S. Abdallah Schleifer, TBS Publisher and Senior Editor
In a fast-changing
world, easy observations remain in consciousness long after
they have become invalid. So it is with the conceit that Al
Jazeera put Qatar on the map and not visa versa, or the variant
that Al Jazeera is more important as a regional power than the
State of Qatar. That may have been true eight years ago, but
even then it was a theoretically dubious proposition since it
was only Qatar or its newly installed Emir, HH Sheikh Hamad
Bin Khalifa Al Thani who had the vision among all Arab rulers
of hosting and financing on Arab soil the first relatively free-wheeling,
independently managed, Arab satellite television channel. Until
then relatively independent pan-Arab satellite broadcasting
carrying serious news bulletins had been confined to the United
Kingdom, with MBC operating out of London and the BBC Arabic
Television Service producing for Orbit, which in turn was based
All that has happened
since follows in the wake of Sheikh Hamad's daring decision:
the flowering of Abu Dhabi's news center under the leadership
of Nart Bouran and his boss Ali Al Ahmed; MBC's move to Dubai
and its extraordinary expansion to include a 24/7 news channel,
Al Arabiya, and a serious documentary production and acquisition
company, O3, as well as Channel Two's free-to-air competition
as provider of Western entertainment to Showtime and Orbit's
Pay TV offerings; and now the dramatic re-invention of the Dubai
TV network (see Dubai:
Watch This Space! in this issue).
Qatar is now in the
midst of a vast development program that reflects a position
acquired over the past decade as the world's second largest
producer and exporter of natural gas, which has surpassed its
comparatively modest but very profitable oil industry. Banks,
luxury hotels, up-market residential districts, universities,
schools, hospitals, and new ministry offices are springing up
everywhere along the curving coastline. Qatar's vast acquisitions
for an Islamic museum that will no doubt be the most impressive
in the region when it opens have roiled London's art market
for the past few years but will in time be richly mined for
cultural documentaries by Al Jazeera
One is reminded of
Jeddah and Riyadh in the mid-70s but with none of the chaos
that characterized those boom towns at the time. Right now in
Doha there are at least 200 major construction projects underway.
Interestingly, the vast majority of construction projects involve
American companies and the whole operation proceeds with far
more order and openness in the process than anywhere else in
the development of the region save possibly Dubai. Somehow,
and its not easy to explain, this amazing transparency and Qatar's
almost stealth-like movements from strength to strength are
reflected in the complex mix of its subtle and effective politics,
much of which plays off the presence of Al Jazeera.
So it was Al Jazeera's
talk shows and sometimes its reporting which more than any particular
pan-Arab politician stirred anti-Americanism in the region,
while Qatar built a military base to host the very US/Coalition
Central Command that directed the invasion of Iraq. Qatar is
a haven for Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi's friendlier face of the
Muslim Brotherhood (see Interview
with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in this issue)--friendlier,
that is, save for his past devotion to Hamas, with its penchant
to sacralize terror and its rejectionist attitude towards the
two-state solution. Yet Qatar has undertaken initiatives rivaled
only by Jordan in seeking an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
relevant for Al Jazeera about all of these emerging signs of
financial and political strength is that Qatar is increasingly
generating resources--intellectual, cultural, and scientific--at
a global level of competence that not only did not exist when
Al Jazeera opened shop in 1996 but do not exist so significantly
anywhere else in the Arab world, including Dubai.
of the Doha Debates.
Over the past year,
Qatar's various state institutions like the Gulf Studies Center
and the Qatar Foreign Ministry have collaborated with such prominent
think tanks and NGOs as the Brookings Institution and the Council
on Foreign Relations from the USA, Chatham House (The Royal
Institute of International Affairs) in the UK, France's International
and Strategic Relations Institute and the Arab Press Club, Paris,
the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the UK, and the
Arab Organization for Human Rights in Egypt, to bring many hundreds
of outstanding figures, both academic and professional, in political
thought, development theory, and the natural sciences to Qatar
to participate in an almost endless stream of impressive open-forum
conferences and symposiums that are also media events of substance
for Al Jazeera's reporters and camera crews, which haunt the
hotel lobbies for on-scene sound bites or to corral available
delegates and bring them back to the station for studio interviews.
Only in Qatar could
one find former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, Sheikh
Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk,
and a leader of one of Pakistan's most militant fundamentalist
parties sharing the same platform at one of these extraordinary
conferences, one that also happened to have Bill Clinton as
its keynote speaker.
The wide variety
of discourse at these conferences, and the outstanding personalities
participating and engaged in articulate but polite debate have
broadened Al Jazeera's previously all too often almost claustrophobic
reliance on talk show shouting matches between fundamentalists
and secularist militants, be they liberal or Arab Nationalist.
building interacts with Al Jazeera's own plans to expand into
a satellite bouquet. The central pivot for this sort of resource
building is the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and
Community Development, chaired and actively led by HH. Sheikha
Moza Bint Nasser Al-Misnad, who established the foundation as
a focus for the political and educational reform of Qatar and,
by example, of perhaps the entire region, based on the principle
frequently articulated by the Emir, Sheikh Hamad, that a country
(and again presumably a region's) long-term, sustainable, development
can only be ensured by releasing the potential of its people.
Over the past ten
years, Qatar Foundation has established a new Education City
on the outskirts of Doha that now houses branch campuses of
leading American universities. The branch campuses include Cornell
Medical College, an engineering school run by Texas A&M,
Carnegie Mellon's Qatar campus for business and computer science,
the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts, and
perhaps most incredibly of all as a resource for Al Jazeera
correspondents and talk show hosts, the RAND Corporation's RAND-Qatar
Policy Institute, which will provide world-class research and
analysis not just for Qatar's government, private sector, and
growing number of NGOs, but for the entire region extending
to North Africa and South Asia. Sheikha Moza serves as co-chair
of the Institute along with Michael Rich, executive vice president
of the RAND Corporation. Still more American university-based
branch colleges will be recruited in the near future and the
entire Education City project is directed by Dr. Charles E.
Young, who served as President of UCLA for twenty-nine years.
Education City also
houses the studios of Al Jazeera's projected Children's Channel
which will be part of the Al Jazeera bouquet of channels when
it launches in June 2005. It is, however, a thoroughly autonomous
Qatar Foundation operation that in the words of its managing
director, Mahmoud Bouneb, owes its existence entirely to Sheikha
Moza's personal initiative. "It never would have happened
without her," says Bouneb, a veteran Tunisian journalist
who has lived and worked as an Arab broadcaster in Europe and
North America for the past thirty years.
Sebastian and Alexandra Willis
From the perspective
of television journalism the most immediately relevant and recent
undertaking by the Qatar Foundation is The Doha Debates, moderated
on a monthly basis by Tim Sebastian, whose BBC World program
Hard Talk sets the standard for tough but civil intellectual
confrontation. Sebastian's producer Alexandra (Ali) Willis has
left London and the show for Qatar to produce The Doha Debates,
which borrow from the Oxford Union format. The first debate
held in mid-October was to the resolution that "This House
believes Arab governments aren't interested in genuine reform."
What was significant
from the point of view of the Qatar Foundation was that in addition
to Sheikha Moza and a host of Qatari dignitaries and foreign
diplomats attending the first debate, the audience was largely
made up of students at Education City, both Qatari and of other
Arab nationalities, who were encouraged by Tim Sebastian to
ask hard questions and finally to vote on the issue, which,
incidentally, they affirmed. For Sheika Moza, the primary aim
of the Debates is to enhance the students' education in democracy
and freedom of speech; to learn, in the words of a Qatar Foundation
official, "that an ideological opponent's view can also
have validity." For Ali Willis, who had spent two very
intense weeks at the Qatar Foundation preparing for this event
under Sheikha Moza's direction, this debate and the ones that
follow on a monthly basis are "a real and actual demonstration
of where Qatar the country is heading. They are a public expression
of the type of country they are trying to build here."
In his opening remarks
Sebastian suggested that the Qatar Debates echoed the free discourse
of the earliest centuries of Islam starting at the time of the
Prophet Mohammed and "the spirit of debate and inquiry
that characterized his life
when men and women of all
convictions would argue with him in an atmosphere of enlightenment,
creativity, and mutual respect."
For Al Jazeera this
can be proof that tough but civil and very relevant debate can
take place on an Arab stage that transcends what has often been
the more typical formula of one anti-American debating another
anti-American. In support of the motion (which did not include
any exemption or escape clause for Qatar) were Dr. Saad Eddin
Ibrahim, AUC professor and human rights activist, and Rime Allaf,
a London-based broadcaster and associate fellow at Chatham House.
Against the motion were Hussein Shobokshi, who heads the leading
research and consultancy company in Saudi Arabia and as a board
member of the Chamber of Commerce in the Hijaz has helped pioneer
more open public discourse in Saudi Arabia, and Adel Darwish,
a British journalist who has worked for both European and Arab
Sheikh, senior editor of Al Jazeera
At the end of November,
the Doha Debates tackled an equally if not more controversial
topic: that "This House believes in the separation of mosque
and state." Arguing the issue was an extraordinary panel:
against the resolution were Dr. Mohamed Mahathir, Malaysia's
long-serving former prime minister, and Laith Shubeilat, a Jordanian
Islamist spokesman and former member of parliament; in support,
the Egyptian author and intellectual Tariq Heggy and the Sudanese
scholar and former Islamist journalist Dr. Abdul Wahab El Affendi,
now the head of the Center for the Study of Democracy and Islam
at Westminster University. Again there was an extraordinary
subtlety in opinion that far more reflects the nuances of actual
political thought than the past performances on Arab satellite
talk shows. Mahathir is not an Islamist and the largest opposition
party contesting Mahathir's party is Islamist. But while Mahathir
headed a secular government, he also functioned as does his
successor in a constitutional monarchy with an established church,
which happens to be Islam, and whose head is the reigning Sultan
(which is remarkably like the English model.) But at Mahathir's
side was Shubeilat, a committed Islamist. Equally nuanced on
the other side of the House, Tarek Heggy supported the separation
of mosque and state but he is not a "fundamentalist secularist"
like Ataturk or the militant secularists of the European Left
and he has written most sympathetically about the personal piety
of the Sufis. Sharing his position for the separation of state
and mosque, a disillusioned post-Islamist who once championed
Hassan Turabi. Quite amazing.
For Al Jazeera International,
the long awaited English-language channel, the Doha Debates
are an obvious resource, not just to be reported on, but to
be broadcast in entirety live (since the Debates are in all
English) when the channel finally launches in November 2005.
the panelists represented the possibilities for Arab satellite
television when it is prepared to transcend talk shows that
quickly degenerate into shrill shouting matches; a goal that
Al Jazeera has adopted for itself in the self-critical months
that have followed the Invasion of Iraq.
That sense of self-criticism
and a readiness to more consciously embrace professionalism
that now pervades the highest levels of Al Jazeera editorial
management was reflected in this summer's first annual Al Jazeera
World Forum. Journalists from around the world gathered at the
Intercontinental Doha Hotel in mid-July to confront the issue
of "Changing Media Perceptions: Professionalism and Cultural
Diversity." Among the participants were Martin Bell, former
UK broadcaster and politician; Al Hayat's Abdul Wahab
Badrakhan; Al Jazeera anchor and journalist Mohamed Kraishan,
and British Royal Navy spokesman Lt. Commander Steven Tatham,
all of whom quite frankly discussed relations between media
and governments, both Arab and Western, a somewhat ironic topic
since a few weeks later Iraq's interim government ordered Al
Jazeera's Baghdad office closed for a month for "inciting
violence and hatred."
The Iraqi government
was alluding to pictures of hostages and the statements of the
hostage takers broadcast by Al Jazeera, an issue which figured
in the first panel's discussion of the ethics involved in live
telecasts of armed conflict which touched on the sensitive issue
of how pictures of the dead and wounded are presented as well
as the hostage tape issue (see also To
Show or Not to Show? Graphic Images in TV Media by Paul Cochrane
in this issue). Again, there was reasoned discussion and debate.
Eric Wishart, Agence France Press editor-in-chief, posed the
dilemma of where to draw the line. "Do we broadcast an
entire beheading? Where does news end and morbid curiosity begin?"
he asked. "You can't cover up events, and you can't be
a tool for propaganda."
an impressively wide range of Arab editorial perspective, starting
with Al Ahram's house Islamist Fahmi Howeidy, who repeated
his often expressed accusation that international media is at
least implicitly part of a post-9/11 American imperial conspiracy
to destroy all Islamist movements, be they terrorist or not
and impose an imperial project, and including the veteran Egyptian
broadcaster Hamdi Kandil (now with Dubai TV), who has always
been an outspoken Arab nationalist/socialist critic of Islamist
as well as of American policies. In contrast, Abdul Wahab Badrakhan
of Al Hayat reflects moderate and liberal Arab opinion.
Majorie Miller of
the Los Angeles Times, responding to Howeidy, insisted
that media in the Western world can never be perceived as monolithic.
David Rhodes, from Fox News (and whose presence in Doha spoke
to the extraordinary broadness of this gathering) replied to
Howeidy's singling out international media in general and American
media in particular. Rhodes observed that all media have their
biases--a position remarkably similar to one taken by an Al
Jazeera spokesman during the invasion of Iraq, and recorded
in the documentary Control Room. However, according to
Rhodes, it was their journalistic responsibility to subdue those
biases on a daily basis, a critically important afterthought
which the Al Jazeera spokesman significantly did not make.
Perhaps most importantly,
this first Al Jazeera World Forum presented a perfect opportunity
for Al Jazeera to showcase its new Code of Ethics, preceded
by a brief introduction entitled "Vision and Mission."
If professionalism is now the hot word in Arab satellite TV
journalism since the Iraqi War, as became apparent during my
last Gulf tour (see Gulf
Media Mood: As Good As Ever in TBS 12), it is Al Jazeera
which seems adamant in taking the lead in setting the pace for
professionalism, just as they had set the pace in the past,
one could suggest, for significant lapses in professionalism.
Both the "Vision
and Mission" and the Code are impressive:
is an Arab media service with a global orientation. With its
motto 'the opinion and the other opinion' it acts as a forum
for plurality seeking the truth while observing the principles
of professionalism within an institutional framework.
to promote public awareness of issues of local and global concern,
Al Jazeera aspires to be a bridge between peoples and cultures
to support the right of the individual to acquire information
and strengthen the values of tolerance, democracy and the respect
of liberties and human rights."
The Code of Ethics
"Being a globally
oriented media service, Al Jazeera shall resolutely adopt the
following code of ethics in pursuing the vision and mission
it has set for itself:
"1- Adhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage,
fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity giving
no priority to commercial or political; considerations over
to get to the truth and declare it in our dispatches, programmes
and news bulletins unequivocally in a manner which leaves no
doubt about its validity and accuracy.
"3- Treat our
audiences with due respect and address every issue or story
with due attention to present a clear, factual and accurate
picture while giving full consideration to the feelings of victims
of crime, war, persecution and disaster, their relatives, our
viewers, and to individual privacies and public decorum.
fair and honest media competition without allowing it to adversely
affect our standards of performance and thereby 'having a scoop'
would not become an end in itself.
diverse points of view and opinions without bias and partiality.
diversity in human societies with all their races, cultures,
beliefs, values, and intrinsic individualities so as to present
an unbiased and faithful reflection of their societies.
a mistake when it occurs, promptly correct it and ensure it
does not recur.
transparency in dealing with the news and its sources while
adhering to internationally established practices concerning
the rights of these sources.
between news material, opinion, and analysis to avoid the snares
of speculation and propaganda.
"10- Stand by
colleagues in the profession and give them support when required,
particularly in the light of the acts of aggression and harassment
to which journalists are subjected at times. Cooperate with
Arab and international journalistic unions and associations
to defend freedom of the press." Doha, 12th July 2004."
It is interesting
to sit quietly in the office of Al Jazeera's chief editor Ahmed
Sheikh while he and Majid Khadr, the head of assignments, review
tapes of field reports featured on yesterday's news bulletins.
According to Jihad Ballout, Al Jazeera's official spokesman,
Ahmed Sheikh (an old-time BBC-er) was one of the instrumental
figures, along with managing director Wadah Khanfar and senior
producers, in putting together the Code, so it was interesting
to see him struggling to implement it. On the screen, there
is a report from Gaza and Ahmed is upset by the footage of bloody
close-ups of the Palestinian dead taped in a Gaza hospital morgue,
the sort of close-ups that were once standard operating proceedure
at Al Jazeera, particularly when covering the invasion of Iraq.
Ahmed is adamant:
"I don't want those bloody close-ups. And this story is
just a death toll report. Why do we do a field report like that?
We could do the report from here. That's all it is, a death
toll story," he tells the Assignment Desk head. It's clear
that Ahmed is concerned about balance.
But he is also a
man very much committed to field reporting and most of his critical
comments had to do with production values--a "piece to
camera" ("on-camera closer" in the parlance of
American TV news) that ran too long, narrative sentences in
another story that were written too long. There follows an excellently
shot and thoughtfully written piece on the dispute in Cairo
over unifying the call to prayer by Cairo bureau chief Hussein
Abdul Ghani. Ahmed and I are impressed. Ahmed thinks Abdul Ghani's
narrative would be improved if his sentences were shorter, but
that's almost nit-picking. The story opens wisely with a strong
picture at the adjacent Sultan Hassan and Rifa'i mosques, goes
on to get both sides of the dispute and then like a jazz composition
returns to the same location at the end. "Its breathing,
as it moves along," says Ahmed, "by making good use
of natural sound." Balanced, well-edited, and beautiful
pictures, this report is an indicator of the strong stories
that Al Jazeera is cultivating, stories that hold up without
pictures of violent confrontation
I'm also impressed
when I add up all the stories shot in the field that were reviewed
that morning--a story from Cairo on the meat crisis, a woman
in Eritrea who gave birth in difficult desert conditions to
quintuplets, a report from Bosnia on the struggle over changing
the name of a street in Sarejevo honoring Marshal Tito, the
Gaza report, and the story from Cairo on the dispute over unifying
the call to prayer as well as several other field reports they
had already screened before I turned up and that I had missed.
I have the distinct
feeling that Al Jazeera is more loyal to television journalism's
cardinal craft of field reporting than the BBC, CNN, or the
US networks, who all increasingly seem to be passing over the
chance to do solid TV journalism. That means a reporter takes
the time to actually check out a story, then go out into the
field, shoot it, and then write up a script and voice it over
for a final product that illuminates the images on screen, but
that's being increasingly passed up in favor of the easier,
quicker on-the-scene live appearances from the reporter, who
usually can do little more than interpret an event already described
by the anchor/presenter using wire copy for substance and asking
his or her own reporter, by satellite, to respond with some
instant and generally obvious analysis. Perhaps Al Jazeera's
senior producer Samir Khader was right after all when he claimed,
in Control Room, that no other channel in the world was
doing as good a job reporting the news as Al Jazeera. If that
wasn't necessarily the case one and a half years ago, it appears
more and more to be the case now.
But to be able to
do field reports, a channel has to be able to get its reporters
in the field. That has become very difficult for Al Jazeera,
considering the number of places in the Arab world where it
cannot operate but must rely on agency footage. For Ahmed this
is a serious problem: "We shouldn't go on like that. We
must find a way without intrinsically compromising our editorial
policy or integrity, but we must find a way to cover these countries
and the sooner the better."
Ballout, media relations
Jihad Ballout, whose
forte is media relations, is more upbeat. He insists, "We
have shed our defense mechanism and you will see our relations
improving in the region. Yes, we are bending over backwards
to achieve a presence in places in the region where we don't
have that presence, but we will never compromise our core editorial
values. We are open for dialogue, we are reaching out and through
back channels we have made major progress. We have reopened
our bureau in Morocco and we are recovering our position in
Algeria. And we have done this without crossing our own red
Back in Ahmed Sheikh's
office screening tape, I find the field reports to be generally
impressive, but Ahmed wants them to be better. The problem,
he says, is that there is no long tradition in the Arab world
for field reporting. That's true enough. Field reporting didn't
exist in the region until thirteen years ago. "Now that
we have produced a Code of Ethics, we are working on a style
guide for reporters and producers to better familiarize themselves
with the problems involved in field reporting.
"I asked a reporter
the other day to do a story from Istanbul at the very moment
an EU Council was meeting to decide whether Turkey's candidacy
for EU membership would be moved forward. Now Turkey is a divided
house in its sense of identity, on one hand with Europe and
on the other hand of its Muslim world identity. The day he did
this report there was a marathon race going on in Istanbul and
the runners were to cross the bridge that connects Turkey in
continental Europe and Turkey in Asia. Instead of using that
shot with its powerful symbolism our reporter opened with a
general view of Istanbul. That happened because too many of
our reporters don't think visually yet .They don't see the story
in visual terms because of the dominant literary tradition;
we are trying to establish a visual tradition."
Part of that process
has meant insisting on reporters producing a standard script--visuals
on one side, narrative on the other. Ahmed says, "I've
told my deputies that if a reporter doesn't use that format--which
stimulates thinking visually given the driving role of the video
portion of a standard script--then they should reject the story."
What about past problems,
like Al Jazeera's tendency, in-studio, to romanticize Bin Ladin
during the first days leading up to the Afghan invasion and
in its aftermath with the fall of the Taliban? The answer or
cure according to Ahmed Sheikh is more field reporting: "I
reported from Kabul in 2000 when we opened our bureau there.
I reported on the Taliban, on what had happened to the educational
system, stories like that. I wish I could show you those reports
to see if you consider that I was romanticizing the Taliban.
I don't think so.
we are putting things in order but in a slow, gradual, and fair
manner. I think that firm but gradual and slow changes are critical,
because when people comprehend why the changes are essential,
then the changes will endure."