Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lost in the great divide?

As it prepares to launch its international channel Al-Jazeera is once again making the news, reports Amira Howeidy from Doha

The vibe in the conference hall at the Sheraton Doha on the evening of 31 January was far from positive as the yet to be launched Al-Jazeera International (AJI) channel held its first press conference, attracting a large gathering of senior Arab and international journalists and scholars, in the Qatari capital to attend the 2nd Jazeera Forum.

Questions rebounded around the conference room.

"Is the Arabic Al-Jazeera channel for Arab consumption and the International channel for Western consumption?"

"Will AJI air Bin Laden videos?"

"What is the percentage of Arab staff at AJI?"

"How many Arabs are among the senior staff?"

"Will AJI transfer the Arab point of view [to the West] or will it be bringing the Western point of view to us?"

"What is your identity?"

"Who are you targeting?"


The barrage of questions fired at Nigel Parsons, AJI's British managing director, were sceptical in tone. But then it was scepticism that dominated the forum's three days.

With a budget rumoured to be three times that of Arabic Al-Jazeera, AJI is officially set to go on air in spring, with presenters like CNN's Riz Khan and British journalist Sir David Frost -- the latter reportedly the guest of honour at last year's annual Balfour Dinner of the Israel, British and Commonwealth Association.

According to sources inside Al-Jazeera the launch of AJI is likely to be postponed, the reason being that Al-Jazeera is worried its English channel -- the first of its kind in the Arab world -- is a bit too un-Arab thus far.

Certainly many of the participants and speakers at the 2nd Jazeera Forum, held under the banner 'Defending Freedom, Defining Responsibility' from 31 January to 2 February, find the idea of an all-Western AJI worrying.

As it enters its 10th year Al-Jazeera, which boasts 40 million Arab viewers, has emerged as the fifth most powerful brand globally. More importantly, it is credited with promoting political transformations across the Arab world by breaking the decades-long monopoly of state- controlled media. A satellite dish is now an essential accessory in many Arab homes.

By breaking all taboos except those of its owner -- the Qatari government -- Al-Jazeera attracted the enmity of the Arab world's despotic regimes and later the US. Indeed, it was mounting American pressure on the network that inspired the idea of the international channel in the first place.

The plan was to dilute Al-Jazeera for a Western audience and thus ease the pressure. But as American denunciations of the network decreased in recent months concern began to grow over just how Western AJI would be.

AJI, say sources, is now examining ways to encourage the recruitment of Arab staff and is considering a possible restructuring of the joint senior management of the Arab and international channels.

Whether or not that's going to happen might be an internal matter, but to many, Al-Jazeera is more than just the most popular Arabic TV channel of all times.

If it's going to go global, it has to bare in mind the Arab predicament.

As the forum was discussing the political manipulation of the Arab and Western media, the gap between the West and the Islamic world, the proliferation of citizens' journalism and the appalling state of the US media- recent regional and international developments served as a reminder of the important role Al-Jazeera is playing today.

As Islamists come to power in Palestine and elsewhere and the growing saga of the Danish cartoons continues to emphasize the West-Muslim chasm, were else can Arab viewers turn to when their local media is manipulated by authoritarian regimes?

As veteran British journalist Martin Bell remarked the media has become so influential that Al-Jazeera's offices have twice been targeted, first in Kabul and then in Baghdad.

Faisal Al-Kasim, host of the network's controversial show ' Al-Ittijah Al-Mo'akes (The Opposite Direction) went so far as to suggest that Al-Jazeera had achieved more than "all pan-Arab political parties put together".

But will that achievement continue if the station tailors itself to slip neatly into the patterns followed by the rest of the global media?

Mahmoud Shamam, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek Arabic, thinks that would be foolish. "There is no such thing as the global media," he argued. "Media organisations have to be successful locally to have a global influence."

Al-Jazeera's great achievement, he continued, was to reverse the North-South flow of news and images. "Now AJI will reverse that achievement. Instead of mirroring what comes from the South to the North, it will bring the North to the South and then reflect it back to the North. Why go through all that hassle then when they could have bought an American channel?"

And what terminology will they use, asked Mohamed Al-Musfir, a lecturer at Qatar University and a former diplomat. "Will they, for example, refer to resistance groups in Iraq as insurgents, with all the negative connotations that carries?"

Despite the deluge of criticism leveled against AJI's Western staff knowing nothing about Arabs -- complaints reiterated endlessly in coffee breaks and over breakfast, lunch and dinner -- Managing Director Nigel Parsons managed to keep a relaxed smile on his face.

"I think they're mistaken," he told Al-Ahram Weekly, "I think that part of our mission is to portray an Arab perspective on world events."

"We're actually here to build on the achievements of Al-Jazeera and to take them to a wider audience. We are not here to dilute their brand of journalism."

So how will they resolve the sensitive issue of terminology? Will it be Islamic or Islamist? Jihad or holy war? Insurgents or resistance groups? "We won't be using Arabic," was Parson's reply.

AJI's editorial policy will be decentralised, allowing its bureaus in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the US and Europe to cover and report news from a local viewpoint. While this might be good news for Africa and Latin America, Arabs like Al-Musfir wonder what Arabs get from all of this. And will they cover their own region?

"I'm uncomfortable with the fact that AJI is run, and dominated, by a group of Westerners with a Western mentality and culture," he told the Weekly. "They are disconnected from Arab culture and will view the world through their own eyes. Why would I want to watch them when I can watch the BBC?"

Al-Musfir warned of the "damage" AJI could cause in the absence of "politically-conscious Arabs and Western Arabists" on board.

"An all-Western AJI will be negative for all of us. It will be a catastrophe if it becomes a foreign channel funded by Arab money."

Omar Bec, AJI's managing editor and one of very few Arab senior staff, replied that the channel should be given the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. "Al-Jazeera proved the sceptics wrong before and will do again. That it is now among the world's top five broadcasters says it all."

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