Thursday, December 22, 2011

Al Jazeera: Covering the revolutions or fueling them?

Al Jazeera has closely followed the uprisings in the Arab world, and some even say that the Qatar-based satellite station was a factor in them. The station claims it is neutral, though not everyone agrees.
By Akiva Eldar

DOHA, Qatar - The entrance to the Al Jazeera compound resembles a closed military base. Security personnel closely examine a driver's passport and identity papers, open the car's glove compartment and thoroughly check the trunk. Since Emir Hamad bin-Khalifa decided to establish the first Arabic satellite television station, in 1996, and then to launch an English sister network a decade later, Al Jazeera has been involved in all wars in the Arab-Muslim world, from Iraq to Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. Al Jazeera has turned tiny Qatar, which has 250,000 citizens and another 1.5 million foreign workers, into a regional power. British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly persuaded U.S. President George W. Bush to drop a foolish plan to bomb this media compound six years ago. A small museum on the edge of the main Arabic broadcast studio has a memorial corner dedicated to Al Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayyoub, who was killed when the U.S. army shelled the network's Baghdad offices, in 2003. Al Jazeera officials claim the Americans possessed a detailed map showing the precise location of the network's offices. Alongside the draft of Ayyoub's last report is the bullet-ridden shirt of an Al Jazeera photographer killed in Libya. In the middle of this room, below a document proclaiming (in English and Arabic ) Al Jazeera's 10 commandments, a dozen books about the network are prominently displayed.
Al Jazeera announcer - Reuters - December 2011

Announcer Abdul Samad Nasser is seen in the studio of the Arabic Al Jazeera satellite news channel in Doha in this February 7, 2011.
Photo by: Reuters

Recently, perhaps due to the network's contribution to the Arab revolutions, negotiations have been under way to seal cable carriage for Al Jazeera in English in the United States. Qatar was the only Arab state that sent combat planes to reinforce NATO forces bombing the army of Muammar Gadhafi. The wealthiest country in the world, with an annual per capita income of $88,000, Qatar donated millions to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and it continues to fund the opposition in Syria.

Uninvolved observers

But it is Al Jazeera's satellite broadcasts and online news site that are the unconventional weapon influencing the Arab uprisings, more than any combat plane squadrons and tank divisions wielded by the old regimes. Qatar's charismatic emir enjoys intervening in all regional disputes, including those in Lebanon and the occupied territories. This week, the emir invited UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to an international conference on the "Alliance of Civilization." At the same time, Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, who is sought by the International Criminal Court for suspected war crimes, visited Doha as an official guest of the emir. Qatar's ruler was quick to grasp the dividends inherent in satellite television, and his family has never lacked capital to fund new ventures.

In a lecture last Monday at the Brookings Doha Center, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, underscored Al Jazeera's role in the Arab uprisings. For its part, The New York Times has described the network as the common thread between the Arab uprisings.

When reminded of such compliments, the managing director of the network's English-language station, Al Anstey, squirms uncomfortably on the white leather couch in his spacious office. The tall British journalist stubbornly rebuffs any hint that Al Jazeera influenced the uprisings. He refuses to acknowledge that the network might have even played a supportive role.

"We report on events," insists Anstey. "Under no circumstances do we create events." He is convinced that were Al Jazeera not there, Facebook and Twitter networks would be doing the work. "We do not have an agenda, and we do not advance democratization or social justice, says Anstey. Any impression to the contrary is due to the fact that the Egyptian army and the Libyan regime declared war on the network, rejecting countless interview requests, he explains.

Al Jazeera's success in covering the Arab uprisings stems from the lack of independent, politically unbiased, television networks in Arab states, Anstey says. Al Jazeera has filled a vacuum left by local networks that were the old regimes' organs.

Anstey is one of the world's most influential journalists (the English-language station reaches 250 million households in 130 countries; the Arabic-language station reaches 70 million homes, mainly in the Middle East ). He insists that though Qatar's ruler is the station's funder (the emir gives the network hundreds of millions of dollars ), he does not control its content. Anstey also rejects the claim that the devout emir has used Al Jazeera to topple secular or rival regimes, such as Mubarak's in Egypt.

Anstey joined Al Jazeera when the English-language station was established. He swears he has never received directives from local authorities regarding what he should or should not broadcast. As far as he knows, all of the 1,000 employees, operating out of 43 countries and 70 bureaus around the globe, enjoy absolute journalistic freedom.

Al Jazeera correspondents and news editors who asked to speak anonymously offered more complicated accounts about the network's connection to the Arab uprisings. "It is true that the chief news editor does not tell correspondents in Egypt, Tunis or Libya how to cover events," explains a veteran network reporter. "But everyone lives in these areas; the correspondents have relatives demonstrating or friends imprisoned or killed. All are educated, enlightened people who are tired of the dictatorships that oppressed their brethren for years."

Another correspondent adds, "I have never faced pressure or external censorship. The problem is internal censorship." He recalls an incident when a producer cut off a talk-show caller who was criticizing a minister close to Qatar's ruler; the producer told the correspondent to call it a technical problem.

Technical difficulties

Incidentally, this amply funded network is no stranger to technical difficulties. A few weeks ago, the station in Doha was shut down for two days; eight workers in London kept broadcasts going for a few hours, until a 30-person reinforcement arrived. During this lapse , network personnel managed to bring small, expensive broadcastin equipment into Syria, in order to allow opposition fighters to disseminate to the world reports about the Assad regime's bloodshed.

The reports from correspondents in Syria, assisted by secret sources, stream into a control room in Doha that looks out onto a large, arch-shaped studio, where dozens of news editors and investigative reporters sit in front of computer screens. Will reports about the oppression of masses in neighboring Gulf states also find their way to millions of Al Jazeera viewers? The skimpy coverage devoted to the attempted revolution in Bahrain can be considered acquiescence to local pressure, if not the emir's outright directives. Ben-Khalifa's critics suspect he is worried about the revolutionary spirit infiltrating his own country. The network's director in Beirut, Ghassan Ben Jeddo, resigned to protest "the station's neglect of violence against protestors in Bahrain," as he put it.

Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Sunni leader who resides in Doha, is a close associate of the network's last director general, Wadah Khanfar, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin. Qaradawi, who has a regular program on the network, claims that rebels in Bahrain want to turn the archipelago into a Shi'ite regime (Anstey claims Al Jazeera's relatively skimpy coverage of events in Bahrain was solely due to the fact that its crews were expelled from the country ).

While the impact of local political pressures on the network's broadcasts remains speculative, U.S. influence on Al Jazeera is amply documented in evidence released by WikiLeaks. A cable sent to Washington in October 2005 from the U.S. Embassy in Doha reveals secret links between American intelligence and Khanfar. A news presenter on the network's Syrian affiliate, Luna al-Shebl, accused Qatar's ruler and Khanfar of promoting Zionist-American interests; she was sent packing. It was an unlikely accusation to level against a journalist from a village near Jenin.

A few weeks later, Al Jazeera and Khanfar parted ways. The latter had directed the network for eight years. The emir appointed a relative, Ahmad Bin Jassim al-Thani, to replace Khanfar. The new director general cames with experience in managing Gulf gas corporations; Al Jazeera insiders report that for now, Al-Thani is busy improving the network's management, so as to bring it in line with the quality of its news broadcasts.

In his lecture in Doha, Ihsanoglu rejected the term "Arab Spring" - not because the revolutions started during a Tunisian winter, but because real change in the Arab-Muslim world cannot be brought about in one season, or even one year. Nobody knows when and how the uprisings will end. In Doha, commentators fear the uprisings could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory; associates of Al Jazeera point out that liberal-democratic regimes have their own independent news outlets, whereas radical-theocratic regimes will at some point kick Al Jazeera out.

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