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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Crashing waves

By Nadia Abou El-Magd

"Poisonous, hostile, destabilising." These are some of the many invectives hurled at Al-Jazira, the satellite news channel, since it started broadcasting from Qatar in November 1996. The Arab summit, which was held in Cairo on 21-22 October, was an occasion for new scathing accusations to be directed at the maverick channel. To mention just a few, Al-Jazira is now accused in the Egyptian press of being a "fifth column," of "allying itself with the devil," of "closely cooperating with the Israeli media" and of "waging armed struggle on air." Some writers and intellectuals even called for a moratorium on watching Al-Jazira and for commentators participating in its programmes. The weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef argued that a boycott of Al-Jazira is more urgent than a boycott of Israel.

Last Thursday, Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif issued a warning to Al-Jazira, via Egyptian TV, "of taking certain measures, media and not political measures, if it does not stop attacking Egypt." El-Sherif accused the channel of "ripping Arab ranks apart." He also threatened to bar the station from using Egyptian studios, block its satellite feed and prevent its correspondents from working in the country if it fails to change its editorial policy towards Egypt. Although the 48-hour ultimatum had expired, Al-Jazira's regional office in Egypt, inaugurated by El-Sherif last April, was not shut down.

The channel had been critical of the Sharm Al-Sheikh summit and the outcome of the Arab summit for the latter's alleged failure to meet the expectations of the Arab masses by taking tough action against Israel.

Just after the end of the Arab summit, a broadcaster on Egyptian TV was announcing that "the summit had succeeded to a great extent" and that a memorial photo of Arab leaders "is a cause for happiness." By contrast, the Al-Jazira broadcaster commented, "The summit has ended with a memorial photo, which no Arab would care to hang on the walls of his home."

Al-Jazira also came under fire for showing footage of angry Palestinians burning the Egyptian flag to protest the resolutions of the Arab summit.

"We don't have an agenda against any state or anybody," Mohamed Jassim Al-Ali, managing director of Al-Jazira, told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from Doha. Al-Ali said that just a few weeks earlier, Al-Jazira was being praised for showing footage of the Al-Aqsa uprising and mobilising Arab sentiments. "We don't invent demonstrations, we just show them when they take place," he added. Al-Ali said that Al-Jazira is not going "to bow to pressures and we'll continue to do our job as professionally and objectively as possible."

This is not the first crisis for the channel, which has caused endless controversies since it became operational. It gained fame by shattering many taboos in the Arab world. The channel is financed by 500 million riyals from the Qatari government, paid on condition that it becomes financially independent by April 2001. As a result of this government financing, the Qatari foreign ministry has received more than 400 complaints, mostly from Arab governments, with some closing Al-Jazira bureaus in their countries in protest.

However, closing bureaus has not affected the spiralling number of the channel's viewers, estimated to be more than 35 million. A similar campaign was waged against Al-Jazira in Egypt in 1998 when it screened an interview with Adel Abdel-Meguid, an Egyptian Islamist militant living in London, who had been sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian military court in 1997 for his involvement in a conspiracy to bomb Cairo's Khan Al-Khalili bazaar. The channel was accused then of acting as a host to "terrorist symbols and spreading their statements to the world." Last week, cartoons in Al-Akhbar daily showed the controversial Al-Jazira broadcasters as wearing Jewish yarmulkes [skull caps] and gave them Jewish names. "I'm laughing at this cartoon until now," Ahmed Mansour, one of the broadcasters portrayed in the cartoons, told the Weekly. Mansour said that he is not bothered by such accusations, adding that he receives at least 100 e-mails daily, many of them from Egyptians, who love his two controversial on-air programmes "Without limits" and "Witness of the age." "How can any channel be accused of being militant Islamist, pro-Israel and a Mossad and CIA agent at the same time?" mused Al-Ali.

Al-Jazira was also criticised for marring celebrations of the 27th anniversary of the October 1973 war by broadcasting a programme that questioned whether its outcome was a victory or a theatrical act. Last month, the channel showed a documentary about Egyptian prisoners of war (POW) who were killed by the Israelis in 1967 -- considered by some as an embarrassment to the Egyptian government. The channel's coverage of the ongoing Egyptian parliamentary elections was also seen by some as emphasising the negative aspects of the poll at the expense of its many positive features.

"I'm against this [campaign against Al-Jazira] completely," Salama Ahmed Salama, a renowned Al-Ahram columnist, told the Weekly. "Al-Jazira threw a stone in the stagnant waters of the official and traditional media, regardless of whether those who attack them like it or not." While Salama conceded that some of their programmes are biased against Egypt, he insisted that "Egyptians are over-sensitive and don't like criticism" and that "We should blame ourselves, not Al-Jazira, for not being capable of responding with a rational argument over a news channel, and not by insults."

Fahmi Howeidy, a writer for Al-Ahram, believes that Egypt, with its size and weight, should not use its "heavy media artillery to combat a programme or two, or even a channel," arguing that this is to the discredit of those who use such weapons more than those who are being attacked. "We have to question the sanity of those who use a tank to kill an ant," Howeidy wrote on Tuesday.

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