News

Inside Al Jazeera

Considering its influence, Al Jazeera’s newsroom is puny. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak peeked in during a visit to Doha, Qatar, a couple of years ago, he asked, “All this noise comes from this matchbox?”

It feels like an American newsroom at first, until you notice the details. While a few of the monitors are tuned to CNN, BBC, and AP Television News, most are set to stations from across the Arab world: Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Abu Dhabi, Beirut-based Al Manar , and London-based Middle East Broadcast Centre (MBC). Journalists bang away at keyboards with Arabic characters, which they read on their screens from right to left. Many of them wear khakis or western business suits, but some men dress in traditional white thoubs and several women wear headscarves. Virtually all employees are Arab Muslims, although Al Jazeera’s headquarters is a secular place. Employees who choose to pray during work hours do so in a tiny mosque behind the main building.

The journalists are a loose, sociable bunch, representing almost all twenty-two members of the Arab League. Moroccan producers, Syrian talk show hosts, Iraqi translators, Algerian fixers, Sudanese librarians,
Palestinian secretaries, and Qatari executives all speak together in Arabic.

A few paces away from the newsroom is the corner office of Mohamed Jasem Al Ali, Al Jazeera’s managing director. Al Ali strides around his office, his thoub flowing and white kaffiyeh held on his head by black cords, pointing out some of the dozens of plaques, trophies, and framed certificates jamming the sill along two walls. He points to citations from the Netherlands, Germany, Lebanon, Egypt, and Russia, clearly proud of the honors his satellite network has garnered in barely five years.

WIDE OPEN

Al Jazeera, which translates as “the Peninsula,” was established by royal decree in February 1996. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who seized power in 1995 from his father, created Al Jazeera as part of an effort to modernize and democratize Qatar. He allocated $137 million to Al Jazeera with the goal that the station would be self-sustaining within five years of its November 1, 1996, debut.

It has grown rapidly, expanding from its original six hours per day to twelve and then, on January 1, 1999, to twenty-four hours. It employs 500 people, including seventy journalists. Among its twenty-seven bureaus are offices in Washington, New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Djakarta, and Islamabad.

Al Jazeera is the only twenty-four-hour Arab news station. In addition to its fast-moving newscasts, it has built an audience through its talk shows, which probe political, social, and religious issues previously untouched by Arab media.

The U.S., meanwhile, was introduced to Al Jazeera in the days following the September terrorist attacks on America. And some here didn’t like what they saw.

The Taliban quickly evacuated all foreign journalists from Kabul, allowing only Al Jazeera, which had a history of access to Osama bin Laden, to stay. When the U.S. launched strikes on Afghanistan on October 7, the world wanted what only Al Jazeera had: war video, including live footage of bombs falling on Kabul. And soon the network aired something even more jolting. In a tape that Al Jazeera staffers say was probably recorded about two weeks after September 11 and delivered via many Taliban hands to their Kabul bureau once U.S. airstrikes began, Osama bin Laden denounced the U.S.

Suddenly, Al Jazeera was not only delivering the news to its thirty-five million viewers, including one hundred and fifty thousand viewers in the U.S. It was telling the world’s top story to billions of people around the planet via international media that had little choice but to use Al Jazeera’s pictures. It was not simply covering the war; it became an important player in the global battle for public opinion.

Al Jazeera also rebroadcast portions of the ninety-minute interview with bin Laden it had aired in June 1999. In that program, the al Qaeda leader said he had “high regard and respect” for the people who bombed U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996. Americans “violate our land and occupy it and steal the Muslims’ possessions,” he declared, “and when faced by resistance they call it terrorism.”

Al Jazeera’s bin Laden programming irked the United States so much that Colin Powell expressed concern about its “inflammatory rhetoric” to the Qatari emir during their October 3 meeting. Six weeks later, on
November 13, a pair of 500-pound U.S. bombs destroyed Al Jazeera’s Kabul bureau.

“Whether it was targeted or not, I can’t answer,” Al Ali says, slowly rotating his worry beads. “But I can say for 100 percent that the United States knew about the office. Everyone knew we had an office in Kabul. It was very easy to find.”

‘ARE WE A MOUTHPIECE?’

The U.S. government has not been the only American voice critical of Al Jazeera. A particularly scathing cover story, by Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins, ran in the November 18 New York Times Magazine. Ajami’s piece was based on his viewing of the station’s news and talk programming, in October, not long after U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan began. He argued that the station had made bin Laden its “star.”

Al Jazeera’s journalists do not seem particularly worried about this or any criticism, but they do say that critics frequently confuse the network with the newsmakers and talk-show guests that appear on it. “Are we a mouthpiece for bin Laden?” says Dana Suyyagh, an Al Jazeera news producer who was educated in Canada. “Maybe, but that would make us Bush’s mouthpiece as well. He gets more airtime, actually.”

Al Ali points out that Al Jazeera provides Arab news from an Arab perspective, with journalists who hail from Mauritania to Iraq – no single nation dominates – and that it has bureaus in almost all Arab countries, including one in the Palestinian West Bank.

The question of what an Arab perspective means comes to the fore in coverage of the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Al Jazeera’s top story before September 11. No other issue so rouses or unites Arabs.

Viewers across the Arab world have followed correspondent Walid Al Omari’s reports from Ramallah, as he has chronicled the Palestinian uprising since it began in late 2000. They’ve seen more blood, more burned and mutilated corpses than have viewers of CNN. When news breaks, it’s not long before Palestinian sources are on the air. By 7:03 on the morning of January 19, 2002, for example, Al Omari was interviewing the director of the Voice of Palestine, whose headquarters had been blown up by Israeli forces before dawn.

In our interview, Al Ali used the previous night’s news to illustrate his desire to achieve balance. “Israeli Prime Minister Sharon had a press conference about the ship carrying weapons,” Al Ali says, referring to Israel’s January 4 capture of a ship smuggling munitions. “He said the vessel is bringing arms to the Palestinian Authority. We covered the press conference. At the same time, we expect to hear from the Palestinian Authority. When they hold an event, we will cover it. It doesn’t mean we are supporting Sharon or the Palestinian Authority.”

Indeed, as the State Department was pressuring Al Jazeera to limit anti-American content, it was offering the station its own officials for interviews. Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condolezza Rice all appeared on Al Jazeera, as did Christopher Ross, a former American ambassador to Syria who speaks relatively fluent Arabic. The Americans were not alone. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also made his case for “dismantling the network of international terrorism” directly to Al Jazeera viewers.

‘I WANT MY AL JAZEERA’

If American officials were to claim that Al Jazeera is against them, their Middle Eastern counterparts likely would reply, “Join the club.” According to Yousef Al Shouly, a Palestinian senior producer for Al Jazeera, We
stern leaders are now absorbing the lesson that Arab heads of state learned over the past five years: “Use Al Jazeera to spread your views; use Al Jazeera to your own benefit.” When there is controversy in a country, he says, his station allows both “the government and the opposition to give their point of view. Al Jazeera gives both sides a chance. Al Jazeera has not changed its policy. Governments have changed their policy” to adapt to the network, he says.

Before Al Jazeera began broadcasting in 1996, Arab leaders were accustomed to state-owned media that did not question the status quo. In the choice between pleasing governments or pleasing viewers, Al Jazeera chose the latter. There’s hardly an Arab government that the station has not offended. Al Jazeera’s staff say the Qatari foreign ministry has received more than 400 complaints.

When the network aired a program probing Algeria’s civil war, the government in Algiers shut off power, prompting Algerians to flood phone lines with cries of “I want my Al Jazeera!”

And the network upset Palestinian authorities with a preview for a March 2001 documentary that explored the role of Palestinian guerillas as a player in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. Security personnel entered the lead correspondent’s office and demanded that images insulting to Arafat be removed. Al Jazeera refused, and continued to air the footage.
Saudi Arabia bars Al Jazeera from its territory, except to cover special events like the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Jordan temporarily closed Al Jazeera’s bureau there after a guest on a debate program criticized the regime in Amman. Tunisia and Morocco recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Al Jazeera coverage, reinstating them once their point was made.

As a result of all this, Al Jazeera is an inhospitable place for advertisers who dislike divisive issues. The ad business tends to be more political in the Middle East than in more democratic parts of the world. Regional companies and multinationals alike avoid ruffling the feathers of their host governments. Al Ali says Saudi Arabian companies have tried to influence Al Jazeera’s coverage by cutting ad budgets for the station or threatening to do so.

Al Ali says that while other Arab stations earn about 90 percent of their revenue from advertising, commercials account for only about 40 percent of Al Jazeera’s revenues. The rest comes from renting out equipment, selling programming and videotapes, and cable subscription fees. The station now operates, he says, without government subsidies.
Al Jazeera says it was teetering on the edge of breaking even as their fifth anniversary deadline approached. Then came September 11. The war has been good to it. “Because we were alone in Afghanistan at that time, we made a lot of money from selling pictures, hiring out facilities,” Al Ali says.

CNN forged an affiliation with Al Jazeera in the weeks following September 11. ABC News, the BBC, and German market leader ZDF also have signed contracts with the network in recent months.
Al Jazeera is expanding into the UK, as well as into Indonesia and Malaysia – a market with 220 million Muslims – through deals with local cable operators. In November, Malaysian pay-TV operator Astro began showing Al Jazeera, translated into Malay, for six hours a day.
Perhaps the most intriguing opportunities Al Ali is exploring involve launching new Arabic-language networks. He says he is close to a deal that would create a business news channel in cooperation with CNBC and may produce a documentary channel along the lines of National Geographic or Discovery.

One of Al Jazeera’s profitable revenue streams lately has been its exclusive videos of Osama bin Laden, obtained by its Kabul bureau. Three-minute clips of bin Laden have reportedly fetched the station as much as $250,000 apiece.

But bin Laden tapes, it appears, can be a double-edged sword. On January 31, CNN aired a previously unseen interview with bin Laden. It had been conducted by an Al Jazeera correspondent on October 21, two weeks after the bombs began falling on Afghanistan and some three weeks before the fall of Kabul. Al Jazeera had not aired the interview on the ground that it was not newsworthy.

CNN found the interview newsworthy indeed. In it, bin Laden first denies a connection to the September 11 attacks, but Al Jazeera’s reporter presses him. “If inciting people to do that is terrorism and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism,” bin Laden says, “then let history be witness that we are terrorists.” He adds later, “So we kill their innocents. And I say it’s permissible in Islamic law and logic.”

After the CNN broadcast, a furious Al Ali said the network would sever its partnership with CNN. “Al Jazeera would have expected CNN to use its judgment and respect its special relationship with Al Jazeera by not airing material that Al Jazeera itself chose not to broadcast.” Al Ali has declined to discuss the reasons that the network did not run the interview.

An anonymous Al Jazeera journalist told Reuters that the bin Laden interview had been ditched for such reasons. “We decided, under the circumstances at that time, that airing the interview would have strengthened the belief that we are a mouthpiece for bin Laden.” If true, it must have been an awkward decision for a network that prides itself on standing up to everybody.

Editor’s Note: Rick Zednik recently spent 12 days in Qatar. This story is excerpted from his article in the new issue of Columbia Journalism Review (www.cjr.org).

March 4, 2002
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