Magazine article The Christian Century

Alternative TV: The War through Arab Eyes. Al-Jazeera Has Been Ruffling Feathers Both Inside and outside the Arab World

Magazine article The Christian Century

Alternative TV: The War through Arab Eyes. Al-Jazeera Has Been Ruffling Feathers Both Inside and outside the Arab World

Article excerpt

IF GOOD REPORTING can be judged by the enemies it makes, then al-Jazeera must be doing something right. The Arabic-language TV channel provoked rebukes from the U.S. government and military officials in the early days of "The War on Iraq" (al-Jazeera's phrase) when it rebroadcast Iraqi footage of dead and captive U.S. soldiers. Shortly afterwards the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ expelled al-Jazeera reporters from their trading floors.

On April 2, Iraq expelled one of al-Jazeera's Baghdad correspondents and barred another from working, apparently because they had sought interviews without government permission. The network responded by suspending operations in Iraq. "They cannot dictate to us who can and who cannot work," said editor-in-chief Ibrahim Helal.

Aficionados of the "clash of civilizations" school should hesitate before branding Osama bin Laden's favorite TV station as a mere mouthpiece for the axis of evil. The Qatar-based network has a distinguished history of ruffling feathers within as well as outside the Arab world. Arab opinion leaders of every stripe have castigated the station at various times, and on more then one occasion Arab governments have demanded that Qatari authorities rein in the station.

To his credit, the Sandhurst-educated Emir of Qatar, who has underwritten the station's expenses for most of its life, has steadfastly refused to interfere with editorial decisions. Established in 1996 from the remnants of a failed venture between the BBC and Saudi Arabia, al-Jazeera burst on the Arab scene like a super-nova. Its productions were polished and visually sophisticated; its staff was composed of experienced professionals, many of them veterans of the BBC, all of them native speakers of Arabic; its programming was completely unfettered by the state-controlled censorship that had long dominated Arab media. And it was free to anyone with a satellite dish.

It is difficult to overstate the station's impact. Prior to al-Jazeera, state control of media made for dreadful TV: uninformative, boring and unrelated to the issues of the day.

Serious, open debate occurred in private, rarely in organs of mass communication. Al-Jazeera broke all the taboos, exposing the hypocrisy and vapidity of official news reporting and airing the concerns and opinions of Arab populations in a way that had previously been unimaginable. The call-in sections of its wildly popular talk and debate shows provided ordinary citizens for the first time with the chance to express opinions in a public forum. The shows often took on the character of a transnational therapy session.

The immediate and widespread popularity of its programming has revolutionized mass communications in the Arab world to the point that competing services are now beginning to emerge, with similar editorial freedom. That's why the New York Times editorialized against the expulsion of the network from Wall Street, arguing that al-Jazeera "deserves all the help it can get."

Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war in Iraq has been extensive. Because it still has relatively little advertising, reporters often get more time than they would on American commercial TV--five, six or even seven minutes is not unusual. Its entire schedule is now de voted to war coverage. It has employed reporters on the ground in most of Iraq's major cities. News anchors usually follow up live reports with a series of questions in a lively, conversational style, much like the one used by American media. The network interviews a wide range of experts from various fields and countries, including the U.S. Like American media, al-Jazeera has a stable of retired military men (from Arab militaries) to provide analysis.

Al-Jazeera reporters were approved for embedding with coalition forces, but since Kuwaiti and Saudi authorities refused them visas, it is not clear whether they made it to their as signed places. In any case, the kind of video-phone reporting from coalition military units so conspicuous in American reporting has been largely absent on al-Jazeera. …

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