Al Jazeera goes it alone

Lawsuits and a spat with CNN are hogging the headlines, but the really big news is that Al Jazeera’s state subsidy has ended and now it has to pay its own way

  • E-Mail
By  David Cass Published  February 26, 2002

In the firing line again|~||~||~|When planning this month’s contribution it struck me that it would be my first anniversary as media columnist for Arabian Business magazine, and we had planned to revisit the major themes of 12 months ago just to see what changes we could chart in the main stories we covered then.

The best laid plans, however, have a habit of being cast aside — and we decided that we must delay that exploration for another issue. The reason is that it has been such a big month for Al Jazeera Channel, with March promising more newsworthy material, that we just could not ignore its developments.

As we go to press, in fact, the channel begins its first foray into the English language and the board of directors is meeting in Doha with the subject of starting a full English news channel high on the agenda.

This was the positive material. But, as ever, the negatives, in the form of lawsuits and criticism are also flying around.

There’s the promised lawsuit by four Kuwaiti lawyers who claim the channel defamed their country in a recent series of programmes; there’s the well-publicised outburst by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz who, according to a Beirut newspaper, accused Al Jazeera of “discrediting the GCC countries, harming its members’ royal families, threatening stability in the Arab world and encouraging terrorism,” following the channel’s report on the arrest of a Saudi princess in the USA for the alleged ‘enslavement’ of an Indonesian maid.

And then, of course, there’s the now famous row over CNN’s acquisition and broadcast of an interview with Osama Bin Laden, which the Doha-based operation had chosen not to air and sought to bury. This last has brought considerable embarrassment, with conflicting reports about Al Jazeera ‘severing relations’ with CNN, taking the US operation to court, and finally climbing down in an effort to ‘find an amicable solution’ to the issue. That meeting between executives (and presumably lawyers) of the two news suppliers is also happening just as we publish this issue.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, or the eventual resolutions, of all of these issues one thing is clear…. They are keeping the Al Jazeera brand very much in the public perception at a critical time in its short history.

It was against this background that I took the trip to Doha for what I had been told would be ‘fifteen minutes or half an hour’ with chief executive Mohammed Jassem Al Ali. As it turned out, we spent almost two hours together exploring all these issues and more.
||**||Freedom of expression|~||~||~|
It boiled down to one fundamental matter – freedom of expression in the Arabic speaking world.
As I sat down to write this, that freedom was again being eroded by developments in the Kuwaiti lawsuit against the channel. It now seems that the case is being dropped by the original plaintiffs — so it can be pursued by the Kuwaiti National Union of Lawyers.

The presenter of the offending programme, Faisal Al Qasim, has been telling our sister magazine, Digital Studio, that there’s no question of the show being dropped as a result of the February edition that gave such offence in Kuwait. He says the show, Al Itijah Al Muakis (Opposite Direction) will continue to run despite several gagging attempts, of which the threatened Kuwait litigation is the latest.

Al Qasim believes his show is the most controversial in the history of Arab media, saying, “We have had problems with nearly all Arab countries.” This particular edition was intended to discuss the attempts of Amr Mussa, Secretary General of the Arab League, to solve the problems between Kuwait and Iraq. The studio guests were the Egyptian researcher and writer Sayed Nassar and the Kuwaiti writer Nabil Al Fahdl.

Al Qasim says: “It is a live programme – whatever you say goes out live on air. The Egyptian guest was very critical of Kuwait and its historical role in the Middle East. He accused Kuwait of not being a real state and he said things that I personally don’t agree with. He accused the Kuwaitis of being the Jews of the Gulf.”

“The Kuwaiti was very angry with him and said, ‘Let the Arab world go to hell’ – and I am translating that mildly.”

It’s a theme picked up by Mohammed Jassem Al Ali. “In the West you are much more used to these live talk shows. Even the most sensitive issues tend, as a rule, to be debated at an intellectual level and in an orderly manner. You seldom hear this kind of personal or national insult,” he says.

“But our policy is not to edit the views of our contributors on live shows, so they can be outspoken in a manner which has never before been seen or heard in the Middle East. Yes, we have upset many here and will probably upset many more. Perhaps next month it will be the UAE government which will not like our coverage of the ‘camel boy’ issue.” I point out to him that it keeps the channel’s profile high at an important time…
||**||Paying its own way|~||~||~|
Time for Al Jazeera to pay its own way
The five-year funding plan established by the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani, at the channel’s inception expired on the first of November last year. After establishment costs, the annual budget for running the operation has been in the region of $30 million — somewhat lower than such a satellite-dependent and labour intensive operation would cost in the west.

The deal now is that it must make itself financially viable. It is a brutal way of putting it, but the WTC atrocity and Afghan conflict could not have come at a better time for Al Jazeera, putting it centre stage at exactly the right time for raising its profile as an advertising vehicle and must-buy channel for Arabic-speaking news junkies.

Mohammed Jassem agrees and goes further, wishing the channel could have been around five years earlier and able to cover the Gulf War. This was prompted by my observation that the only newspaper to have wall space in his functional office was a framed front page of the London Times of December 18th 1998, carrying a photograph, showing the renewed bombing on Baghdad.

The shot was lifted from CNN but clearly showed the familiar Al Jazeera logo with a crude attempt to hide it by pasting CNN’s logo on top. “We were the only ones still in Baghdad,” he says, “and this was taken from our coverage before our picture-sharing contract with CNN.”
Back to the missed opportunity of the Gulf War…. “This is our region. We know how to cover it and how to get around censorship issues. We would have been the important second voice,” he says “because there was nobody to put a different view from CNN in those important early stages.“

But what about the new need to balance the books? “We were expected to hit operational break-even by the end of year five and towards the end of that time our advertising, programme and picture sales, facilities hire and subscriptions all enjoyed a large increase with the result that prospects for our first ‘independent’ year are looking really strong,” he says.

I pick him up on the issue of subscriptions. All the other news channels are free-to-air. “Yes, they are give-aways and no-one is watching. We are encrypting all over the world and people are buying – in the USA, Europe, South America, even Japan where our channel runs for four hours a day with simultaneous translation into Japanese. This is a significant revenue source.”

The channel’s first foray into English is beginning as we publish. A deal with the US operation Globecast will multiplex the channel, with separate channels for Arabic and English sound, to the whole US mainland via the Echostar US domestic satellite.
||**||Advertising ethics|~||~||~|
Advertising as a ‘political weapon’
He claims that revenues from cable and DTH subscriptions, plus picture sales, are outstripping advertising. I say I find this hard to believe, which releases more criticism of ‘the Arab way’ — this time about advertising. Mohammed Jassem Al Ali is highly critical of what he sees as the practice of advertising not as a commercial, sales-expanding operation, but as a recognition of a sponsor’s standing or in order to ingratiate one’s corporation to a government or influential family.

Both the threatened Kuwaiti litigation and the outburst by the Saudi Prince Abdullah are seen in Doha as unsophisticated attempts to dissuade potential advertisers from signing on. They might work to some extent on a local basis, but as the channel gains acceptance in a global market it will become more difficult to prevent multi-nationals and regional advertisers from using it to carry their messages.

Despite continued criticism from its Middle Eastern neighbours, there is no doubt that the channel enjoys continued support from the viewers. Thirty five million regularly tune in and that’s not only support for what Al Jazeera is doing but condemnation of the ‘old guard’ of Arabic news broadcasting.

The CEO says it’s about two issues – presentation and freedom of information. “Traditional Arabic news is boring. It’s ‘intro/VT, intro/VT’ with no live interview content, either in studio, via telephone or via satellite. Today’s educated Arabs are travelling the world and simply prefer the western style of newscasts,” he says. “The bigger issue altogether is content, and we are the only ones in the Arab world to have been given the freedom to judge for ourselves what to cover and to follow it through.

“Freedom of speech is coming to this part of the world. I call it ‘the information revolution’ and it is unavoidable. Thanks to satellites and the internet, we will soon have around 400 TV channels available and you just cannot censor local news once you give people the internet. Local news HAS to change but it will be the last part of broadcasting to do so.

“We are lucky, our chairman [the Emir] is the first to recognise what is happening so we are the first to practice it. Right now there is no competition simply because other leaders and governments are trying to retain control and restrict freedom of information.”
||**||Sheikh Hamad's thoughts|~||~||~|
At the first anniversary of Al Jazeera’s web site, Sheikh Hamad gave some valuable insights into the freedom of speech philosophy. Answering questions, he said, “We have always stood for neutrality, objectivity and accuracy and would continue to stick to these ideals.”
He was then asked about reports of a proposed US-sponsored Arabic TV channel to counter Al Jazeera. It seems entirely in keeping that his response was that it was for the people (the audience ) to choose what to watch. “I welcome any such move,” he said and went on to point out that both BBC and the Voice of America already broadcast radio programmes in Arabic.

My own observation is that this philosophy in Qatar is real. As I was driven to the channel’s headquarters I could not help noticing the dish farm. Long experience has enabled me to tell the difference between an uplink dish (for sending a signal from earth to a satellite) and a downlink dish (for receiving signals) and I can see at a glance that Al Jazeera has its own earth station. An insider told me, “Having our own earth station is the proof that we have real freedom here. It means we decide what to take down from a satellite and we decide what goes out from this building to the world.

“There are no filters, nobody is watching the output before it goes to air. Nobody can abort a transmission, as can be done at government earth stations like Jebel Ali in the UAE.”

I am also impressed, upon inspecting the contents of his office walls and shelves, that there are two non-political and non-governmental awards to Al Jazeera for promoting freedom of speech. One is from the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands (which carried a prize of $100,000) and the other from Germany.

So what about development in the new commercial environment? The big issues that have been around for several months are those of a business channel and an English channel.

Recent developments include the start of an internet-based business service on January 1 and the development of a small team to make business programmes for inclusion in the news service. But the ambition for a full business channel remains.
||**||Talks with CNBC|~||~||~|
Mohammed Jassem Al Ali confirms that he remains in talks with the global operator CNBC: “They are developing regional language services all around the world. We know they would like to have a Middle East region broadcasting in Arabic and we are the only ones with the freedom of expression to be able to partner them.”

I remind him that there is another business channel in the Gulf, which has been on the air for over two years. It is a loaded question because he knows I was part of the start-up team.

“Just like news, there is no competition.” he says. “The Dubai Business Channel is not a competitor because it only appears to be about promoting Dubai and is not covering real business stories on a wider scale.”

He will not be drawn on reports that the CNBC talks had faltered last summer because his own board did not like the management structure proposed by CNBC. It does seem the obvious partnership to pursue.
The big one, of course, for which there has been an increasing clamour since Al Jazeera shot to global prominence last autumn, is the question of a full English language channel. A few weeks ago, the chairman, the Emir of Qatar, had said it was under consideration, perhaps broadcasting 12 hours of Arabic and 12 hours English.

“I personally believe it is a good idea,” offers Al Ali, “ and it is definitely on the agenda for our next board meeting.” It is also an opportune time to take the decision, given the global interest in Al Jazeera.

I ask for his vision of the channel, especially in light of the earlier news that the original channel is about to be available throughout the US with simultaneous English translation. “We will aim for a service of the same quality as the US and UK networks because that is what the target English speaking audience is used to. We must speak to them in a way that they understand,” he says.

What about the broadcast agenda? His staff insist that with the exception of a few aberrations (like the recent Kuwait show) westerners would find the content of the original channel unremarkable and certainly not as outrageous as does the Arab world.

“The English channel will be a stand-alone channel and its agenda will be different from the original channel. It must be different because the audience is different. We feel that the time is right for an English channel because there is now a desire in the English-speaking world to know more about this part of the world,” he says. “I expect that we would be covering Middle Eastern issues for an external audience rather than for our current, mainly internal audience.”

It occurs to me (sadly, only as I write and not at the time!) that the vexed question of the ‘Osama bin Laden tape’ obtained and aired by CNN against Al Jazeera’s editorial judgement might be an issue between an English chief editor and his Arabic counterpart. It is, however, an issue still close to the CEO’s heart.

He has already told me that it will be resolved in discussion with CNN, but the fact of the leak continues to give him grief. “I still have no idea how they got it,” he says. “It was not from this office. And I still say it was not newsworthy. We gave questions but they were not the ones our reporter was forced to ask. In the tape he gave us no answers to the substantive questions we wanted to ask, like about the anthrax outbreak or the World Trade Centre. In essence it was simply a religious lecture.”

He opens the top left drawer of his desk, pulls out a digital cassette tape and holds it up. “We are still getting tapes,” he says, “but we do not broadcast them because they contain no news.”||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code