By S. Abdallah Schleifer
Adnan Sharif, who took
over as manager of Al Jazeera from Mohammed Jasim Al Ali in the spring, is one
of the Al Jazeera's founders, having made the initial studies for the channel
while he was in London, where he started work in 1989 as a current affairs and
news producer and presenter on the BBC World Service's Arabic radio programs.
When the BBC launched BBC Arabic Television with Orbit, Sharif plotted Al Jazeera's
birth with Sami Haddad and Jamil Azza, joined later by Faisal Qasim, all of whom
worked at the new channel during its formative period.
*Approximatly three weeks after this interview took place on October 5, 2003,
Adnan Sharif was replaced as manager by Waddah Khanfar (see
Stop Press: Al Jazeera
Gets New Manager).
Schleifer: Which came
firstthe idea of an Arab-based 24-hour all-news channel or the crisis between
Orbit and BBC which resulted in the collapse of the BBC Arabic TV channel, and
from where so many of your core staff came?
The idea of Al Jazeera came first. When I joined Al Jazeera during the studies
and planning phase, I resigned from BBC Arabic TV, which was still broadcasting
at that time. We had a vision, that after CNN and BBC there was a new era for
satellite TV. We thought a service like that, a professional service in Arabic
and based in an Arab country, could be very useful as a 24-hour TV news channel.
I was 100 percent convinced when we were advancing this idea that the future would
be specialized channels - news, sports, etc., but initially there was resistance
to this idea in Qatar.
And we had a vision of
a channel that would reach far more people than BBC Arabic was capable of. Remember
that BBC Arabic was encrypted; it was not free to air. It could not achieve the
sort of audience that wanted what Al Jazeera would provide them with. I worked
in Qatar from 1972 to 1989. I knew Qatar and the Qatari government had cancelled
the ministry of information even before Al Jazeera was launched, positioning itself
as the logical home for the practice of free and professional TV journalism and
public affairs programming.
Schleifer: What about
There were no restraints. We (Qatar as well as Al Jazeera) needed the credibility
of a free broadcaster originating in the Arab world.
Schleifer: Are you
still planning to launch an English channel?
We intend to make use of the existing Arabic news-gathering capacity of Al Jazeera
for the Al Jazeera English-language service, just as we (in BBC Arabic Radio)
were an Arabic cell within an overwhelmingly English-language BBC World Service.
And this will favorably impact on our English-language website because it means
there will be more English-language material originating from Al Jazeera than
at present. We will launch the English channel as soon as possible.
Schleifer: Do you see
your management as a continuation of the previous management led by Mohammed Jasim
management comes as a successor to a previous successful management. What we are
trying for is to enhance the programming. For instance, because we no longer carry
sports since Al Jazeera is in process of launching a sports channel, we now have
more room for more news and public affairs programming. Similarly, we have an
Al Jazeera documentary channel which will launch soon. The sports channel will
be launched, we hope, by the beginning of November, under its own management;
they are already doing occasional transmission of live matches. So the absence
of sports and documentaries will give us 25 percent more broadcasting time for
increasing our news and public affairs programming, and primarily the public affairs
Schleifer: Was there
any connection between your appointment and the accusation shortly after the fall
of Baghdad that four people at Al Jazeera had been secretly recruited by Saddam's
was a form of pressure on us. There was nothing there in the end. But we are under
pressure all the time.
Schleifer: What about
the Taysir Allouni case?
think Taysir Allouni is a dedicated journalist. We are supporting him legally
and from our side as journalists, and we are talking to NGOs that get involved
in an issue like this one. We must support him because he is one of our best correspondents.
And all he sought was scoops like any journalist and he was not the only journalist
who met those people from Al Qaeda.
Schleifer: How are
you handling the ban by Iraq's Interim Governing Council (IGC) on your covering
GC activities in Baghdad?
They implemented the ban in a limited sense whereby we cannot attend sessions
of governing council, and it ends in a few days.
An Al Jazeera cameraman
was arrested three days ago. More than ten of our people have been arrested and
released since the fall of Baghdad. The tapes are always confiscated. Sometimes
they return the tapes and sometimes not. Actually, 15 of our people have been
arrested. Al Jazeera is more independent, more aggressive in seeking news, which
means that as journalists you seek contacts with the opposition or the resistance.
Our office in Baghdad
is seeking some sort of understanding with the Coalition that will satisfy them
without compromising our journalistic criteria of correct news-seeking behavior.
As for overall relations
with America, some of the declarations or comments from American officials have
been critical and some of these remarks could be characterized as offensive. In
one case, I discovered it was a misinterpretation or mistranslation that led to
American over-reaction: an Al Jazeera news report that should have been translated
as referring to the "cordoning off" of a house, was translated as reporting that
the house was under siege.
Schleifer: How are
your relations with the Arab states?
Our bureaus that were closed down then are still closed, except for Jordan. Kuwait
is still closed but we have resumed work in Morocco. We seem to be under less
attack and there seems to be more understanding of our mission.
Schleifer: Is the channel
still interviewing Israelis?
We are always interviewing Israelis. In fact other stations that never interviewed
Israelis before do so now. We sometimes refer to this as "the Al Jazeera effect."
Schleifer: The last
time TBS talked with Al Jazeera, you had no competition. Now you have itfrom
Al Arabiya, Abu Dhabi, and to a lesser degree the Al Hayat/LBC news center.
To be frank, we don't think of them as competition. They copy us. As a viewer
I feel they are copying us. We see ourselves as competing with CNN and BBC World.
As a new channel, Al Arabiya
attracted people who wanted to see a new product, but basically we have a stable
audience. On my last flight to England, I watching a Hollywood movie called "The
Core." In the movie the world stops rotating and this is announced by CNN, BBC,
Fox, ABC, CBS, NBCand Al Jazeera. TBS
S. Abdallah Schleifer
is TBS publisher and senior editor.