Squeezing the media

Jordanian authorities shut the Amman offices of news channel Al Jazeera after one of its shows attacked the country's government and monarchy. Arabian Business investigates how Jordan became the third Arab state in the last three months to take action against the news channel.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  September 1, 2002

|~||~||~|Responding to the controversial show Al Itijah Al Muakis, Jordan's minister of information, Mohammad Affash Adwan, closed the Jordanian offices of the Qatari-based Al Jazeera channel and revoked the accreditation of the channel's staff in the kingdom.
The move followed remarks on the August 6 show made by an Arab American professor from the University of California, Asad Abu Khalil. Abu Khalil accused Jordan's late King Hussein and the founder of the Hashemite Kingdom, King Abdullah I, of allegedly "collaborating with Israel, having an agenda in Iraq" and blasted the Jordanian Intelligence Service.

The show also featured a Jordanian, Mahmoud Al Kharabshi, and host Faisal Al Qasim. Al Kharabshi adamantly rejected the claims of Abu Khalil and went to pains to say that they were "baseless and with no foundation." A Jordanian who called into the show screamed at the host of the show and the Arab American Professor, calling him a "Zionist", and urged Al Kharabshi to "do the honourable thing and withdraw from the show."

Al Jazeera has been in the spotlight in the last three months as a result of Al Itijah Al Muakis or Opposite Directions which usually includes Arab dissidents as participants and addresses highly controversial and politically-sensitive issues.

After the August 6 broadcast, Jordanian daily Ad-Dustour called on Jordanians and Arabs to boycott Al Jazeera, while the daily Al-Rai attacked the foreign ministry of Qatar and branded Qatar's foreign policy as "a mix of fish, yoghurt and honey."

Al Kharabshi said the news channel was "Zionist" and told Ad-Dustour that when he was contacted to take part he was told of one title and theme for debate, so he was shocked when he arrived to discover that the show was about something entirely different.

On August 8, Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher summoned the Qatari Ambassador to Jordan, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Ben Jassem Al Thani, to express "the government's strong anger and annoyance" regarding the show. Jordan's ambassador to Qatar, Omar Amad, was recalled for consultations.

The Jordan News Agency, Petra, quoted Muasher as telling the Qatari envoy: "What the channel broadcast constituted an offence to every Jordanian, regardless of his/her political background," and that the comments and assertions made on the show were "unprecedented and unjustified libel and deliberate twisting of facts and casting doubt on Jordan's history of struggle and its wise Hashemite leadership."
The decision by the Jordanian government to close the news channel's office and revoke the credentials of Al Jazeera's staff in the kingdom was in accordance with the Press and Publications Law of 1998 and regulations governing the work of correspondents from the foreign media dating back to 1999, Petra said. On August 11, AFP reported that Lotfi Zohbi, an employee of Al Jazeera, was stopped at Queen Alia Airport by Jordanian officials who then confiscated 29 videocassettes. Zohbi told AFP that the authorities wanted to check that the cassettes were filmed prior to the decision by the Jordanian government to withdraw the credentials of Al Jazeera staff.

In a sign of deteriorating relations, the Jordanian weekly satirical al-Jazeera newspaper published a cartoon portraying Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani as a belly dancer and Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani singing and dancing in a nightclub. Al-Shahed group media publisher Sakhr Abu Anaza and the editor of the weekly al-Jazeera, Mamoun Rousan, were arrested.

On August 15, Al Jazeera ran the show "Reading between the lines" in which it attacked the Jordanian press, and the accusations lodged against the news channel.
Jordan becomes the third Arab state in the last three months to take action against the news channel for airing shows that are controversial and cover politically-sensitive issues.

Bahrain, for example, banned Al Jazeera in May 2002 from covering municipal elections, labelling it as "serving Zionism." Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia took offence when a talk show, including Saudi dissident Mohsen al Awaji, criticised Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's Middle East peace initiative which attempted to put a halt to the escalation of violence between Palestinians and Israel in March and April 2002.

The controversial Saudi daily newspaper Al Watan publicly attacked Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani. This attack came after Saudi newspapers on July 20 called on Qatar to "reconsider its policies."

Al Watan went further, calling the Qatari foreign minister a "dwarf" and a "smart aleck boy", and accusing him of openly dealing with Israel.

"Hamad bin Jassem chose the wrong door in history," Al Watan said in a sharp and biting editorial. The newspaper added that, "Hamad bin Jassem is trying to enter from the door accorded to big personalities and he is small, and if he wants to compare himself to big personalities and let loose Al Jazeera on those whose opinions differ with his, he will fail. His positions are wrong and contrary to history."
In the same week that rumours about Saudi Arabia threatening to recall its Ambassador to Qatar, a senior Saudi foreign ministry official told The Associated Press, "Saudi Arabia won't accept anything less than an apology from the Qatari government."

The English daily newspaper Arab News, also based in Saudi Arabia, blasted Al Jazeera in an editorial that accused the news channel of ruining relations between Arab states.
In an opinion piece entitled 'Misusing freedom of expression', columnist Abdullah Farraj Al Sharif wrote that the news channel dishes out "wild lies and prevarications" and that its shows "spew hatred and hostility all around."

Although Al Sharif did not specify a programme in his article, he did say, "The station chooses guests with dubious qualifications to participate in what is arguably the worst kind of talk show."

Al Sharif accused Al Jazeera of hurting Arab interests and being biased in its reporting. "It [Al Jazeera] aims at the total surrender of all Arab interests to American policies. The station seems to follow a skilfully-devised scheme, which is much worse than either covert or overt Zionist schemes to deprive Arabs of all their legitimate rights."

"If the station is impartial in its treatment, one wonders why it never discusses the state of affairs in Qatar. Is Qatar an ideal and infallible state, while all other Arab states and governments and countries deserve to be condemned?"

Ibrahim Mahmoud Hilal, head of editorial at Al Jazeera, and managing director Mohamed Jasim Al Ali, did not return calls asking for comment.

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