Fundamental flaws undermining al-Jazeera’s attempt to revolutionise Arab media

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Jumada' al-Akhirah 18, 1424 2003-08-16

Special Reports

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 12, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1424)

Since its creation in the 1990s, al-Jazeera Satellite Television has become a darling of parts of the Western establishment, hailed as a voice of modernity and democracy in the Middle East. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ asks why...

Primarily because of its live reporting from Iraq during the Anglo-American invasion, al-Jazeera satellite television has gained a great deal of attention in the media world.

With other Arabic-language channels in the region, including Abu Dhabi News, Manar Television and the recently launched Arabiyyah, al-Jazeera has provided a much-needed counterbalance to the propaganda put out by Western agencies such as BBC and CNN, whose broadcasting was largely restricted by their respective governments because of "security considerations". At crucial moments in the conflict, the invading military forces resorted to attacking al-Jazeera’s journalists, a shameful stain on any claim to free speech and truth that the Anglo-American media purport to retain. Anglo-American forces targeted many journalists during the invasion, including Arab, European and even Israeli journalists, for fear of losing their monopoly of news and views.

At the same time, the new global attention garnered by al-Jazeera since the military conflict demands that critical perspectives be developed toward its role as a non-Western source of news and information. While the channel is loudly celebrated as a force for change in the Arab world, such claims are misleading and, ironically, the same claims had been made by the Western powers, before the war, as well as by journalists in the rest of the world. Since it is not the only Arab station committed to developing journalistic integrity, it needs to be asked why attention is focused only on al-Jazeera and not on the other Arabic channels that have achieved similar results, by reporters risking their lives to do their job during the Anglo-American invasion.

When it was created in the mid-1990s, few people paid attention to al-Jazeera. Based in the oil-rich Gulf sheikdom of Qatar, it is a quasi-governmental entity, though in recent years it has begun to attract corporate sponsorship to cover its operating costs. In its early years it was loudly praised by American policy analysts, who set the tone of current views by calling al-Jazeera a "voice of freedom" in the Arab world. However, a subtext of this line at the time was that al-Jazeera was also being positioned to destabilize the Arab regimes, itself a complex task. To some, destabilization would result in favored regimes seeking American military protection, while provocation to loosen state control and allow some accountability would end up containing popular opposition to decrepit rulers, and also pave the way to more globalization. Appearing simultaneously with a change in Qatar’s ruling family, in what might be described as a quiet palace coup, and at a time when Qatar was entering into a range of questionable long-term military and economic alliances with the Americans, al-Jazeera got mixed reactions in the Arab world, despite the uniformly positive American trumpeting of its future prospects.

The first boost in al-Jazeera’s global reputation came immediately after the attacks on the Pentagon and WTC in September 2001, when it became the only outlet for tapes attributed to Usama Bin Ladin. Before then al-Jazeera had built a regional reputation on its coverage of Palestine. One of its earliest reports was about refugee-camps in Ghazzah, and its crews were given access to the occupied territories that no other Arab newsagency had ever been able to obtain.

While al-Jazeera has become a welcome change from the callous uniformity of the Anglo-American media’s pro-Zionist stance, it also began to be criticised for obsessively emphasizing the opinions of a succession of Israeli prime ministers, with some Arab journalists poking fun at its reports because they were constantly opening with the face of some Israeli politician or other. When an Egyptian newspaper published stories suggesting that Qatar’s foreign minister had intimate political and economic ties with the Israeli foreign minister, a row between Egypt and Qatar erupted that led to ambassadors being recalled. Later, in Afghanistan, one of al-Jazeera’s field journalists resigned in protest after station-managers pressed him into service that bordered on intelligence-gathering for the Americans.

The political saga of al-Jazeera is well documented in the Arab press, which is largely inaccessible to those who cannot read Arabic, so, for better or for worse, it has a more complex reputation in the Arab world than it does elsewhere. With the appearance of Manar TV in Lebanon, many local viewers switched loyalties, although al-Jazeera still has a wide audience in the Arab world. But instead of seeing it as the sole voice of truth and free speech in the region, it should be seen as one of a number of newly emerged Arabic-language channels that can all lay claim to some degree or other of journalistic integrity, which is not the mark of al-Jazeera’s influence so much as it indicates a new generation of people in the region with access to a wider variety of sources of information, especially via satellite and the internet.

So a more sophisticated analysis of al-Jazeera is required, and this needs to focus not only on its political aspects, but also on its cultural dimensions. Initially billed as "the Arabic CNN," which could be seen as a detrimental association by some, al-Jazeera took on many of the cultural conventions of American television programming. In this context, it may be instructive to compare al-Jazeera with Manar. Both stations have "talk shows" whose guests discuss and debate the issues of the day. However, al-Jazeera has adopted the American convention of holding such discussions as a competitive and at times rude argument, to the extent that some guests have complained that they are coached by their hosts to interrupt each other and get emotional, and even to yell and scream. Manar eschews this American convention, and allows each speaker to finish making a point in a more mutually respectful format. Similarly, al-Jazeera has mimicked the flow of American programmes such as "Firing Line" and "Oprah," which sacrifice content to ratings and style, while Manar has constructed its own way of conducting discussions and interviews, which places understanding the issues above ratings and style. The argumentative American-style approach may be entertaining and exciting to watch, like a football game, but viewers are often left with impressions, not with any real knowledge or understanding of the issue that was "discussed."

The dedication to American style on al-Jazeera goes hand-in-hand with its dedication to corporate sponsorship, and at times its programmes are interrupted awkwardly by commercial breaks, something which has become normal on CNN, but which does not bode well for journalistic integrity and intellectual continuity. Sometimes such intrusions border on the tawdry, as in the instance when a Muslim scholar was interrupted by a commercial break featuring a scantily clad woman jerking a bottle of over-priced American perfume over herself.

In the end, a critical analysis of al-Jazeera TV should encourage its commitment to becoming a regional news agency with the reputation and weight to challenge the Anglo-American media hegemony that has until recently dominated the global airwaves. Counting in its ranks several brave and impeccable journalists, such as the Palestinian reporter murdered by the Americans in Baghdad, al-Jazeera belongs to a standard of reporting that is a welcome alternative to those Arab media still mired in banal reportage on the doings of kings and sheiks. But al-Jazeera is not the only promoter of this new outlook, so, while celebrating its achievements, it also makes sense for journalists in the rest of the world to evaluate al-Jazeera TV in its broader political and cultural contexts, and enter into dialogue with a wide variety of regional news-producers.

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