'Al-Jazeera is not an Arab news channel'

English bureau airs program for 60th called "60 Years of Division."

al jazeera 88 (photo credit: )
al jazeera 88
(photo credit: )
"From my perspective, the Arab world will have to accept we're a neutral channel. Our job is to sell both sides, not to favor one or the other," according to Riz Khan, one of the most famous anchors on the Al-Jazeera English television channel. Khan, a former senior reporter and anchor for CNN and the BBC, spoke to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday evening after filming the first segment of his program on Israel's 60th anniversary. Broadcasting from a studio in Ramallah and one in Herzliya, the program makes an effort at neutrality. Its title includes neither the Israeli "independence" nor the Palestinian "nakba" (disaster), but what Khan believes is the more neutral "60 Years of Division." What of Israel's recent informal embargo against the channel, which came after what Israel perceived was unfair reporting of the recent battles in the Gaza Strip? The embargo is still in effect, a Foreign Ministry representative confirmed to the Post on Sunday. "I used to explain to people that the only country that never boycotted Al-Jazeera since [its founding in] 1996 was Israel," Khan replies. "It's kind of ironic that 11 years on, this happened." It may also show a misunderstanding on the Israeli side of the value of working with the Doha-based channel, he believes. "Before 1996, most Arabs never saw an Israeli talking to them." In presenting the Israeli side, the channel was "doing a democratic thing." "Al-Jazeera has been given a mandate to be a proper international channel," says Khan, and it is changing Arab media profoundly. Al-Jazeera's launch in 1996 came when "a lot of Arab channels' maps did not even show Israel, just Palestine. It was bizarre." Even today, most national media in the Arab world "talk constantly about the emir or the king and things like that. Now someone comes along and pokes and says, 'wake up, there's a lot that needs to be fixed.' I've had shows about female genital mutilation or women's empowerment - issues that just don't appear on national Arab media." Imagine, he exhorts, how it must have felt for Arab journalists coming to Al-Jazeera and hearing for the first time that they could be objective or critical of what happens back home. This is also true of the Arab world's relationship with Israel. "The Arab audience has to be honest with itself about Israel. It's important for people to know Israel has different views." Though based in Doha, Khan rejects the suggestion that the Qatari government influences the channel's reporting. "We can criticize Qatar. My colleagues, who are ex-CNN, BBC, ABC, Sky, Fox, never felt pressure in any way. But our job is not to criticize, but to show facts and figures." The question seems to irk the veteran Western journalist, whose work at CNN earned him a reputation in Israel as a fair reporter. "We joke that we wish something would happen in Qatar so we could report on it, and we even miss out on reporting about some wonderful cultural events in the country so we don't look too complimentary." But, he complains, the only internationally noteworthy story out of Qatar concerns the economic - and boring - changes taking place in the Gulf states more generally. Indeed, the channel's efforts at neutral journalism - Al-Jazeera's "was the first newsroom I went into with a code of ethics on the wall" - are making much-needed waves in the Arab world while the same ethic may be slipping away in the West. Fox News has led the way in a new trend toward editorializing the television news, he complains. "Fox News started [the trend] by positioning itself as a right-wing service. I was shocked when this started happening. I was taught, in my early years in the BBC almost 20 years ago, that I do not have an opinion. But people love scraps, they love to see people fighting. In America, they're turning to opinion over news. "People will always watch news with baggage," Khan explains. "When I do a show on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I always get people asking me why I am so pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. We sometimes joke that if you upset everybody, you must be doing something right." His main gripe is with the notion that Al-Jazeera English can be explained away as an "Arab channel." "I used to defend CNN when people accused it of being pro-American. True, we were based in Atlanta, but we were an international channel. Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar, but it has major broadcast center in Kuala Lumpur, Washington and London. National channels may have agendas, but international channels such as CNN and Al-Jazeera have a different perspective."