Al-Jazeera is neither a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden nor is it in touch with the al Qaeda leader. That’s the claim from the Qatar-based broadcasting group’s top executive as the station – painted as evil incarnate by the Bush administration – launches its English-speaking cousin, al-Jazeera International (AJI).
The much-delayed English channel went live today with a flurry of exclusive interviews, reports from usually-ignored parts of the world and a format that looks and feels much like that of the British networks from whence many of its staff were hired.
AJI’s relationship to the Arabic channel is a two-edged sword: It benefits from al-Jazeera’s huge brand recognition but, so far, no U.S. cable distributor will touch it. Bush administration criticism of the Arabic channel as a mouthpiece for al Qaeda has made AJI too hot to touch. That’s a notion al-Jazeera execs are trying hard to quash.
"We do not have a channel of communication with Osama Bin Laden," Wadah Khanfar, director general of the al-Jazeera Channels, told me in an interview last week in Turkey. "They decide the moment and the way that they deliver these tapes, and most of the time it could come through email." In fact, he said, recent statements by al Qaeda and other militant leaders have simply been downloaded from Islamist websites, which have become the preferred distribution channel for extremist groups.
Immediately after 9/11, U.S. networks fell over themselves bidding to buy (and sometimes stealing) the bin Laden tapes, which they, too, ran unedited until the White House stepped in with dark warnings of hidden messages. Khanfar argues that criticism of al-Jazeera for continuing to carry the tapes, which it now edits, is misplaced. He says it is important for Arabs and Westerners alike to hear the grievances from the militants themselves: “You cannot understand the politics of the region without listening to these tapes and demystifying the concept of any leaders."
After 9/11, al-Jazeera’s aggressive coverage, graphic images of civilian casualties and sometimes inflammatory talk shows earned it the enmity of the Bush administration. Its bureaus in Kabul, Baghad and Basrah were all targeted by U.S. forces. Its correspondent was killed on camera during the Baghdad attack. But al-Jazeera reporters have also been thrown out of virtually every Arab country. Just last month, Tunisia closed the Qatar embassy because of al-Jazeera’s reporting.
One reason is the channel’s influence. It commands the largest audience of any Arab channel – by far. Khanfar says ordinary Arabs looked to the channel to “fill the vacuum” left by the “failure” of governments and “the lack of intellectual discourse.” Some writers have gone so far as to call the channel a defacto political party or an alternative to democracy. Khanfar rejects such notions: “We are not a political party; we are not a reform movement; we are a TV station.”
Al-Jazeera International has been plagued by both technical and political problems. The channel is broadcasting in high definition. Part of each day will be anchored from four broadcast centers – Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Washington, D.C. and London – and linking those facilities has, apparently, proved a technical challenge for the French contractor Thompson.
Equally challenging has been the issue of staffing. AJI is not an English version of al-Jazeera Arabic. It is a completely separate channel. Senior management is made up of Brits, Australians, Americans and New Zealanders, a mix that has not gone down well with Arab journalists in the newsroom of al-Jazeera Arabic.
In a region where conspiracy theories run rife, it has even been suggested that AJI is a sop designed to take the heat off the Arabic mothership. “This way, Bush will turn on the TV, see it and ask, ‘What’s the big deal about al-Jazeera?’” one newsroom wag told me, only half in jest.
Months of icy relations and charges that Arabs were actually being discriminated against in hiring led to the decision by al-Jazeera chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Thamar al Thani, a member of the royal family, to elevate Khanfar from head of the Arabic channel to boss of all the channels. A flurry of Arab hires soon followed.
Relations between the two newsrooms have thawed, with the creation of a joint code of ethics, common glossaries of terms and talk of joint cooperation in some news-gathering activities, but Arabs still make up less than 20 percent of the English channel’s 30 on-air reporters, half of whom are Brits, Americans and others from the Anglo world. This has fed a culture gap between the imported journalists and the Arab bosses. There is also an expectation gap. As one AJI staffer told me over the summer, “This seemed like an amazing opportunity: Total editorial freedom and unlimited budgets. Neither of those has proven the case.”
Khanfar emphasizes that AJI is different from the Arabic channel. It will, he insists, have a “global” rather than an “Arab” perspective – which is precisely what bothers many Arab journalists. "We might as well buy a new channel in the US," Mahmud Shammam, the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Newsweek's Arabic edition, said at an event in Qatar earlier this year, to a roar of applause from al-Jazeera’s Arab staffers.
In fact, the Qataris may need to do just that. AJI’s cannot be seen by most North American viewers. No U.S. cable company has agreed to carry the new channel (though AJI officials claim they are on the verge of a deal with a major carrier) and Canadian regulations effectively ban al-Jazeera there, so, for the moment, the only way North Americans without a satellite dish will see it is streamed on the web.
AJI’s early hours of existence would seem to bolster Khanfar’s talk of a “global” perspective with an emphasis on the political “South” or developing world, with heavy emphasis on stories out of the Middle East, Africa and the sub-continent.
AJI is the latest outpost in al-Jazeera’s growing media empire, which includes several sports channels, a children’s channel and a C-Span-like public affairs offering that has broken ground with programs like the first face-to-face discussion among Somalia’s rival warlords. Plans for a new pan-Arab newspaper, also called al-Jazeera, have just been unveiled. It has all cost the emir of Qatar tens – if not hundreds – of millions of dollars. An unofficial boycott by Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest advertising market, means that even though it’s the world’s fifth most recognized brand, al-Jazeera is still losing money.
So what’s in it for the emir of Qatar? “I don’t think anyone would like to give money just because of love of any cause,” Khanfar admits. “This is soft power to Qatar. It has put Qatar on the stage.”
The emir didn’t start al-Jazeera to get a membership card for the National Press Club. He did it for the same reason he agreed to host the U.S. military’s Middle East Central Command: It gives him political juice. The growing al-Jazeera media empire is the only counterweight to Saudi Arabia’s domination of the rest of the pan-Arab media.
Khanfar says it was a “genius move” on the part of Qatar to provide financing for the startup in 1996 and, at the same time, “take off the hand of the politician from the newsroom” in a region where government control of television was then total.
But there is ample evidence of “red lines” in al-Jazeera’s coverage which cannot be crossed. The critical question on controversial stories: How does it affect Qatar’s foreign policy? And there is little coverage of Qatari domestic issues. But then, the channel’s defenders ask, who really cares what happens in tiny Qatar?
Khanfar fends off questions about government interference and bias, including charges that the channel reflects an Islamist mindset and is intent on stirring up controversy.
“We are not there to be diplomatically-correct,” he counters. “We are there to practice journalism.”
What does all this mean for the potential one billion English-speaking viewers around the world? No one, including the staff of AJI, really knows. And they won’t until the channel starts stepping on toes. With five bureaus in Africa and 15 more around the globe, coverage is bound to be different from Western channels, especially the U.S. networks, which barely acknowledge there is a world beyond the U.S., Iraq and Israel. But three-quarters of AJI’s on-air reporters, and all but two of it’s Qatar-based anchors, are refugees from the U.S. and British networks – including Fox – so just how different is the big question.
The channel has the potential to be the first foray into truly borderless journalism in an age of jingoistic coverage and media as weapon of war; enterprising reporters loyal only to the truth bringing a global perspective to the problems of the world. Or it could turn out to be a CNN retread, whose staff has traded Western corporate masters intent on the bottom line for Eastern masters whose motives are more obscure.
Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo. His latest book is Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas. Email: lpintak AT aucegypt.edu.