Al Jazeera: A Fresh Voice or Something a lot Scarier?

Al Jazeera: A Fresh Voice or Something a lot Scarier?

By John Arlidge - April 2, 2011

Every morning at 7am Ahmed Najib presses the numbers 514 on his TV remote control and Al-Jazeera's swirling golden, flame-shaped Arabic logo appears in the corner of the screen of his ancient Toshiba TV. The 24-hour news channel stays on all day. He and the customers who visit the clothes shop he runs just off Goldhawk Road, west London, could watch the BBC, Sky or ITN, but they prefer to get their news from a bit further away - the tiny Gulf state of Qatar.

Men like Najib, who was born in Cairo but now lives in London, and Arab-speaking people all over the world have been watching Al-Jazeera ever since it launched its Arabic-language channel in 1996 (the English-language channel followed in 2006), but that was about as far as it spread. To most English speakers in the West, Al-Jazeera was different, distant and - ever since it became the main outlet for grainy video messages from Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks on New York - downright dangerous. The only time many of us can remember seeing the Al-Jazeera logo and hearing its name is when watching Bin Laden's rants. Small wonder the network has been dubbed "the Bin Laden Broadcasting Corporation" or simply "Terror TV".

But that's changing. As revolution spreads across the Arab world, viewers everywhere are tuning in - and many say they like what they see. In the US, where, unlike Britain, no large cable or satellite operator carries Al-Jazeera's English-language channel, the number of viewers watching over the internet has increased by 2,500% since the Arab uprisings began; America's most influential website, the Drudge Report, screens it live. Consumers are petitioning US cable channels to sign up the service, and Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision are in talks. One American who does have a live feed is President Obama. He watches in the White House, and Al-Jazeera is on 24/7 in the Situation Room. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, explains why: "It's real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock. Al-Jazeera has been the leader in... literally changing people's minds and attitudes."

It's not hard to explain why this is Al-Jazeera's moment. The Arab uprisings and the rulers' resistance are the perfect story to give the network a push, in the same way that the first Gulf war made CNN's name. The events are dramatic and they are happening in Al-Jazeera's backyard. Dictator by dictator, Arab leaders have singled out Al-Jazeera as "the enemy" or, as Muammar Gaddafi puts it, "dogs". They have ransacked its offices, blocked its broadcasts, hacked its website and arrested its journalists, which has only served to cement its role as the must-watch chronicler of history. The drama comes after President Obama's visited Cairo to urge Arab leaders to embrace human rights and democracy. His speech has made it hard for many US politicians to do what they have often done before - dismiss Al-Jazeera as a cheerleader for radical Islam.

But behind the breathless, footfalls-of-revolution reporting, the soaring global viewing figures and the scramble by American media executives to screen a channel they wouldn't touch with a bargepole a few weeks ago, there is, for many, a nagging question. What is Al-Jazeera, and is it a force for good?

To find the answers, you have to go to a place with the most unglamorous name in telly. "TV Roundabout" is a traffic island amid dusty desert scrub on the outskirts of downtown Doha. Al-Jazeera (which means The Island) consists of two low-slung, beige concrete buildings with blue windows fringed by grass and petunias that struggle in temperatures exceeding 50C. Inside, the green glass lobby is deserted and the walls are stained. There's nobody in reception. The only sign of life is the office cat, Maurice, padding the marble floor. When Hosni Mubarak visited, before he was deposed as president of Egypt, he took one look at the place and declared: "All that trouble from this little matchbox!"

The monitors in the lobby screen both Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera English. The station is different, all right. The images it shows are far more grisly than anything we're used to in Britain. Footage of corpses, including - critics would say especially - young children, often appear, whether from Iraq, Afghanistan or the hospitals of Gaza. Swirling orchestral accompaniments make the experience theatrical and emotive. There's greater use of new media, notably Twitter feeds and shaky mobile-phone footage downloaded from Facebook - much of it unverifiable. The language seems odd. On the Arabic-language channel, suicide bombers are often called shaheed, or martyrs. Al-Jazeera English refers to the "so-called war on terror", instead of the "war on terror". The service even looks different. There are fewer perfectly coiffed big-name female presenters or pretty-boy war-zone glory hounds flying in to anchor big stories than on "normal" news channels.

Instead, jobbing young reporters get down'n'dirty on the streets, living the Arab revolution from barricade to barricade. It's hardly surprising that America's neocons, notably the former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have caricatured the channel as an anti-Semitic, anti-American outlet for Islamo-porn.

You don't have to be a conservative to feel a bit uneasy. Like the protesters taking to the streets across the Arab world, Al-Jazeera plays by rules westerners don't understand. That worries us because, like the uprisings themselves, we don't know where it will lead. With its fizzy, feisty formula, could Al-Jazeera turn out to be an unwitting accessory to an Islamic revolution that will leave the most febrile region of the world even more dangerous? The question is ever more pertinent now that the Arab uprisings are taking a darker turn, with growing civil unrest and a worsening refugee crisis.

The man with the answer has a familiar accent. "Welcome to Al-Jazeera," says Al Anstey. The 44-year-old Londoner worked for ITN for seven years, rising to become head of foreign news, before moving to Doha six years ago "for a new challenge". It has turned out well. He is now managing director. As the corporate face of Al-Jazeera, he's more cautious and soft-spoken than he was in his reporting and editing days. No, he won't give audience figures, but he will say that Al-Jazeera Arabic is now in around half of Arab homes, while Al-Jazeera English reaches more than 250m households in 120 countries. No, he won't give budgets, but he will say that the Arabic and English networks combined have fully staffed bureaux and crews in 72 countries - more, he says, than the BBC - backed by studios in Doha, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur. No, he won't discuss bias, except to say that there isn't any. "There's no agenda. We're journalists. Full stop."

So far, so corporate. To hear the Al-Jazeera story the way it really is, you need to walk out of Anstey's office, over the carpet tiles in every colour of the rainbow, past women dressed in burqas and strappy tops, men in disdashas and suits, down to the newsroom. You need to meet people like Sami Zeidan. His serious face was the first seen on screen when Al-Jazeera English launched in 2006, and his measured voice the first heard. The son of a diplomat, he grew up between West and East and worked at US networks in Atlanta and Dubai before joining Al-Jazeera. He sets out the station's credo simply.

"Al-Jazeera isn't a job, it's a mission... perhaps even like a religion. Before Al-Jazeera was launched, information was coming really from one direction, from the north to the south, from the developed world to the developing. It was one-sided. You can't blame the West for that. It simply got its act together and developed more sophisticated forms of communication. But now there are some parts of the world which are making an effort to redress the balance. There's a landgrab going on."

With the network suddenly the focus of international attention, you might expect Al-Jazeera journalists to go out of their way to avoid the merest suggestion that they are on a mission, far less invoke religion. Far from it. They are so confident that their hour has arrived and history is on their side that they talk freely, expressing every prejudice they hold.

A familiar voice and face in the newsroom belong to Darren Jordan. The former BBC TV news presenter joined Al-Jazeera English when it started, claiming he was tired of falling editorial budgets and stifling bureaucracy. He argues that Al-Jazeera has demonstrated that it covers the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia
"a lot better than the BBC or CNN. We're established as the channel of reference. We're brash, different... and bloody good".

If Zeidan and Jordan's comments make the station's mission sound political, that's because it is. Ask anyone at Al-Jazeera why they are there and they'll tell you it's because they can do the sort of work they could not do on the mainstream networks most of them left to go to Doha. They believe that after 9/11 the western media lost the plot, failing to hold to account leaders who went to war in Iraq on flimsy evidence, and went on to present too rosy a picture of events across the Middle East, from Israel to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ghida Fakhry sits a few desks down from Zeidan, along a corridor strewn with the usual detritus of a TV station - discarded cups of coffee, M&M wrappers and yellowing copies of the International Herald Tribune. She was born in Lebanon and moved to Geneva and London, where she studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She was appointed New York bureau chief of Al-Jazeera Arabic in 2000 and joined Al-Jazeera English in Washington at its launch, before moving to Doha. After 9/11 the western media "began to censor itself", she argues. "Journalists decided: ‘In the name of national security, we're not going to really ask the tough questions, we're just gonna go with whatever our government tells us. The war in Iraq is being waged because there are weapons of mass destruction? Fine.' People felt they no longer should be challenging their government."

When war broke out in Iraq and Afghanistan, western outlets "sanitised their coverage", she continues. The corpse count on Al-Jazeera is far higher than on any other channel. As well as dead youngsters, Al-Jazeera picture editors seem to favour the charred remains of people caught in missile strikes, often by the US and Israel. Fakhry herself is so revolted by the graphic scenes that she often turns away from the screen. "Oh my God, it's pretty gruesome. I often think it's a horror show I'm just about to present."

But these images are part of being "true to the story", she argues. "It helps to show the effects of the bombs. It's not just seeing it in green laser beams on our screen, something that looks outlandish and very far away. No, these are bullets, these are bombs, and their effect is this - the death, the blood, the destruction." 

Adopting a different perspective, and screening pictures others reject as too disturbing, make Al-Jazeera an influential player in the Middle East uprisings. By airing grainy mobile-phone video shot by Tunisian protesters, it exploded the myth perpetuated by the Tunisian regime that it was impregnable and its security services invincible. The spell that had stopped millions of ordinary Arab citizens from rising up was broken.

Critics argue that the network crosses the line from covering the news to creating it, that it is an agitator encouraging protests. They point to the use of often unchecked "citizen journalist" footage: in the Tunisian uprising some 60% of Al-Jazeera's pictures came from protesters' mobile phones. Critics cite "wildly optimistic" and "inaccurate" reporting. During the Cairo protests, correspondents said that as many as 2m demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square; other media outlets estimated hundreds of thousands. Detractors also highlight Al-Jazeera's decision to stream live 24/7 pictures of key locations, such as Tahrir Square, which few dispute encouraged protesters to take to the streets and stay there. They point to presenters so overcome by emotion that they weep on air and reporters being carried aloft by protesters, as if they were political leaders, rather than mere observers. They also cite the network's decision to screen the programme Ash-Shariah wal-Hayat (Shariah and Life), hosted by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a religious leader who has preached that Jews are "the treacherous aggressors", and said: "Allah, take this profligate, cunning, arrogant band of people... kill them down to the very last one."

Mostefa Souag, director of news at Al-Jazeera Arabic, does not deny that the channel plays an active role in the events it covers. He is proud of it. "We are promoting peaceful protest and the cause of human rights and democracy," he says. The word "promoting" will be all the proof Al-Jazeera's detractors need to conclude that it is unprofessional and irresponsible. After all, where will such "promoting" lead? What if Egypt or Libya, instead of becoming democracies, are transformed into repressive theocracies like Iran? Will Al-Jazeera then be so proud of its role?

I decide to ask Fakhry. Bad move. She gets very cross. "You're suggesting that Egypt's going to fall into the hands of the bogeyman," she says, her brow furrowed like the folds of her Brooks Brothers trouser suit. "That people are not ready for democracy. That uprisings should only be allowed and encouraged in the West, to people who are accustomed to democracy and who deserve it. That's so arrogant."

What if Egypt does turn out to be the new Iran? How will she feel then? "I will feel at least people tried it out. If people want this to be another Iran, then... power to the people, good for them." But she might not be able to judge it as good, bad or indifferent if a country such as Iran were to develop and use a nuclear weapon, because she and countless others could be vaporised. Fakhry is unmoved. "Iran has long said that they are not interested in a nuclear weapon. Why should I go with the statements that come out of Washington and London and Paris and not give them the benefit of the doubt? Is Ahmadinejad completely insane? Would he use a nuclear weapon, even if he had it, knowing full well that it could mean the end of Jerusalem and the Palestinian people? Let's think a little."

So the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran does not worry her. "No it doesn't. It just doesn't. Call me naive." Many will.

The longer you spend in TV Roundabout, the more contradictions you see. And the longer you spend in Doha, the more you wonder how on earth Al-Jazeera exists at all. News hubs - the BBC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Canal+ - are usually located in buzzy cities: London, New York, Paris. Doha is so sleepy that the Lonely Planet guide describes it as "the most boring place on Earth".

Arab media networks tend to be cheerleaders for the status quo in the Arab world, reporting the comings and goings of His Highness Sheikh This and His Excellency Sheikh That as they do such thrilling things as open water desalination plants. Al-Jazeera plunges into controversial stories. From the start, it ran frequent live interviews with Israeli officials, then taboo on Arab television. It also investigates stories that deeply embarrass Arab leaders. It recently teamed up with The Guardian to publish the Palestine Papers - leaked documents indicating that the Palestinian Authority had offered Israel far-reaching territorial concessions.

Al-Jazeera may proclaim its support for democracy, freedom and human rights in Arab nations, but it exists solely thanks to the patronage of a ruling autocrat. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is a natural-gas gazillionaire and a Sandhurst-educated Anglophile who, with family members and political allies, owns and controls Harrods, a chunk of Barclays Bank, the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, Chelsea Barracks, the snazzy One Hyde Park development in Knightsbridge, and the soaring 1,000ft Shard of Glass at London Bridge, the tallest structure in the capital. He presides over a country with no free elections, no free trade unions and no right to free speech, yet he founded Al-Jazeera and funds it to the tune of almost $1 billion a year - provided, of course, it does not criticise him or his government.

If Al-Jazeera breaks all the rules, why does it work? By skill, guile and a healthy dollop of luck. The network should never have launched. The BBC beat Al-Jazeera to the Arab TV market. In 1994 it set up an Arabic version of BBC World News in a joint venture with a private-sector Saudi broadcaster. But the service collapsed after only 18 months, when the BBC withdrew in protest at attempts to censor news about Saudi Arabia. In stepped the emir, who had long been looking for an international calling card to establish his tiny nation as a modern, forward-looking state. He founded Al-Jazeera Arabic, attracting many of the 250 staff who had signed up to work for the BBC.

At first, most of the big broadcasters ignored Al-Jazeera. Few western consumers knew it even existed, far less tuned in to the six hours of news it screened each day. In the Middle East most ordinary people were too poor to afford to buy a satellite dish, so audience figures remained low. Washington initially welcomed the channel as an example of burgeoning media freedom in the Arab world. Its slogan - "The opinion and the other opinion" - sounded harmless enough. That all changed after 9/11. The first time most TV viewers saw Osama Bin Laden's face and heard his voice was on Al-Jazeera on October 7, 2001. Al-Qaeda had smuggled a VHS tape from Afghanistan, through Pakistan, to Doha. As George Bush waged his "war on terror", the smuggled tapes kept arriving.

Al-Jazeera's gritty coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to attract more viewers, especially when, as in Fallujah, its images of dead civilians contradicted official western assurances that troops were only targeting combatants. Bush and Tony Blair were so alarmed at what they regarded as anti-western propaganda that they considered - they say it was a joke - bombing its Doha offices. US missiles did hit the station's headquarters in Kabul in 2001 and Baghdad in 2003, killing one journalist. Accidents, said Bush.

In 2006 Al-Jazeera English was launched. Many doubted that the new global rolling news channel would work. They questioned whether English-speaking western journalists would go to Doha and, even if they did, whether they would stay and, even if they stayed, whether anyone would watch. At first, it looked as if the naysayers were right. With western media organisations laying off staff, journalists did arrive at TV Roundabout. Some were big names - Sir David Frost and Rageh Omaar, star of the BBC's Iraq war coverage - lured by salaries reputedly as high as $500,000. But problems soon emerged between the western expats and Arabic-speaking staff.

Many working on the Arabic-language channel complained that the westerners in their sister channel were paid more than them. Westerners whinged that local editors were pro-Arab and anti-western. Expats publicly claimed they were the victims of bullying and sexual and religious discrimination. The network was badly run, too, they said. Promised contractual perks, such as rent-free apartments and two flights home a year, were cut without warning. Many western expats left, dispirited and with far fewer tax-free petrodollars than they had hoped for. But the ship steadied. Then came the pan-Arab revolution.

Dr Mohamed Zayani has written two books on the rise of the network. Sitting in his office on the Middle East campus of Washington's Georgetown University, in Doha, he says: "Al-Jazeera has grown through a mix of creativity, boldness, commitment, controversy and good timing. It started as a voice and has become a force. The question now is: can it become an institution?"

That depends. For all its recent success, Al-Jazeera faces big challenges. In spite of senior executives' assertions that it has shed the stigma that it plays politics, it still has a long way to go. Comments by Zeidan, Fakhry and Souag in this article will focus attention on the motives of those who work for Al-Jazeera English, while the Arabic service will continue to attract strong criticism. Al-Jazeera Arabic's detractors single out its coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, conducted largely from the streets of Gaza. Marc Ginsberg, a former US ambassador to Morocco, wrote last month that the Arabic service is "more a fiery instigator of public opinion and less an impartial reporter of it". Dr Zayani agrees. "One cannot say that Al-Jazeera is neutral in reporting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

Al-Jazeera has bias problems closer to home, too. However much it might like to portray itself as a beacon of independent journalism in a part of the world where most media are censored, tawdry and venal, one place where it is not independent is Qatar itself. It rarely carries stories critical of the country or its leaders and certainly does not campaign for democracy there. When WikiLeaks revealed documents showing that three Qataris may have been implicated in 9/11, going so far as to do a "dry run" for the bombers, the story received scant coverage on Al-Jazeera. The same goes for the increasingly detailed claims that Qatari officials may have bribed Fifa officials to the tune of $1m each to win Qatar's controversial 2022 football World Cup bid.

Al Anstey's defence - "We don't cover Qatar because it's a very small country and we are an international network, not a national network" - is neat, but a cop-out. Even some staff think Qatar gets an easy ride. "You're right. I would like to see more coverage - and even critical coverage - of Qatar, actually," says Fakhry. 

Many argue that the emir of Qatar and his merry band of trouble-making journalists enjoy too close a relationship. A few weeks ago, WikiLeaks released leaked documents indicating that the emir uses Al-Jazeera as a diplomatic bargaining chip, promising to tone down coverage of certain regimes in return for political or economic favours. According to the cables, dated November 2009, Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Jaber Al Thani, said: "Al-Jazeera's ability to influence public opinion is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar." Reporters privately accuse Al-Jazeera of "going easy" on Qatar's vast, powerful neighbour, Saudi Arabia, after Riyadh complained about the network's coverage. Al-Jazeera dismisses the claims. "No-one has ever told us how to report. Never, ever. We are independent," says Anstey. The emir and government ministers are reluctant to discuss the issue, or indeed anything at all to do with Al-Jazeera. Nobody from the government or the ruling family would be interviewed for this article.

Whichever way you look, Al-Jazeera is a station of contradictions, and there's one in particular that will make it hard to achieve its ultimate goal - to break the western monopoly of rolling TV news. Its "southern" perspective is fresh and is succeeding now because the hot news is on Al-Jazeera's turf. But its style and content may not have lasting appeal. Serving up a diet of stories that westerners do not want to hear or are not interested in, and doing so in language they often find confrontational, is unlikely to make the service a "must-view" in the dominant western news markets when the drama of the "Jasmine revolution" fades and the Middle East gets back to being distant, difficult and complex.

Steve Shepard, dean of the City University of New York's graduate school of journalism, argues that Al-Jazeera's prominence in covering the Arab uprisings "may not be a fair test" of its ability to penetrate the American market, since it is not focused on the main issues of interest to US viewers: Israel, and American military action, the network's coverage of which is heavily criticised.

Furthermore, Al-Jazeera is facing growing competition in its own backyard for the first time. One of the consequences of its success and of regime change in the Arab world is that the broadcast media market is suddenly open for business. There are plans, for instance, for Sky News Arabia. The rolling news channel
- a joint venture with the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation - will employ 70 multimedia journalists in Abu Dhabi, with support from a network of news bureaux, including London and Washington. Iran's Press TV and Chinese networks are also investing heavily in rolling news. Frank Kane, former business editor of The Observer and now a commentator with The National, the UAE's leading newspaper, says: "Sky is a serious challenge to Al-Jazeera in its core market. Can it maintain its first-mover advantage?"

Al-Jazeera executives are not worrying about any of that for now. They're too busy enjoying their moment. A few years ago the only Arab brand anyone had heard of was Al-Qaeda. Now it's Al-Jazeera. Anstey is crisscrossing the US, working to sign the first cable deal that will see the channel beamed into millions of American homes. Meanwhile, back in Doha, editors are trying to secure the one thing they crave: the seal of editorial approval that will demonstrate they are officially part of the global news conversation.

Virtually every world leader has been interviewed on the network. Except one: President Obama. When he was elected he gave his first interview in the region to a rival station, Saudi Arabia's conservative Al Arabiya. That hurt. The most powerful new voice in world news wants to be the go-to channel for the most powerful man in the world when he wants to talk to Arab states.

For now, like the rest of Al-Jazeera's uneasy and confused new western audience, Obama is waiting to see whether the Arab uprisings and their excitable new media cheerleader foster democracy and freedom in the Middle East - or something a lot scarier.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

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