Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese  

    Middle East
     May 28, 2005
click here

Dauntless journalism
Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World
by Hugh Miles

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 this 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 of al-Jazeera.

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 dissidents.

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 million people.

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 forthrightness.

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 awareness.

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.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

Al-Jazeera to tone it down for Asia 
(Dec 3, '04)

Arab nationalism tunes into al-Jazeera 
(Oct 14, '05)




All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110