The Courting of Al-Jazeera
While Washington asked the emir of Qatar to "rein in" Al-Jazeera, American networks were headed to Doha in search of a deal.

by TBS Managing Editor Sarah Sullivan

t's nearly midnight in Doha, and we are in a cafe on a pier jutting out over the shoreline of the Persian Gulf. The cafe is empty and the night air quiet—except for the insistent ring of mobile telephones. Al-Jazeera Managing Director Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali takes a call from an American TV network executive. The airstrikes are well underway, and the Qatar-based satellite news channel, by now well known to TV audiences and Washington decision-makers alike, is the only TV presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Washington, in early October, asked Qatar to rein in the satellite channel, claiming it fans anti-American sentiment. American broadcasters, though, want Al-Jazeera to make them a deal.

Across the table from Mr. Al-Ali is Octavia Nasr, CNN senior international editor. She's on a mobile too, with an Arabic-language satellite channel which is wooing her in the same way that Western networks have been courting Al-Jazeera over the last several weeks. But a deal has been made between the giants of English-language and Arabic-language TV news, and both sides say they would be hard-pressed to find another partner that could serve them better.

TBS first spoke with Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali in Cairo in June 2000—an interview that, given the number of requests we ourselves received for information about Al-Jazeera, apparently ranks fairly high on the search engines. After our senior editors had received, between them, several dozen requests for radio and TV interviews from media organizations around the world, it became clear that a trip to Doha was in order.

Al-Jazeera started drawing attention early in the current crisis thanks to its exclusive position inside Afghanistan. The channel, which celebrates five years on air this November, established bureaus in Kabul and Kandahar two years ago. "When we started the channel we first concentrated on opening offices in Arab countries and Islamic countries," Mr. Al-Ali told TBS. "We got permission from the Taliban—and at the same time permission was granted to us, it was also granted to CNN, Reuters, and APTN—to open offices in Kabul and Kandahar. The others didn't move in, but for us it was important, because it's an Islamic country."

This means that since the beginning of the current conflict Al-Jazeera has been able to air frequent packaged reports and live shots from their Kabul-based reporter Tayseer Allouni and, via videophone, from Youssef Al-Shouly in Kandahar. But they had no permanent office in Northern Afghanistan; they had previously been sending in reporters from other cities to cover that territory. After the Sept. 9 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood—by two Algerians posing as journalists, with a bomb hidden in their camera—it's all but impossible to get an Arab reporter into the area. But CNN, like other Western organizations, got crews and correspondents into the north immediately. It became obvious to both Arab and Western organizations that if any one of them wanted to round out the picture for their viewers, some cooperation was going to be necessary.

Although this is a perfect example of how two organizations can be of mutual assistance, agreements between Al-Jazeera and CNN are not just a result of, nor limited to, crisis coverage. "We've had a history of cooperation with CNN," Mr. Al-Ali says. "Three or four months ago we had a meeting with them to agree on cooperation, so that in areas where they are strong we would join in, and in the places that we're strong they'd have our support. It became formal around two and a half months ago, and more so after Sept. 11. It's a long-term agreement, not just for this crisis."

Al-Jazeera became a CNN World Report contributor a year ago, and over the summer officials from the two organizations met both in Washington and in Doha to cement a relationship. "After Sept. 11," Nasr says, "we realized we need a CNN presence in the Al-Jazeera newsroom to figure out how we can cooperate." Nasr, a Lebanese American equally fluent in English and Arabic, was in Doha by the 14th.

"Other executives probably learned about Al-Jazeera only after that first tape from Osama bin Laden, and suddenly thought, I'd better go to Doha and try to make a deal. [CNN Chief News Executive and Newsgathering President] Eason Jordan saw that way ahead of everyone else. When we started talking, no one had any clue what was to come. I arrived when no one was here, it was very quiet at Al-Jazeera, and it was a good time to meet with people and it was the right time to start planning. CNN has been through crises many, many times, and we know that when war starts or strikes begin it becomes chaotic. Inside the newsroom it's chaotic, so imagine coordinating between two chaotic newsrooms." The two organizations made deals for footage and resource sharing—CNN getting, originally, six-hour exclusive rights to Al-Jazeera's footage and rights to break in to Al-Jazeera newscasts, plus access to key locations like Kabul through the Al-Jazeera correspondent there; Al-Jazeera having access to Northern Afghanistan through a CNN correspondent, getting help with crews and equipment in Quetta and elsewhere, and receiving CNN's syndicated newsfeed, Newsource.

Al-Jazeera's exclusive position inside Afghanistan, and its lengthy 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden, which it rebroadcast with English subtitles not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, were already drawing the world's attention. But then the station received a fax from Al-Qaeda, believed to be signed by bin Laden, and with the beginning of the American airstrikes, a videotape of bin Laden was sent to the channel.

Suddenly offers from news executives around the world started pouring in, as did the requests for information. Journalists from news organizations around the world have crowded Al-Jazeera's newsroom, director's office, e-mail inboxes and telephone lines with requests for interviews, requests for resource sharing, questions about the controversial fax and videotape, some wanting to make deals and others wanting to cover Al-Jazeera as it covers the news. NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, French TV, Germany's ARD TV, the Economist, Time, the Christian Science Monitor, ITN, the Daily Mail, Japan's Nippon TV and Ashay TV, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, NTV Moscow, Brussels TV and Italy's Rai TV—the list of visitors and callers goes on and on. Al Jazeera Net Chief Editor Abdulaziz Almahmoud reports that their website's monthly hit count rose from pre-September-11 levels of around one million to over seven million.

When the bin Laden videotape aired, many of organizations didn't want to wait six hours for the CNN embargo on Al-Jazeera footage to run out—so, despite Al-Jazeera's threats of legal action, they took the footage anyway. CNN then decided to relax the embargo portion of the deal to allow Al-Jazeera to make money on their material. Al-Ali reportedly commented, regarding a broadcaster who had pirated Al-Jazeera footage and then approached the channel for a deal, that "of course there's a deal. We're sending them a bill." continued

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Al-Jazeera newsroom

Octavia Nasr, Ibrahim Helal

Hayfa Shawkat

Top to bottom: In the Al-Jazeera newsroom; Chief Editor Ibrahim Helal with CNN's Octavia Nasr; Executive Secretary Hayfa Shawkat fields calls from around the globe

Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo