All eyes on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera’s access to the Taliban has put the Qatari TV station firmly on the world map; media correspondent David Cass examines how the international media views Al Jazeera.

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By  David Cass Published  November 13, 2001

Desire to be the best|~||~||~|I should think we have all been glued to the TV screens and newspapers these past few weeks since September 11th. I have been involved in the radio and television coverage of events since about an hour after the first American Airlines jet flew into the World Trade Centre, so I have watched closely to see how my competitors and the newspapers have been reporting the story.

I reported last month on the regional coverage, but since then I have been dismayed by the way the UK newspapers in particular have merged fact with assumption and theory. I have also been amazed at their forgetfulness, especially when it has come to reporting the television coverage and comparing the Gulf Arab station Al Jazeera with CNN or the BBC.

Every time their headlines scream that it was the Gulf War that made CNN’s name, I want to remind them, not necessarily politely, that it was not 1991, it was four years earlier when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in mid air shortly after launch. What happened then was that ‘we’ – the world’s other broadcasters – made the judgement that the story was too big for a little watched American channel to have to itself.

The editors of the day, especially those close to deadlines, did just what journalists have done down the centuries. They judged that it was ‘in the public interest’ to give those incredible, sensational pictures a wider audience….. and they simply swiped the pictures.

It’s not quite ‘publish and be damned’ but certainly a case of ‘get the story out and argue about it later.’ Ted Turner judged quickly and correctly that it was not in his interest to sue or protect the pictures as his own, so he insisted that every TV station in the world that wanted to use them must credit CNN as the only station to have provided them. CNN had arrived. Event-led news was king and there was no turning back!

Of course, the Gulf war consolidated the reputation and was the world’s first ‘televised war’ and people with short memories can be forgiven for forgetting that CCN had already made its name. On the night of October 7 we again saw the flashes of tracer against a greenish night-sight sky. We saw again the flares as high explosives detonated. And then, within hours, we saw the first of Osama bin Laden’s videotaped statements. How did we in the west – no, anywhere around the world – see these historic pictures?

Exactly like 1987. The news editors of by now a far more sophisticated network of TV stations ignored the copyright of this small Gulf station, and stole their pictures.

And, just like Ted Turner, the smart executives in Doha said ‘OK, use them. But give us an on screen credit.’

Now everyone knows of Al Jazeera and there has been an unseemly rush by the western news hacks to put their own spin on the story. ‘Bin Laden’s TV station’ screamed one British tabloid. Others were and still are more muted. But you can see the envy if you read between the lines.

“How dare this little outfit steal the big story?” they are asking and “How can this unknown channel from a dot on the map that we can’t even pronounce or find get its cameras into the place where the rest of us want to be if they’re not in the pockets of the Taliban or Osama bin Laden?”

Well, I happen to be fortunate and privileged enough to have worked with several of the presenters, producers and reporters on the Jazeera channel. Because I know them as supremely objective professionals, often thorns in the sides of several Middle East governments, I know that they are not in league with anybody or anything – except the desire they share with the best at CNN, BBC and the others to tell the whole story.
||**||First rate professionals|~||~||~|
The newspapers got it wrong by describing the campaign in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors as ‘Al Jazeera’s Gulf War’. It is their ‘Challenger’. But that’s just me being pedantic and shows what a short memory some reporters have.

Oh yes, Afghanistan is Al Jazeera’s Challenger alright. Qatar and its TV channel are now on the map in indelible ink. And, in a corporate sense, it could not have happened at a better time for the management. But first we need to lay some myths to rest. For that I spent an afternoon with Yosri Fouda, the London bureau chief.

Those of us who live in the Gulf know well the Al Jazeera reputation. We hear how outrageous it is. We hear from Arab friends or Arabic-speaking friends (a huge difference) that it says things and addresses subjects which upset politicians, religious leaders – well, just about everyone from time to time.

I have lost count of the capital cities around the region where its offices have been closed and its correspondents thrown out. Funny how they usually get opened again within a month or two.

Or is it? Al Jazeera welcomed it. “The closures were clumsy and stupid. They offered us free publicity,” says Fouda. “I really could not understand it when the Palestinians closed our Ramallah bureau – just for showing an unflattering image of Yasser Arafat. And then there was the smear campaign in Egypt after we showed a Palestinian demonstration in which an Egyptian flag was burned…..” He smiles benignly and his eyes roll to the ceiling at the delicious memory of all that free publicity.

Yosri’s boss, Mohammed Jassem Al Ali is director general of the station, a man used to criticism. “The accusations we are hearing now are not strange,” he says. “We have been accused of being the voice of Iraq because of our coverage. Now that we are the only people with access to Kabul we are accused of being pro-Afghani. We give equal coverage to all sides. That is our role.”

“You have to understand,” says Yosri Fouda, “that there has never been a culture of openness in the Arabic media. Until we came along all the media was state controlled. The only news you saw was localised and only what the rulers or their acolytes permitted.”
DC: “Come on Yosri – outrageous and outspoken are strong words. You must have set out to shock.”

“No, my friend. You know so many of us. We are objective journalists. We are mostly BBC trained and doing no more than you in the west would consider entirely normal coverage of all sides of a story. Yes, we have broken taboos. We have opened the air waves to discussion of politics, religion, even sexual issues which have never been properly explored within the Arabic media, and especially not in television.”

It is easy to forget, if you even knew, that Al Jazeera was the first Arabic broadcaster to put Israeli politicians on the air. “We knew we were hated for that but they knew that we reached the people they want to speak to. We are getting criticism from both sides of the argument so we think we are doing our job correctly.”
||**||Breaking down barriers|~||~||~|
Over almost five years of their existence they have been breaking down barriers. Fouda reminds us that the Arab world is a very closed society. “The normal reaction when you ask for comment is ‘why do you want to know this?’ People, often in quite senior positions, are worried about saying something of which a leadership might not approve.”

And they did indeed disapprove. The first, early response to the channel was shock. That made the channel a talking point and it quickly won a popular following. The second stage of disapproval was political pressure. Its opponents tried to bring the channel down, even to the extent of ambassadors being withdrawn.

They are now into the third stage of response, which is an attempt to beat Al Jazeera at its own game with other broadcasters, like Abu Dhabi television trying to beat them. Fouda says, “I was very happy about that. The most dangerous enemy of Al Jazeera remains the fact that there is not yet another Al Jazeera.”

Where will the competition come from? Clearly not from Abu Dhabi – yet. Its relaunched news and sport channels have won awards but news has not yet achieved the credibility or incisiveness to be a real challenge.

Most of the talent in Arabic TV comes from the Egypt/Lebanon/Palestine/Syria crescent, but can you see a real challenge coming from any of those countries? Broadcasters in Egypt and Syria are strictly government controlled. There is no culture of open broadcast in Palestine and all of Lebanon’s media is under the influence, if not outright control, of factional politicians.

He believes it is the mentality of many Arab governments that is out of date. “Even now,” he observes, “you can see them trying to inject our type of format. The studio sets, the graphic images, the branding – you can see them changing. But not the content. They still won’t give space to anyone who is critical.”

Well, the station certainly got its criticism in the West when it broadcast, uncensored, the “Bin Laden tapes” which so incensed the US and UK media. So how come yours is the only operation allowed in Kabul? “Yes, I can understand why some in the west are uncomfortable with the fact that we are the only ones there, but you have to understand the Taliban. These people do not understand the world. They live in their own pre-Islamic world.

“They, too, are uncomfortable with us but some within their leadership do realise the importance of getting a message out. They did not contact Al Jazeera because they love us. They came to us because they know that we are the only station that reaches Moslems around the world.”

“So you agree that you are their mouthpiece?”

“Not at all. We put their views. We put Osama bin Laden’s tapes on air but they hate us for going live to every single White House and Pentagon briefing, for covering every UK statement and for interviewing your own Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Look, everyone is using TV stations to put their views across. We are no different and the situation is no different whether it is Tony Blair or the Taliban who want to talk through us.”

We talk about the Taliban’s discomfort with the Jazeera journalists. Its string of scoops included coverage of the infamous destruction, by the Taliban, of ancient Buddha statues at what were seen as sites of global anthropological interest. That story attracted acclaim within the Arab world and far beyond.

They don’t even edit the allied story. They have hired the best simultaneous English/Arabic translators that money can buy and they carry it live. He reminds me of the embarrassing incident when the US Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Emir of Qatar if he would use his influence (he is the station’s main backer and has bank-rolled the operation up to the end of this year) to persuade the station to “moderate” its coverage of the crisis.

They reported it – verbatim. Is this not what real journalism is about?
||**||Sticking to its guns|~||~||~|
Clearly the editorial policy is not going to change for this or any future conflict. So, what change has he noticed in the way the station is perceived over the past few weeks? “If I look at the image of Al Jazeera on September 11th and compare it with now, I think the coverage has become much more positive.” Why is that? “Well, it’s easier to hate something you don’t understand and nobody outside the Arabic-speaking world really understood us. I think the change is only because a few journalists took the trouble to learn about us.”

I have to agree that this group includes me. Shame on me for not staying in touch with my colleagues from the ill-fated BBC Arabic TV service for so long.

I have seen the change from a distance. I watched the CNN presenter Erin Hayes saying, about Jazeera, “They present generally a broader picture of the story than other Arabic language TV stations.”
Steve Williams, THE senior Editor at BBC world described them as “the CNN of the Arab world. They have remarkable access to Arab leaders and a wide range of comment.”

I asked if this crisis would put them on the map? “The fact that you and I are here discussing them says that they ARE on the map. They are now a world force. We are taking their pictures and they have the first break on everything from that side of the story.”

What about their reputation for being outspoken and outrageous? “I think they’re a bit like the Sun newspaper here. You know they’re not always right – but you can’t ignore them.”

I’m not sure Yosri, who is a very serious journalist, would appreciate the Sun reference so I don’t repeat it! But what about the comparison with CNN? He says, “I think we are closer to the BBC than CNN. Apart from our training, we see the US operation as wanting always to be first, while the BBC is more analytical and thorough in its approach. Hardware is also an issue. CNN has more money, equipment and people on the ground than anybody else but I would still prefer to be compared with the BBC.”

I am aware that I have not yet mentioned the Emir of Qatar, HH Sheikh Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, in this dissertation other than to report his meeting with Colin Powell. As the decision and the funding to promote this project was his, he is, of course, central to the plot and to the business element of this story.
||**||Sheikh Hamad's help|~||~||~|
Without Sheikh Hamad, Al Jazeera would not exist. This forward thinking Gulf leader was the man who funded the station five years ago. It is only one of his radical plans, which include a move to full parliamentary democracy which will embrace the full scope of human and civil rights – not just freedom of the press.

The Qatari government is, through Sheikh Hamad’s funding, part-owner of the station. The emir did, however, make it clear that his financial support was for five years only and after that the station would have to stand alone as an independent business unit.
The funding runs out at the end of this year. That is why Al Jazeera’s rise to global recognition could not have come at a better time.

Yosri Fouda says the staff have enjoyed five years of the kind of support that start-ups around the world would die for. He told me, “During the last big fall in oil prices some of us worried how we would survive but the chairman (Sheikh Hamad) told us that Qatar would go out and beg the world rather than let Al Jazeera die. I believed him.”

So how will they survive in the cut-throat, massively expensive world of live television? “Well, for the past year, advertising has been growing really fast. We have significant uptake of sponsored programming. Also, royalties are now coming in from our BSKYB package and we are negotiating with other carriers in France and Germany.”
He insists, however, that the channel will remain free-to-air within its core market, the Arab world.

I cannot imagine, now that the name is known around the world, that advertisers who have something to sell to the global Arabic-speaking community will not be beating a path to their door in Doha.
The management team is also demonstrating some serious fiscal prudence. For more than a year now there have been rumours flying around the Gulf that Aal Jazeera is going to open an Arabic Business Channel. They had been in talks with CNBC which came to nothing because they did not like the global player’s board-room demands and they had talked to several other potential partners before deciding to go it alone.

I can reveal that those plans are now shelved.

It has been an expensive year. The adventure in Afghanistan will unquestionably stretch them further. One is reminded of the advice for new kids on the block to learn to walk before they try to run.
But what if the worst were to happen – what if, in a rapidly emerging market where wealthier states with better global connections and media infrastructure were to mount the challenge, the station did not survive in the real world without the Emir’s backing?

It’s unthinkable according to the London bureau chief. “Even if Al Jazeera ceased to exist, the change we have begun is unstoppable,” he says.

“We have begun to give Arabs something they did not know about. Now they would really miss us if we were not here. We have given our people freedom. And to me freedom is rather like death. You cannot visit either and return from the experience.”

David Cass is a former BBC journalist and a founding member of Dubai Business Channel. He is a regular guest columnist with Arabian Business magazine.||**||

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