No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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A dialogue with
Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali
Managing Director, Al-Jazeera

TBS Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer initially spoke with Al-Ali in Cairo about the development, philosophy, and new plans of the region's hottest, most controversial channel. With recent developments that have clouded relations between Al-Jazeera and Egypt, Schleifer and Al-Ali renewed the dialogue

 

S. Abdallah Schleifer: Al-Jazeera has an approach to the news that until ten years ago was completely absent from the Arab world. Where did this come from?

Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali: I came to recognize something about the TV business in the Arab world: we concentrate mostly upon entertainment, quiz shows, drama, movies. But I think there is an important field that has been missing, talk shows and news. No one has developed the news, because the reputation of the media in the Middle East is that the news is censored and controlled by the government. All media business in the Middle East is controlled by the government. The leaders of Qatar wanted to change that; they want to have a satellite channel with the aim of no longer hiding any information.

Schleifer: What inspired them to think that way?

Al-Ali: Partly it has to do with developing technology. You could once control the information-before there was Internet, before there was satellite. People got much of their information from government sources, except when they traveled outside--then you'd find very different news. But it was very difficult even to bring newspapers in from outside because of censorship. When the satellite channels started, it was no longer possible to hide the sources of information from the viewing audience. This is the atmosphere in which Al-Jazeera started.

Schleifer: We began this dialogue last June; it was very obvious then that the Egyptian government was very happy to have you here in Cairo and specifically in the Media Free Zone. The chairman of Al-Jazeera's board had come to Cairo and signed up to undertake production from the zone, making Al-Jazeera the first station to sign up with the zone (since Orbit's deal predated the formation of the Media Free Zone). But with the Intifadah Al-Aqsa, Al-Jazeera very much fell back out of favor with Egypt's semi-official media, and you were denounced in the press in no uncertain terms for both coverage and talk show commentary considered here to be anti-Egyptian. Have these press attacks affected Al-Jazeera's status and mode of operation in Cairo, and has it effected your original plans?

Al-Ali: I can only say that it is not the first time Al-Jazeera has been subjected to such an attack, and it might very well not be the last. We do believe that such clashes will continue as long as there exists these differences between the free media and the official media.

But I can confirm that Al-Jazeera will remain solid in its path, and I do believe it will maintain excellent relations with audiences all over the world through tackling the news truthfully and freely. I do believe we will start our work in Media City; it is not so easy now to close the media bureaus in light of the great revolution of communications. Threats by Egyptian personalities should not be taken too seriously.

Schleifer: But one of the criticisms that emerged in the Egyptian media campaign against Al-Jazeera at the start of the Intifada is that there is a lack of balance in your talk shows. Far more critics of Egypt, especially Islamist critics, express their views when compared to the number of talk show guests who defend the moderate Arab states in general and Egypt in particular. Now it's a fact that most journalists everywhere, when free to express themselves, always tend to be on the left; is it possible that the hosts or producers of these talk shows are putting on talk shows that lack balance?

Al-Ali: The principal aim of Al-Jazeera is of course to be highly balanced in its talk shows and other programs. Yet, to be very practical, we can't be surprised if in a 24-hour continuous transmission of news bulletins and programs a slip might occur here or there. This happens in any worldwide TV network due to the volume of work, and the networks always feel very sorry. But as the saying goes, perfection is the unattainable dream of man. Sometimes a guest might change his mind and not appear for the program at the very last minute. It happened that one of the guests was arrested by his country's authorities for doing nothing, only so he would not be able to show up for Al-Jazeera's program. Others were denied travel by their countries' authorities, or had their telephone lines disconnected. We've had the lines in our studios disconnected in some countries while on air. We do face such difficulties, but we stick to our stance and try to be balanced and fair as much as possible.

Schleifer: What personal experience do you bring to Al-Jazeera?

Al-Ali: I worked with Qatar Television starting in 1974; I started as assistant director, then director. In 1979 we launched the English channel, which I also worked on. After that, also in 1979, I became general program controller. I worked on the launch of Sharjah TV in the UAE for two years, then came back to Qatar to be assistant director then managing director of Qatar Television. Plus, I've had training and done professional work in Japan, Germany, England, and America. I then had the chance to become a member of the board when Al-Jazeera was started, then I became managing director.

We have a big challenge. It's not just a question of presenting news and information; we have to bring the Arab audience back to trusting the Arab media, especially the news. You should bring them the truth, not false information, or they won't watch. That's what we started. We treat them as an intelligent audience, rather than the conventional idea that they'll take whatever you give them.

Schleifer: People think Arab audiences were passive in that sense you allude to--taking whatever was given them-before the rise of satellites. They don't realize the Arab audience was listening to Radio Monte Carlo, or the BBC, or even VOA long before satellite television appeared, because they didn't trust their own news.

Al-Ali: Even when it comes to local news, especially in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria--people don't want to rely on their domestic media for the local news. They get it from Israel, because they trust them more; they're a more reliable source. Or from the BBC, or Radio Monte Carlo.

Schleifer: That must demoralize people--if however patriotic you are, you believe you can't trust your own media and have to listen to the enemy.

Al-Ali: But this affects a small percentage. Like I said earlier, you once could block sources; the BBC has been blocked by many countries. But you can't block satellite channels, fax, or Internet. If something is on a Western channel, it has a limited effect. But Al-Jazeera affects a much larger audience, because it's in Arabic.

The challenge now is how to bring the audience back into watching their own channels. We treat them as intelligent, we give them the true story. For the first year, people watched us but were very cautious. They wondered how long we could carry on, who's behind us, what our aim was. After that, our audience has grown, and we've grown. We started in November 1996 with a six-hour transmission, and built up to 24 hours by February 1, 1999. continued

Next page:
"Anyone is welcome on Al-Jazeera if they'd like to come forward."

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo

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