICATIONS – satellites, the Internet, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter – have amassed unprecedented political power and are now capable of determining the fate of a regime.
Al Jazeera was established by the princes of the emirate of Qatar, a tiny and fabulously wealthy country in the Persian Gulf. Al Jazeera, despite its current prominence, was merely one of the many satellite stations established during those years. Today, there are at least 1,000 satellite stations broadcasting in Arabic. In addition to its influential Arabic broadcasts, Al Jazeera maintains English language broadcast, a sports channel, a documentary film channel as well as a sophisticated Internet site and a cellular phone system.
But among the Arab-language channels, Al Jazeera is unique. Its broadcasting is based on three principles: 24/7 coverage, immediate response and on-the-spot worldwide reporting.
Despite being a product of the Qatari regime, it is viewed as honest and impartial and has gained the trust of tens of millions in the Arab world.
Without doubt, Al Jazeera is more open to and aware of the concept of a free press than any other channel in the Arab world The station wields tremendous influence – it would not be an overstatement to state that Al Jazeera is one of the major forces that has promoted the ideas of freedom of speech and democracy among Arabs.
Of the hundreds and thousands of books, articles and research projects that relate to Al Jazeera, I choose to quote from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (then a member of the parliamentary opposition) who, in 2001, spoke with the Israeli media regarding the role of satellite TV stations. Contending that these channels would serve the cause of freedom in the Middle East, Netanyahu declared, “The Arab regimes will not be able to stand up to the satellites... it will take time, but they won’t be able to stand up to them.”
Netanyahu may have been among the first to predict this trend, and it would certainly appear that he was right. The military, the security forces, the secret services – none of them can completely block the communication of ideas. And when these ideas gain momentum, no one can stop them. Only a year and a half ago, the Iranian regime barely scraped through a popular revolt, spurred on by Al Jazeera and social media. Recently in Tunis, the leadership was ousted despite all their efforts to hold on to their regime, thanks, in no small part, to TV and the Internet; and Egypt is in turmoil, despite President Hosni Mubarak’s attempts to close down communications.
And, as a result, the new media, and Al Jazeera in particular, has run afoul of almost all of the leaders of the Arab world, who have often closed its local offices. In this regard, Al Jazeera’s relationship with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is a microcosm of its relationships with regime leaders throughout the Arab world.
OVER THE PAST FEW WEEKS, AL Jazeera has played a particularly significant role in undermining the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, whose legitimacy on the Palestinian street has been waning for a long time.
The embers of discontent have been burning, just under the surface, for quite some time, ready to ignite at any moment. A critical moment came in late December, when the Palestinian police freed three Hamas members who had been imprisoned for killing Israeli settlers. Immediately after their release, the IDF raided the former prisoners’ homes and arrested them. During the raid, a 67-year-old Palestinian man was inadvertently killed. Speaking with acquaintances in Hebron, I soon realized that their anger was directed, not at the IDF, but rather at Abbas and his men who had informed the Israelis.
What a disgrace! was the common refrain. But the publication by Al Jazeera and the British newspaper, The Guardian, of the “Palestinian Papers” has dealt the Palestinian leadership an even harsher blow. The leaked documents – and it’s still not clear who leaked them – reveal full details about the developments in the contacts between Abbas, Palestinian negotiators Ahmed Qurei and Sa’eb Erekat and their Israeli counterparts, including then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
The documents didn’t reveal much that was new – most of the information had been already published in different ways in various Israeli and foreign publications, and some of it had even been published in the Arab and Palestinian media. But the dramatic way in which Al Jazeera chose to highlight their publication has been crucial to determining public opinion. Over four days of intense broadcasting, Al Jazeera highlighted the concessions that the Palestinian leadership was willing to make regarding Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the purported right of the Palestinian refugees from 1948 to return to their homes that are now within the State of Israel. To the Palestinian public, these concessions are perceived as traitorous surrender.
The intent of the station is clear: Al Jazeera is out to prove to the world that the Palestinian leaders are weak, don’t stand their ground, and had given in to the Israelis on two critical principles, Jerusalem and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees.
Abbas, Erekat and their supporters immediately understood the extent of the damage and responded in a concerted campaign, the likes of which has not been seen on the West Bank. They organized a full week of demonstrations against the station in the major cities and a media blitz that included dozens of pictures of the demonstrators and their supporters, together with opinion pieces and advertisements against Al Jazeera.
The general thrust of the Palestinian spokesmen as they tried to fend off Al Jazeera’s criticisms is that this station in the emirate of Qatar serves the Islamic extremists and Hamas. Erekat even accused Khanfar of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who wants to destroy the Palestinian government in Ramallah.
AND INDEED, THERE IS A FOUNdation to Erekat’s accusations. From the day it began broadcasting, Al Jazeera has been accused of being a front for extremist Islam. After all, its detractors say, Osama Bin Laden gave his first taped interview, in which he claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, to Al Jazeera. But to the viewers, that tape was proof of Al Jazeera’s importance as a major media outlet, and gave its popularity and reputation a great boost.
Many see significance in the name Jazeera, which means “island” or “peninsula” – a clear hint that the princes of Qatar view themselves as the spokesmen for the Arab holy lands of the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, the cradle of Islam and the site of the sacred mosques in Mecca and Medina.
And if all this isn’t enough, one of the most familiar figures on Al Jazeera is the exiled Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al- Qaradawi, who is considered to be one of the most extreme religious leaders in the Muslim world. Qaradawi has repeatedly praised the shahids (martyrs), who blew themselves up in suicide attacks in Israel and had consistently preached against recently deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunis because it persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera’s broadcasts are consistently critical of all of the Arab regimes, and thus support the opposition in the Arab States – and since opposition in Arab regimes almost always comes from the Islamic radicals, it means that Al Jazeera often supports radical Islam, whether by design or by default.
In contrast to its consistent support for movements such as Hamas and Hizballah, the lack of criticism of the Qatari leaders is quite striking – especially since Qatar has allowed the US to set up one of its largest military bases on Qatari soil. Faisel Al- Qassam, a popular host on Al Jazeera, was once asked to explain the fact that the station never criticizes Qatar. His response, “There’s nothing in Qatar that is worth any news coverage.”
A common crack heard in the Arab world is that Al Jazeera has become a television network that owns a small emirate.