Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Al-Jazeera: Mouthpiece for Terrorists, Lackey for Israel, or Voice for Democracy?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Al-Jazeera: Mouthpiece for Terrorists, Lackey for Israel, or Voice for Democracy?

Article excerpt

Sr. Elaine Kelley is the administrative officer for Friends of Sabeel-North America.

The World Affairs Council of Oregon's Monthly Headline Forum on July 25 featured a talk by Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV news network. An Egyptian-born U.S. citizen, Al-Mirazi, previously Washington correspondent for the BBC World News Service and hosts the weekly program "From Washington" which highlights U.S. policy for Arab audiences. In Portland, he discussed his network's role as a voice for democracy in the Middle East.

According to Al-Mirazi, the news service began in 1996 as a Saudi-owned satellite in partnership with the BBC, with the Arab partners providing the financing and the BBC contributing staff, training, and management. The concept was to ensure sound and balanced coverage.

The project lasted only eight months, however. "The BBC/Arabic TV service couldn't agree on editorial policy," Al-Mirazi said, "and the Saudis stopped financing the project," causing 250 people to lose their jobs. In Qatar, meanwhile, the crown prince took over and implemented some changes toward increased democratization. Among Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's initiatives were discussions with the BBC in Doha, the capital, which resulted in Qatar agreeing to fund the first five years of Al-Jazeera (in Arabic, "the Peninsula"). Initially, Al-Mirazi noted, "This was just like Great Britain's financing of BBC. Al-Jazeera started at six hours a day in the Arabic-speaking world," he told the audience. "Now we are at 24 hours a day and reach the whole world."

The news service was widely denounced within Qatar and elsewhere, Al-Mirazi continued. "The foreign minister of Qatar received 400 diplomatic protests, and three or four calls to ambassadors protesting Al-Jazeera's broadcasting as inviting opposition." Now, the Washington bureau chief observed, after failed attempts by some in the government to restrict the access of reporters, his network is seen as "the other voice." "This is a sign of democracy," he stated, "a new page for the country."

Al-Jazeera, long dubbed the "CNN of the Arab world," remained little-known in the West until the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. which piqued a new interest in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera had operated in Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, and its journalists were the only ones the Taliban allowed to remain when the U.S. launched its attacks on the country. As a result, Al-Mirazi pointed out, Al-Jazeera became the only source for regional news and live war footage, eventually providing the most up-to-date information on the world's biggest news story. Estimates on the numbers of new viewers claim an overnight increase from 35 million to billions of viewers.

Al-Jazeera is best known by Westerners for its airing of live interviews with Osama bin Laden. Perhaps indicative of its journalistic achievements, the agency has been widely criticized in the U.S. and in Israel, in Arab countries, by the Palestinian Authority, as well as by members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is accused of being both a mouthpiece for terrorists and as a lackey of Israel. Last October, Secretary of State Colin Powell complained to Sheikh Hamad about Al-Jazeera's "inflammatory" reporting. The following month U.S. bombs completely destroyed the agency's Kabul offices. The Israeli media have condemned Al-Jazeera for inciting Palestinian violence, while some Palestinians are enraged that Al-Jazeera interviewed representatives of the Likud government. Even the Arab League at one point called for a boycott of "the TV station that invites Israelis" to be interviewed. …

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