Al Jazeera

the Arab world and popular opinion in flux

by by Emma Whitford

illustration by by Mary-Evelyn Farrior

Al Jazeera is Arabic for ‘The Island’—a reference to the Arabian Peninsula, which is broken up into Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The news network and satellite channel is funded by the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar; it broadcasts news and current events 24 hours a day. While few Americans have access to Al Jazeera through their cable providers, the network’s YouTube channel has a huge following here. In fact, it’s the most watched channel on YouTube, receiving 2.5 million views per month.

Over the course of the last fifteen years, while the network’s mission has been consistent, its reputation in the West has fluctuated drastically. Labeled the voice of terrorism by the Bush Administration, Al Jazeera has experienced a major upswing in Western favor in recent months. Between February 7 and March 4, viewership of Al Jazeera English increased by 450 percent, drawing about 100,000 additional viewers.

The station’s patron is the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind described the Emir of Qatar in a phone interview with the Independent: “The Emir is this giant guy, and he loves coming to the West. He rents out floors of hotels.” Al-Thani launched Al Jazeera in 1996. It was not an immediate hit in the Arab world. Suskind recalls, “The other countries in the region were calling up the al-Thanis all the time, saying ‘Tell Al Jazeera to withdraw. Add a correction here.’” Many regimes were upset by coverage that cast them in a negative light.

From the beginning, Al Jazeera was something new to the region: a largely independent news source with no apparent stake in preserving the status quo. But only recently has the world come to realize how significant a departure that really is. As revolutionary fervor sweeps through the Middle East, Al Jazeera is in the middle of it, with coverage that inspires as much as it explains. “The demonstrators in various squares—Tehran, Cairo, Tunisia, Syria—are the viewership Al Jazeera has right now,” says Suskind. “The images of the protestors are being mirrored right back at them, and people are saying, ‘Wow, that could be me too!’”

Two years ago, an amateur journalist was jailed for showing film of an uprising in the small Tunisian city of Gafsa. The event wasn’t covered on Facebook or Al Jazeera, so the news didn’t spread to other towns. Al Jazeera’s willingness to incorporate social media, acting on the opportunity posed by the proliferation of access to documentation equipment, is a key to its success. “Al Jazeera is a really fascinating hand-and-glove fit with self-determination movements,” says Suskind. “And we know how central a free and independent media is to the nursing of social action and informed consent. I would be hard-pressed to imagine what is happening in that region without Al Jazeera. How would it happen otherwise? The folks in Egypt would never be getting dispatches from Tunisia on the old Egyptian state-controlled TV.”

Many Al Jazeera reporters and producers speak with pride about the catalytic role their station has played in recent events. Mhamed Krichen, a newscaster for Al Jazeera, told the New York Times in January, “I mean, we shouldn’t think that our role is to release the Arab people from oppression. But I think we should also be careful not to avoid any popular movement. We should have our eyes open to capture any event that could be the start of the end of any dictator in the Arab world.”

Not an Easy Job
But many in the West still don’t trust Al Jazeera. Late last year, evidence surfaced that Al Jazeera might be tailoring its coverage to support Qatar’s foreign policy agenda. WikiLeaks released a memo from the US ambassador to Qatar, Joseph LeBaron, that stated: “Al Jazeera’s ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish.” LeBaron speculated that Al Jazeera’s “more favorable coverage of Saudi Arabia’s royal family has facilitated Qatari-Saudi reconciliation over the past year.”
Wadah Khanfar, director-general of Al Jazeera, immediately dismissed the claims that his network is beholden to the Emir. He explained in an opinions piece for Al Jazeera, “[The skeptics] focused on the source of our funding rather than our reporting, in an attempt to tarnish our work.” It’s true that Al Jazeera receives its funding from a government. However, “Qatar’s prime minister openly criticizes Al Jazeera, and has talked about the ‘headaches’ caused by our independence,” Khanfar insists. “We subject the state officials to the same hard questions and journalistic standards we have for everyone else… one only has to look at the screen to witness this.”

By giving precedence to on-the-ground coverage, Al Jazeera counters what Khanfar identifies as the “simplistic version of events” echoed by Western outlets, especially during the Bush administration. (In the words of The Nation, “Virtually all we heard about were the ubiquitous terrorists, the omnipresent bearded radicals.”)

As Suskind points out, “The images [presented by Al Jazeera] are so important, and the people are getting that. They are playing to the cameras. It’s really interesting [to see these] protestors offer a statement of purpose, all this stuff that moves and persuades people.” In the upsurge of revolutionary fervor, grievances expressed on Al Jazeera are resonating with viewers across national borders.

Al Jazeera brings international coverage to a region that has long suffered from strict media curtailment. Tony Horwitz B’80, who covered the first Gulf War for the Wall Street Journal and later won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, described the difficulties he encountered reporting from the region between 1987 and 1993 in an e-mail to the Independent.
“When we talk about Al Jazeera,” Horwitz wrote, “it’s important to remember what a steady diet of propaganda and censorship citizens of the Middle East have been fed for many years. Whatever one thinks of the content, it’s liberating for people to actually have information independent of the state, from an Arab source—a scarce commodity for many decades.”

What Coverage is "Good" Coverage?
Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic. He admitted in a recent interview with Time, “To be honest, I don’t know what objective journalism means. The environment in which you broadcast obviously colors your coverage. If you are an American network broadcasting from the US, you will be broadcasting with a sensibility which may not look necessarily objective to an audience in another part of the world.”

American audiences can get on board with a station that gives voice to democratic revolutionaries, but in the aftermath of 9/11 the US government voiced its distrust of a news network that was the first to receive and broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Al Jazeera’s reports about US military actions in Iraq “vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable.”

The shift in Western favor towards Al Jazeera can also be credited to the fact that the network, especially its English version, is a lot less overtly radical these days. Al Jazeera English was launched on November 15, 2006, and became the first international English-language news channel to broadcast across the globe from the Middle East. Al-Jazeera English’s mission, as stated on its website, is “to provide independent, impartial news for an international audience and to offer a voice to a diversity of perspectives from under-reported regions.” In recent months, it’s been the go-to network for international news in the United States. Suskind attributes this to its level of journalistic professionalism: “They’ve evolved. Sometimes at the start the coverage was […] a little tendentious. It took them a while to understand that you want to go with what is most judicious. [This is] one of the reasons they are so instrumental now.”

According to McClatchy Washington correspondent William Douglas, the White House, Congress, and Embassy Row all currently consider Al-Jazeera to be reliable coverage of what’s happening in “foreign hot spots.” Hillary Clinton said in March, “Viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock.” The coverage of revolutionary events as they take place in the Middle East has drawn media analysts to refer to Al-Jazeera’s “CNN moment.” Its coverage of uprisings has contributed to its current popularity and prominence, just as CNN’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War did back in 1991.

The network’s increased viewership can also be attributed to a decline in international coverage by United States cable and network news organizations. There has been an overall dip in ratings for TV networks in recent years, and as a result, networks have closed many of their foreign bureaus.

Revolutions in the Spotlight
On January 14, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country, marking the culmination of the Jasmine Revolution, a sudden wave of street protests that erupted on December 17 when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed, university-educated Tunisian, set himself on fire. Tunisian authorities had confiscated the produce he was selling—the only means he had of sustaining himself and his family. Al Jazeera’s on-site coverage spread Bouazizi’s story across the nation, and around the world. Al Jazeera was officially banned in Tunisia, but Lutfi Hajji, an independent journalist, worked undercover in Tunisia as Al Jazeera’s eyes and ears on the ground. Hajji was constantly tracked and harassed by secret police, but local contacts still managed to send him amateur videos of police violence via Facebook. These grainy cell phone videos ended up in official Al Jazeera broadcasts. According to the New York Times, Hajji’s reporting methods “blew the seeds of revolt across the country.”

A March installment of Al Jazeera’s bi-weekly current affairs program “People and Power” analyzed the current revolution in Yemen in the context of the general revolutionary fervor in the Middle East. The protests to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh officially started in Yemen on January 26, in the immediate aftermath of the success in Tunisia. The episode opens with a Yemeni woman explaining to a reporter, “The young people and students breathed the Jasmine-filled air of Tunisia, and started their protests immediately.” As the program continues, dramatic footage of protests, the effect amplified by swelling music and the shaky handheld cameras, is juxtaposed with a detailed profile of Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni mother of three and head of the organization Women Journalists Without Chains. Al Jazeera puts a spotlight on the gravity of the civil rights violations in Yemen by depicting peaceful protestors being beaten by the police. It also provides Karman with a wide audience for her analysis of the oppressive nature of the Yemeni government.

Karman explains that part of her revolutionary effort is to establish a free and independent press. As it now stands, foreign press materials are regularly confiscated and Arab and Yemeni reporters are often beaten. Saba Net, Yemen’s official news agency, published on Saturday April 9 that, “In view of the overt and repeated interventions in Yemen’s affairs by suspicious media, Al Jazeera’s office in Sana’a [the capital city of Yemen] was closed with sealing wax.” Authorities withdrew the license granted to Al Jazeera by the Yemeni Ministry of Information, accusing the network of implementing “a sabotage scheme aimed to inciting strife, hatred and fighting in a number of provinces of Yemen.”

Last Friday, just before revoking his envoy in Qatar, President Saleh made a speech before tens of thousands of supporters that was broadcast on national television. In the speech, he listed Al Jazeera among the primary threats to Yemeni power and sovereignty. According to Al Jazeera’s correspondent on the ground, “He singled out Qatar and Al Jazeera and said, ‘We don’t have to follow their agenda.’” A statement released by Al Jazeera English details the correspondent’s treatment by Yemeni police and Saleh supporters: “They took my phone; they started shouting saying that I was a spy…the soldiers told me that I was not allowed to film […] they held a gun to my stomach. It was a very threatening environment.”
Saleh’s administration has not undermined the threat posed by Al Jazeera’s on-the-ground footage and detailed profiling of revolutionary platforms.

Opposition from the Right
The only cities that provide Al Jazeera on their basic cable are Washington, DC; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vermont. Al Jazeera English went into talks with Comcast at the network’s Philadelphia Headquarters in February and sent out a press release announcing that it had handed over 13,000 letters from Comcast subscribers who want access to Al Jazeera English. However, Comcast has yet to announce any sort of agreement. Al Jazeera English lacks clout with media giants such as Time Warner, Scripps, and Discovery Networks, which own most of the channel listings on Comcast. Fast Company describes them as companies that run an “old boys’ network.” They’re not interested in a channel with small potential market shares. They also have conservative investors to please.

Cliff Kincaid is president of the conservative America’s Survival, Inc. (ASI) and director of the Accuracy in the Media (AIM) Center for Investigative Reporting. He explained in an interview with the Independent, “Cable and satellite providers ought to consider that they might be creating a situation in which homegrown Jihads will decide to wage Jihad. We’re not calling on the channel to be banned, but cable should be wary about giving them more access.” In an article on AIM’s website in March, Kincaid points to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a correspondent with Al Jazeera Arabic, as a threat to American audiences due to his “anti-American and anti-Semetic diatribes.” Kincaid warns that, “Cable systems like Comcast that are considering carrying al-Jazeera need to know that…[Qaradawi] is poison and hate in the media market and a threat to ignite more cases of home-grown Jihadism.”

AIM is less overtly partisan than ASI. The organization describes itself as “a citizens’ media watchdog whose mission is to promote accuracy, fairness and balance in news reporting.” It cites the WikiLeaks documents about Qatar as evidence that Al Jazeera is a tool for Qatar’s foreign policy agenda. Kincaid explained in the interview, “Al-Jazeera is not an independent news network. The government of Qatar pays the bills and picks the personnel. Al-Jazeera is not an independent news station, but follows the government line.”

Kincaid also argues that the perception that Al Jazeera is always on the ground covering breaking news is false, especially when it comes to reporting on revolutions in the Middle East: “It’s like an arsonist who starts the fire and then invites everyone over to watch the inferno.” In terms of Al Jazeera’s mission, Kincaid claims that “it has nothing to do with democracy at all; it has to do with a radical agenda.”

Shaping the Future
Al Jazeera is still a novelty. It also doesn’t have much competition. The West never has to contend with one unchallenged media perspective, simply because the public has a vast number of options. Suskind explains, “People are drinking only from their favorite water fountains—I have my set of facts, you have your set. There is no shared set.” In the Middle East, where Al Jazeera currently dominates, there is an opportunity for this expansion to take place. Populations of the Arab world, South Asia, and North Africa—regions where Al Jazeera is firmly established—have set “the first, second, and third stanzas of a new relationship with media that they didn’t have before. And in the last ten years that’s been a big change, as people in that part of the world now have choices. With Al Jazeera as their primary source, many of them are ready for some competitors.” And maybe that’s where Western media outlets come in. After all, many of them are looking to expand economically. “They’re always looking for new models, right?” Says Suskind. “They’ve got [potential] advertising dollars there too, in the developing part of the world.”

Suskind speculates that five to ten years from now, “There will be media outlets from other parts of the world that will have footholds in the Arab part of the world. People get to a certain point [and say], ‘Okay. I’m ready for choice now. I’m ready for variety.’”

EMMA WHITFORD B’12 isn’t losing sleep over the Emir’s headaches.