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.
inspired them to think that way?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
"Anyone is welcome on Al-Jazeera if they'd like to