Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged
the World by
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Demonized and hailed with equal passion, al-Jazeera has
risen as an emancipative force in the world of visual media
over the past decade. Award-winning journalist Hugh Miles'
book does justice to
radical television channel's motto of presenting both sides
of the coin through a nuanced appraisal.
Controversy shadowed al-Jazeera from its genesis.
Superficially, it resembled any Western 24-hour TV station
that beams current affairs news. However, one visible mark
of distinction was its skimpy 40 minutes of advertising time
per day (compared to CNN's 300 minutes), thanks to the
antagonistic governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait coercing
advertising companies to boycott the channel. In the
newsroom of its Doha headquarters stood a larger-than-life
photo of a correspondent killed by an American missile in
Iraq. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited its
choc-a-bloc premises he quipped, "All this trouble from a
matchbox like this?" (p 11) The upheavals that shook the
Middle East in recent years were thus integral to the story
On accession to the throne, Qatar's reformist emir, Sheikh
Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, governed his tiny country more
like a chief executive officer. He spoke directly to the
press, worked in the afternoons, allowed elected municipal
bodies and shared governance with his American-educated
first lady. Of all his technocratic transformations, the one
that shocked the Arab world's senile despots was his
ambitious media modernization drive. Al-Jazeera's formation
in 1996 was "an act of liberalism in the context of Qatar's
maverick tradition". (p 24) It ensued after Qatar's
diplomatic row with Bahrain over televised interviews of
The emir bankrolled al-Jazeera for five years, but clarified
that the editorial board would be independent of his
control. It was an uncanny promise that he never broke. In
1998 he abolished censorship in Qatar, freeing al-Jazeera
from all staffing and content constraints. BBC-trained
journalists signed up, a quarter of them Qataris and the
rest from other Arab-speaking countries. For its first year,
the channel was largely unreceivable in the Middle East due
to its weak transponder signal. A lucky mishap with a French
channel in 1997 turned the tide in al-Jazeera's favor, a
tide that progressively swelled to a whopping audience of 50
Al-Jazeera's aura rose from its iconoclastic liberal
programming. For the first time, Hebrew-speaking Israelis
appeared on Arab television. Its talk shows boldly discussed
taboo political, religious, social and economic topics,
allowing opposite viewpoints to clash. One episode posed the
heretical question, "Are Hezbollah resistance [fighters] or
terrorists?" Callers to the shows openly lambasted Arab
rulers as sycophantic, corrupt and treacherous. Comperes
such as Faisal al-Qasim thrilled viewers with bluntness and
In 1998, Jordan's information minister demanded an official
public apology from al-Jazeera for derogatory references to
Amman's ties with Israel. Other politicians realized the
potential of this new platform for free speech. Sheikh Ahmad
Yasin of Hamas, Aslan Maskhadov of Chechnya and Muammar
Gaddafi of Libya seized chances to mouth their viewpoints on
the channel. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein made al-Jazeera
his network of choice after its landmark coverage of
Operation Desert Fox (1998). Osama bin Laden made his debut
on the channel in December 1998, raising hackles in Riyadh
and Kuwait. Weathering diplomatic umbrage, the Qatari emir
announced that al-Jazeera was autonomous. Since jamming
satellite signals was technically difficult, irate Arab
rulers cooled off after short bans on the channel.
Allegations of bias against al-Jazeera were contradictory
and conspiratorial. The channel rarely compromised
newsworthiness, accuracy and objectivity.
Al-Jazeera's reportage of the second Palestinian Intifada in
2000 revolutionized the Middle East. It had the gall to
investigate the inefficiency, abuse and corruption of Yasser
Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA temporarily
forced shut al-Jazeera's Ramallah bureau in retaliation. The
channel's live footage from the front lines came at the cost
of crew operating through trusted local sources at killing
distance in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. For the first
time, the bloody tragedy of Palestine was relayed live into
the homes of millions, forging a new pan-Arab political
Since al-Jazeera made it difficult for Egypt to stick to a
moderate line on the intifada, it was scapegoated for the
civil unrest threatening President Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Around this time, the channel made its first ripples in the
West. Pro-Israeli lobbyists pushed for its website to be
closed by a US Terrorism Task Force.
Five days after September 11, 2001, al-Jazeera gained
instant notoriety by playing a signed statement by bin
Laden. The channel went on to become the Saudi fugitive's
favorite conduit to the outside world, evoking Western
allegations that it was a "mouthpiece for terrorists". Miles
finds copious counter-evidence to the slur. For instance, in
2002 the channel authoritatively disproved rumors of an
Israeli massacre of hundreds in Jenin. The choice to air bin
Laden's statements was motivated by the practical reasons
that al-Jazeera was the most respected Arab TV network and
would not edit his pronouncements.
The US government banned re-transmission of al-Jazeera's
footage by American channels and pressured Qatar's emir to
"moderate and tone down its "rhetoric". Sheikh Hamad did not
intercede. As the US invaded Afghanistan, al-Jazeera was the
only station with reporters in Taliban-controlled territory.
It transmitted a string of stories that showed the American
assault as inhumane vis-a-vis mounting civilian casualties.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation and its British
equivalent, the MI5, quickly placed the channel's Washington
and London offices under surveillance. Al-Jazeera's Sudanese
cameraman was arrested and held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,
without charges. Western TV networks launched a massive
information offensive insinuating that al-Jazeera was
protecting bin Laden. In November 2001, the US military
destroyed the channel's Kabul office with two massive
missile strikes. Taking the cue from their American
benefactors, hostile Arab state media vilified al-Jazeera
for "Zionist tendencies" and posed hurdles to its staff
members. Even al-Qaeda blamed the channel for "betrayal"
that led to the arrest of Hamburg cell fugitive Ramzi bin
al-Shibh in Pakistan.
In the run-up to the war in Iraq, al-Jazeera had more
journalists with deep local knowledge in that country than
any other network. The channel unmasked blatant discord
among Arab countries and estimated "how much money Jordan
stood to make out of the war". (p 235) The daredevil station
ignored US President George W Bush's call for all media
personnel to leave Baghdad and stayed put in spite of the
clear dangers. Though it rejected the legitimacy of the US
invasion of Iraq, its programming meticulously provided the
megaphone to varied stands.
Al-Jazeera's Iraq reportage "broke the hegemony of Western
networks and reversed the flow of information, historically
from West to East". (p 278) Its truthful depictions of the
humanitarian situation and coalition losses compelled US
soldiers to label it an "enemy station" whose staff posed a
"threat". During the war, its offices were targeted with
missiles, its cameramen detained, its jeeps riddled with
bullets and one correspondent, Tareq Ayyoub, was killed -
all by the US and the UK. Saddam's police and Information
Ministry also threatened al-Jazeera staff repeatedly.
Ironically, Ahmad Chalabi, the foxy Pentagon eminence grise,
alleged the channel to be "completely infiltrated by Iraqi
intelligence". Taysir Alluni, its famous reporter, was
arrested in Spain on charges of being an al-Qaeda agent.
As the US hunkered down to its occupation of Iraq, general
harassment of al-Jazeera was heightened following canards
that it had connections to the resistance movement. Two
cameramen were arrested in November 2003 and tortured at the
infamous Abu Ghraib prison. By April 2004, US forces had
incarcerated 21 al-Jazeera staff members. In May, cameraman
Rashid Wali was killed in Karbala. Despite overwhelming
intimidation, the station's editorial style was not diluted.
Miles summarizes al-Jazeera's overall impact in the final
two chapters. The channel, he writes, spearheaded an
information metamorphosis, dishing out more variety, choice
and voice to Arabs. It brought the notion of ruler's
accountability to the forefront. It educated Arabs about
democracy and life in the West like no other competing
network. Free of biases, it acted as a "mirror on the Arab
world where the people are more militant than the
governments". (p 367) A crucial weathervane of public
opinion, it was, in the words of a Jordanian family, "like
oxygen to a drowning man". (p 339) Through grit, excellence
and some luck, it counterbalanced the propaganda empire of
the United States. Its latest plans of privatizing ownership
and starting a new English-language channel aim to
"reposition al-Jazeera as a global source of news" that
would continue to empower the voiceless.
Miles' comprehensive study of al-Jazeera's media miracle is
commendable for its diligent research. As "democratization"
is the toast of the day in the US's Middle East tympani,
Miles lays bare the undemocratic practices that
uncomfortably rest beneath the superpower's hyperbole.
Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World by
Hugh Miles, Abacus (Time Warner Book Group). London, 2005.
ISBN: 0-349-11807-8. Price: US$24, 438 pages.
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