Al Jazeera strikes back

Its coverage of the recent attacks in the US and Afghanistan has propelled Al Jazeera onto the world stage. Managing director Mohammed Jasim Al Ali speaks exclusively to Digital Studio about the rise of Qatar’s 24-hour news broadcaster.

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By  Daniel Anderson-Ford Published  November 13, 2001

Broadcaster making waves|~||~||~|Al Jazeera’s rise to the top of international news broadcasting has been nothing short of remarkable, and for many has been based on its coverage of the recent attacks in the US and the subsequent bombing campaign in Afghanistan. However, the news broadcaster’s history runs much deeper than the eight or so weeks in September and October in which it has been in the world’s media spotlight.

Al Jazeera began operations on November 1 1996, aided by a five-year grant from the ruler of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Based in Doha, Qatar, Al Jazeera started by broadcasting for just six hours a day to Arab countries via Arabsat, and to Europe via Eutelsat’s Hotbird.

Transmission hours were increased incrementally until in February 1999 Al Jazeera became the first Arab news broadcaster to feature round-the-clock coverage. As the hours extended, so too did its international reach, and by 2000 global broadcasting commenced, covering Australia, the US, Latin America and the Far East.

However, like those that believe CNN was propelled onto the international stage by its coverage of the Gulf War, it would be incorrect to think that the ‘Bin Laden tapes’ were the point at which Al Jazeera came of age.

“In 1998, Al Jazeera commenced its relationship with global channels when it was the only one in Baghdad [during the US bombings] that for a period of two weeks had exclusives on rare and important news and footage,” says Mohammed Jasim Al Ali, director general of Al Jazeera.

Moreover, its strong links with Afghanistan (Al Jazeera is still the only broadcaster to have exclusive access to Taliban-controlled areas of the war-torn country) were not achieved instantly, and bear the hallmark of years of investigative journalism and opening important doors.

“Our presence in Afghanistan was not established overnight,” says Al Ali. “We have been there for two years now, when we had our own bureau [there], full telecommunications equipment and correspondents. We reported news from Afghanistan, such as the wedding of bin Laden’s son, well over a year ago. This shows that we have been covering Afghani affairs long before the events of September 11. We gave full coverage of the bombing of the Buddha statues.”
||**||Bastion of independent media|~||~||~|
The route to prominence for Al Jazeera has meant distinguishing itself through independent journalism, an approach that has on occasion put the broadcaster at odds with a Middle East region that does not wholly embrace the Western model of freedom of the press. Mohammed Jassem Al Ali says Al Jazeera has been at serious odds with some regions of the Middle East and that it is only now, as attitudes change, that Al Jazeera is finally being accepted.

“Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa believes in the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and its independence in the light of global information and new technologies,” says Al Ali. “Information is no longer a monopoly, especially in the light of satellite and Internet communication.”

Indeed, the impact of Al Jazeera on the entire region’s media and news broadcasters has been profound, with the newscaster becoming something of a bastion of free press and, importantly, convincing ruling parties of its benefit. “Al Jazeera has influenced the way all Arabic stations operate, without exceptions, and it has given the television medium … impact on various levels of the Arabic elite. All the media now imitate Al Jazeera, and space for freedom is increasing day-by-day despite [high level] opposition.”

Al Ali asserts that the role of Al Jazeera as an independent broadcaster is essential, despite the opposition this approach sometimes meets with. “Our region had to have an independent channel that can play a leading role in bringing information to Arab viewers wherever they are, and that could take it upon itself to offer free, independent and impartial press,” he argues.

“Sheikh Hamad knew that the presence of such a media channel in the Arab region would subject it to big pressure from more than one party, and the host country would also face pressure, as we in the Arab world are not used to the kind of press that offers opinion and counter opinion. Since Qatar is has forthcoming elections, this demonstrates deep far-sightedness on the part of His Highness the Amir.”

That Al Jazeera’s position in the international news market constitutes a creative success is beyond doubt, with recent events opening up new opportunities for revenue and partnerships. The first such opportunity to sell content came from CNN, a broadcaster whose reputation was consolidated by its Middle East coverage - an achievement not without its irony. But this is not the only content agreement to come about.

“Yes, we signed a special agreement with CNN, though we had an older agreement with them anyway. We have tried [in the past] to make agreements with other channels but we got no response. However, after September 11, many channels started calling us to sign up agreements. A number of agreements were signed without infringing CNN’s privacy and exclusivity,” says Al Ali.

Indicative of this recent success is the high targets Al Jazeera is setting itself, and those broadcasters it now considers as competition. “Today, we are very glad with the international success we have achieved. I believe we have gone beyond the region to stand shoulder to shoulder with major global channels.”

Al Ali continues: “Without vanity, and purely from a viewpoint of professionalism, there is no competitor to Al Jazeera in the world, and definitely not in the Arab world. The reason is simple, there is no other Arabic channel dedicated to round-the-clock news as part of its general programming. We are specialised in news for an Arabic audience, and it is difficult to compete with us in this area. Our main competition is with Western stations such as CNN and the BBC.”
||**||Success at a price|~||~||~|
However, this notoriety has not been without its costs, both financial and political. The downside to fame has been that the world’s political organisations and indeed the competition have subjected Al Jazeera to fierce scrutiny. Al Jazeera’s new position in world media has attracted as much criticism as it has praise.

Some have described Al Jazeera’s coverage as being biased towards the Arab world. At a time when the West and its culture is perceived by some to be under attack, these criticisms have carried added weight. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, simply sees its approach as redressing the balance.

“The news seen in the US and the UK is from their perspectives,” asserts Al Ali. “The difference is that we address Arabic speaking viewers, while they address English speaking ones. Added to that, these agencies deal with Arabic news from a reporting point of view, while we treat Arabic news in a serious manner and as a major concern.”

Al Ali also suggests that Western media are themselves not immune to calls of bias, and that there are constraints on press freedom in the West just as there are in the Middle East. “There are many unprofessional transgressions on the part of the Western media, which often endorse the prevalent and official viewpoint,” says Al Ali. “Professionalism is to bring all points of view, no matter how differing they may be, and to give them suitable airtime. I don’t think Western media are doing that.”

He cites a more recent example of Western bias, this time regarding the Israeli conflict. He asserts that when Palestinian activists Mostapha Abu Ali and Jamal Manour were killed, the Western media refrained from using the word terrorist to describe the assassinators. However, when the Israeli minister for tourism was killed in October, the perpetrator was described as a terrorist. “These terms were used as such by the Western media, so what do we call this? Bias?”

Al Ali says. “We have heard the statements made about [us], and yet there is American pressure on some Western media. The American stance amazes me, especially when it is known to be a place for freedom of the press.”

There is also the suggestion from Al Ali that these criticisms are borne of professional jealousy, and are not properly conceived. His pragmatic response suggests that there is more than a hint of professional jealousy in these statements. “The West”, he argues, “is not used to having news channels or any channels posing competition.”
||**||Al Jazeera under fire|~||~||~|
The harshest criticism of Al Jazeera has centred on its broadcast of pre-recorded tapes from terror suspect Osama bin Laden. Some critics have argued that Al Jazeera’s coverage has over-stepped the bounds of responsible journalism. Others are suspicious that the broadcaster is the only one with exclusive footage of the world’s most wanted man.

“When Al Jazeera broadcasts an interview with Ehud Barak, Osama bin Laden or Ayman Dawahiri, that does not mean that we agree with their points of view,” explains Al Ali retorts. “The matter is primarily professional, and we do not depart
from this framework.”

Al Ali also asserts that everyone has a right to express a view, regardless of its nature: “I believe that anyone would be interested in expressing their views through Al Jazeera, and Osama bin Laden is not an exception in this respect. He seeks to reach the world through this channel because we are the only ones present in Afghanistan.”

The financial cost of Al Jazeera’s success is high. For a broadcaster with limited resources, the cost of covering such a far-reaching campaign as that in Afghanistan is high.
Although guarded about specific charges for its footage, Al Ali recognises both the upfront cost and potential value of what Al Jazeera is involved with:

“It is difficult to talk about price, because it depends on so many things,” he says. “News coverage in dangerous spots in Afghanistan, which requires insurance policies for staff, is more costly than other places. The sale of news generated in Afghanistan is not the same today as that generated in Tehran or Baghdad. Evaluation [of cost] is made on a case-by-case basis.”

In some ways the station is a victim of its own success. A number of channels actually stole unlicenced pictures from Al Jazeera around September 11 and following, for which the station received no money. Aware of the commercial value to Al Jazeera as a brand, Al Ali says that he is pursuing the matter in court purely to get the deserved recognition and not for financial gain.

Also of interest is that its controversial approach which, in the case of the Bin Laden tapes was perceived to endanger international security, may at times be a hindrance to generating advertising revenues. Mohammed Jassem al Ali confirms this, revealing that, “a substantial portion of the commercials market is taken by channels that do not suffer from any form of embargo, and that are in tune with the general and dominant line followed by the media. Since we seek a different media path, we are resisted up to a certain point. There is pressure on advertising companies not to advertise with Al Jazeera.”

That Al Jazeera has been a creative success story in the Middle East is not in question, but can it repeat this success commercially?

Certainly revenue has increased in recent months, with the exclusive deal with CNN bolstered by a string of sales for pictures and reports made to the likes of AFP, Reuters, “and other channels in the US and Asia”. Moreover, Al Jazeera’s chief form of income before the conflict, aside from advertising, was international cable and satellite distribution agreements for content. One such agreement was that with BSkyB in the UK earlier this year. Demand on this front has also picked up.

Al Ali clearly recognises the need to sustain financial revenue streams beyond the recent conflict, however, saying that it is important to make the recent success work for it into the future. With its government grant expiring in February 2001, the station now has to stand on its own feet, and Al Ali is cautiously optimistic about the future, saying that “our existing and future streams of revenue may cover our expenses for the coming year.”

It would be difficult to see the channel going out of business, being as it is now a source of national pride for Qatar and an important part of the media landscape in the Middle East. Whether Al Jazeera can capitalise on its recent purple patch, in the way that CNN did, is a matter for debate.

However, its creative credibility is now in place: all that remains to be done is to turn that into financial success. Most important is the viewing figures, for which the recent calls of bias are damaging. But, in the words of Mohammed Jasim Al Ali, “the viewers are intelligent enough to decide for themselves,” and with the world now watching Al Jazeera footage, it would seem that they are doing just that.||**||

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