Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 July 2005
Issue No. 752
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Maverick TV station that will not be silent

Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World, Hugh Miles, London: Abacus, 2005. pp438

In her The Exception to the Rulers (Arrow Books, 2004), Amy Goodman writes "Pentagon Hawks were understandably pleased with their ability to keep the [American] media under their talons. Their wrath was reserved for the voice they could not dictate to: Al-Jazeera." The hawks' concerns about the new satellite television news channel that kept transmitting live pictures of American warmongering in Afghanistan and then in Iraq to the world was summed up by the New York Daily News after 9/11 with Osama Bin Laden designated as its mastermind: "Al-Jazeera is the favorite network of Bin Laden...It is one of the most potent weapons of the Islamic Axis' arsenal."

Oddly, despite the enmity of the American establishment, Arab politicians and Arab mainstream journalists have not been enamoured of Al-Jazeera either. The station, unknown to the public until the coalition attack on Afghanistan, was honoured with a four-page spread in the weekly Egyptian magazine Rose El-Youssef of 10 August 2004 in which no fewer than four reporters took turns in accusing the channel of all the ills befalling the Arab nation and explaining that Al-Jazeera was financed by the US/Israel and/ or Arab terrorists.

It is noteworthy that at no point were serious investigative results presented, the authors of the defamatory articles satisfying themselves instead with discussing secondary sources and dwelling on hearsay or gossip. Instead of personnel from the offending channel, Egyptian university professors and government employees (whose field of expertise remains a mystery) were interviewed at length, giving them the opportunity to allude to dark financial deals and conspiracy theories, or else to claim to know from "unimpeachable sources" the channel's secret motives in sullying the Arab world's image.

However, President Hosni Mubarak, when touring the premises of Al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, with his entourage while on an official visit to the small emirate in the spring of 2000, was taken aback by the small scale of the operation. "All this trouble from a matchbox like this!" quipped the president. Yet four years later, the Arab press was still describing the channel's offices as lavish, wondering how Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, could afford to finance such a formidable venture without foreign (anti-Arab) backing. And if Al-Jazeera managed in a very short time to ruffle the feathers of the powers that be, Eastern and Western, it was winning at the same time the undivided attention of a politically savvy Arab public in dire need of timely, well-informed news and intelligent, lively debates in a shared language (classical Arabic).

As Al-Jazeera made its way into a great many homes in the Arab world and Europe, it was bound to attract the lasting curiosity of politicians by its new (in the Arab countries) and challenging modus operandi. Media professionals used to the discrete ways of Arab television coverage were astounded by Al-Jazeera's performance. One such professional was a young, Arabic-speaking diplomat's son, journalist Hugh Miles, who decided to find out what the channel was all about and for a year concerned himself exclusively with all aspects of the now legendary outfit.

In 2003, Miles was a reporter working freelance for Sky News in London. His job was to watch various rival TV news channels for pictures that could be used by Sky. Since he had lived in the Middle East and studied Arabic, he was assigned three Arab stations, Al-Arabiya, Abu Dhabi TV and Al-Jazeera. He was soon so taken by the unedited pictures transmitted by Al-Jazeera that he decided to quit his job in order to learn more about this channel that had mysteriously sprang out of Qatar, a little-known tiny sheikhdom, yet was able to offer a fare so different from the usual sycophantic discourse of state-controlled TV stations.

Miles traveled to Qatar's capital, Doha, where he was allowed to "snoop" around the channel's headquarters, since, said the directors, they had "nothing to hide". He then traveled to every country where Al-Jazeera has a bureau. He met the staff, editors, photographers and reporters and after writing an article for the London Review of Books decided to expand the topic into a book.

In the first chapter of his Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World, Miles duly acquits himself of the background information on the host country Qatar, its ruler, history, geography, demography, politics and economy. He also expedites the telling of the short history and scant financial circumstances of the channel to launch rapidly into the part that he obviously likes the best, i.e. an exposé of Al-Jazeera's values and beliefs and an account of its reporters' and photographers' cloak-and-dagger adventures.

Jihad Ballout, "Al-Jazeera's charismatic manager," is hard to pin down, but when Miles finally manages to see him he is given the PR man's undivided attention. Ballout deals with the sticky situations Al-Jazeera regularly finds itself in because of its unconventional reporting of events: "When we first started receiving complaints they were frustrating," he tells Miles. "In the same breath, we were being accused of being anti- Israeli by Israelis, Islamists by seculars and Arab nationalists, by Israelis, Americans and Islamists, funded by the CIA, funded by Bin Laden and funded by Saddam Hussein. And then it just became funny."

Not only were such accusations constantly leveled at the channel, but when Israelis were invited to present their views on air, it provoked a real furor in the Arab countries. It was the first time that the Arab public had been confronted with Israelis appearing on their own air waves. According to Ballout this was the purpose of the exercise: to show "the other" in the flesh, so to speak, and to give a voice to anyone who has something to contribute to an ongoing debate, whether friend or foe. However, the Israelis complained of having been grilled by the interviewer, and the "Arab ambassadors in Doha said they spent so much time complaining about Al-Jazeera that they felt more like ambassadors to a TV channel than ambassadors to a country," writes Miles.

At the same time Bin Laden and his ilk chose Al-Jazeera as their only conduit to convey their messages to the United States, confusing the issue further and provoking the indignation of the West.

As Miles progressed in his investigation, he got to meet all the famous photographers and reporters who had made Al-Jazeera's reputation. While describing some of their most audacious assignments he gives readers a complete rundown on the events that warranted their actions: there is Walid El-Omari, attacked by Israelis while covering a story in an Israeli settlement, and Tarek Ayyoub, who was tragically killed while reporting in Iraq. In the latter case, "an Al-Jazeera news crew were on the roof of [their] downtown bureau preparing a live broadcast about the arrival of the Americans in the city, when a US10 tank killer aircraft unexpectedly fired two missiles in their direction...An Al-Jazeera correspondent and producer, Tarek Ayyoub, was seriously injured by shrapnel from the blast....He was rushed to hospital but his wounds proved too severe and he died a short time later," recounts Miles.

Miles also confirms the general suspicion that whether in Iraq or earlier in Afghanistan the US forces were bent on the destruction of the channel regardless of the human cost.

When the assault started on Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera was the only TV station with a bureau in Kabul. Taysir Alluni, the channel's correspondent (he was later accused of aiding Al-Qaeda and detained in Spain), was able to start a two-way interview with the studio in Doha at once: "Just after nightfall the Taliban cut off the electricity throughout Kabul...Large explosions shook the city, followed by the chatter of anti-aircraft fire."

"During the [programme] one missile landed so close to the Al-Jazeera team that it blew the cameraman off the roof. 'I am sorry the photographer has disappeared and I don't know where he is,' Alluni told the studio. Then he set up a spotlight on the roof of the office explaining as he did so, 'I don't want to be a target too or you will be without news.' When the cameraman reappeared he shot footage of planes flying overhead while thunderous explosions could be seen and heard in the sky."

Al-Jazeera produced photographs that angered the coalition forces but that they scrambled to buy, since they had no way of obtaining first-hand information from inside Kabul. Nevertheless, the Americans' fierce determination to silence the channel seemed to open the way to the admission that journalists were acceptable targets when perceived to be reporting on the "wrong" side of a conflict.

However, it was during the invasion of Iraq that Al-Jazeera consolidated its reputation as an outfit to be reckoned with. Its unique access could not be matched by any other station as it regularly aired unedited photos that the American- controlled media was loath to show. For the duration of the war, and until the pro- American interim government closed its offices in Iraq, Al-Jazeera continued to air programmes on the post-invasion situation that were deemed inflammatory by the coalition.

The Iraqi resistance to the occupation gave the channel yet another opportunity to reports on various incidents which the Americans would have dearly loved to keep under wraps. The scandals in the Abu Ghraib prison, the return of dead soldiers to the US, the extent of civilian casualties, are but a few of the stories that grabbed the attention of the Arab public and that have contributed to the loss of sympathy that the Americans are experiencing in the Arab world.

Today, concludes Miles, it is the financial future of Al-Jazeera that needs to be sorted out. Financed by Sheikh Hamad to the tune of more than US$137 million, the channel is not, because of its controversial politics, able to rely on income from advertising. Will the creation of an English-language station help it to become independent of the Sheikh's cheques, or will the channel be privatized, i.e. acquired by new investors? If so, will it be forced to change direction?

In closing his final chapter, Miles is unable to venture a guess in response to these questions.

Al-Jazeera: Opinion Former

The Al-Jazeera Phenomenon: Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media, ed. Mohamed Zayani, London: Pluto Press, 2005. pp333

Unlike Hugh Miles, who is interested in the day-to-day functioning of Al-Jazeera, Mohamed Zayani, an associate professor of Critical Theory at the American University of Sharjah, has chosen to study the "Al-Jazeera Phenomenon"-- that is, the rise of an American-style TV station presenting a form of reporting that was absent until its advent in the Arab world. Zayani offers a compilation of nine articles, plus his own lengthy introduction, written by Arab, European and American specialists in media studies that concentrate on the social and political aspects of the channel's programmes and their role in forming opinion. The authors provide "insights into the politics [of Al-Jazeera], its agenda, its programs, its coverage of regional crisis and its treatment of the West," he writes.

In his introduction, Zayani takes the reader inside and around the channel, situating it in today's political landscape in the Arab world in general and in Qatar in particular. He stresses the changes that have been brought about in the tastes of Al-Jazeera's viewers and wonders about the uncertain financial future of the channel and its lasting influence. Narrowing the discussion, Middle East specialist Oliver Da Lage, a journalist with Radio France International, examines the relationship of the channel with its host country, how it has influenced the diplomacy of Qatar, and how Al-Jazeera reflects on its international image.

Mohamed El-Oifi is an associate professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Paris Institut d'Etudes politiques. His research focuses on Arab media and the evolution of political debate in the Arab World. Gloria Awad, a journalist and a writer, concentrates on "the new media" of the Al-Jazeera website and how it has changed the habits of Arab viewers used for a long time to receiving censored news in a passive fashion. She details how the Net in general has opened spaces of communication for the circulation of ideas and opinions, and how Al-Jazeera has contributed to providing an outlet through which Arab political frustration can express itself.

Faisal Al-Kassim, famous host of the much-talked-about talk show Al-Ittigah Al-Mo'akes (The Opposite Direction) recounts the story of this particular programme and the difficulties and opposition that he has encountered in keeping it on the air. Ayish addresses the same subject in his article "Media brinkmanship in the Arab World: Al-Jazeera's The Opposite Direction as a Fighting Arena." "Women, Development and Al-Jazeera" is the topic addressed by Naomi Sakra, lecturer on the Political Economy of Communication and Communication Policy and Development at the University of Westminster in the UK.

The last section of the book is devoted to regional crises in the area and how Al-Jazeera has covered and influenced them. Ehab Y. Bessaio, a PhD candidate in the Department of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wales, revisits the war in Afghanistan and the virtual monopoly Al-Jazeera had at the time on information coming out of Kabul, while Zayani himself studies the crucial influence Al-Jazeera has had in changing perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the coverage of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. R.S. Zaharma, one of the two "American experts" and director of the Graduate Program for Professionals in the School of Communication at the American University in Washington, comments on the relationship of the United States with Al-Jazeera in an article entitled "Al-Jazeera and American Public Diplomacy: a Dance of Intercultural (Mis-) Communication."

In the book's Afterword, John B Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues that "in order to understand the effects of the rise of satellite television on Arab societies, we need significantly more data." His "Methodological Considerations" on the Arab Media conclude the social and political study of Al-Jazeera and place the channel in the larger picture of what is happening in the Middle East as a whole.


By Fayza Hassan

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