Mohamed Jasim Al Ali, Managing Director, Al Jazeera
By S. Abdallah
is Al Jazeera's coverage different from past years?
The big difference is that with each passing day we acquire experience. This year
we were able to apply our past experience by undertaking longer term and better
planning-where to put our journalists, how to get into difficult, even dangerous,
but newsworthy places.
What we want is what the
audience wants-good coverage. They are not concerned with our problems. We know
how to deal with difficult and dangerous events, which is why we had to move most
of our journalists from Afghanistan to Iraq. The important thing is to ask ourselves,
"What do the people, our audience expect from us as journalists covering global
How much of a hardship were those closures of your offices in Jordan, Kuwait,
and the Emirates?
Not long before this war, and quite suddenly, Al Jazeera's offices were closed
down in Kuwait and Jordan. But two weeks ago, they (Kuwait) allowed us to reopen
the bureau and at this moment we have two correspondents who got into Kuwait and
got embedded with American forces-Amr Al Khaki and Saad Al Anazi. One is operating
right now in Zubayr and the other in Basra, and of course inside Basra [Editor's
note: still under Iraqi control at the end of March during this interview] we
have two reporters, Muhammed Al Abdallah and Abdul Haq Sadah.
Why the change of heart?
I think after a while they realized we are not against any country. You know,
this business about being closed down has happened twice before.
Our correspondents have
videophones and ordinary satellite phones. Not bad for covering the news for television
in difficult areas. We just broadcast Amr Al Khaki via videophone interviewing
an American Marine in Zubayr earlier today. The quality is quite amazing. And
we continue to recruit new journalists or make even better use of existing personnel.
Take Omar Al Asawi. He's been with us from the beginning, a very good reporter
and the producer of the very popular documentary on the Lebanese civil war. Now
he is working on the history of the PLO.
Looking back, how would you characterize Al Jazeera's accomplishments?
Well, most of the quick media reports on Al Jazeera tend to point to Afghanistan
as the great break through for Al Jazeera. They ignore our unique coverage from
within Iraq of the Desert Fox air war in 1998. In fact that coverage got Al Jazeera
on the front page of the London Times.
True enough, and TBS takes note of that coverage when we review the rise of Al
Jazeera. We also call attention to your pioneering and quite courageous role in
providing coverage of Intifidat Al Aqsa from the beginning. But it was Afghanistan
that most dramatically put Al Jazeera on the map leading all the other TV news
organizations as far as coverage from within Afghanistan. How long will you be
able to dominate satellite news from the Arab and Islamic world in face of all
the new competition?
We will survive, and to do so, to hold our position, we must cover this war better
than other channels. If we are talking about Iraq, we are in three different locations-Mosul,
Basra, and of course Baghdad. We have five reporters in Baghdad and one in Mosul
and two in Basra, plus the two embedded with the Coalition in the south, as well
as two in the north in Kurdish Iraq, Yusuf Sharif and Wadah Hamfa, in Sulaimaniya
and Erbil. We are in fact covering the Iraqi opposition from those two positions.
And don't forget our strong presence in London and particularly in Washington
DC where Hafez Al Marazi runs a bureau that can field six reporters.
What are the problems you have faced?
The same problem we had when we couldn't get our reporter back into Northern Alliance
territory following the assassination of Shah Massoud by men posing as Arab TV
journalists: access. In this case, we don't have enough reporters embedded. The
problem isn't the Coalition. We were assigned places for four reporters but we
couldn't succeed in filling those positions because of the Kuwaiti ban on Al Jazeera
And of course there is
much more competition now. But I consider that competition to be healthy and it
will encourage us and everyone else to upgrade services. But how free is our competition,
how free are those other Arab channels-that's the question the viewer will ask.
Given that Al Jazeera is being positively wooed by the Coalition Centcom public
affairs people despite the occasional harsh words over some of the pictures you
have chosen to screen, have your problem with the advertising agencies eased over
the past year?
It's the same problem. The advertising agencies in the western countries, and
in the Arab world, are making decisions on where to place their advertising that
are not based on audience share. We should have the most advertising, and we don't
come anywhere near that, so the situation has not changed. In fact, it has gotten
worse - but that challenges us to seek more income from other sources. We pursue
the opportunity to earn income from cable operators, and we are selling pictures.
At the time of Afghanistan, we dealt only with CNN, but we have learned a lot
since then and now we deal successfully with ABC, Fox, ARD as well as CNN and
we have made deals with Malaysia, China, and Australia.
are your relations with the Egyptian authorities?
Not smooth. When we release news they are happy with, everything is fine. When
we report news they are not happy with, the atmosphere radically changes. Everything
is a variable. The relationship goes up and down.
What news about Al Jazeera's plan to launch an English-language channel?
We started only a week ago building a news room for the English channel which
we hope to launch early next year-perhaps in February, or March or April. In certain
aspects, this will be an independent operation from the Arabic channel but they
will share in basic product-pictures, news briefs, and facilities (new facilities
that will house the two television services and the two web sites) but they will
have their own reporters and presenters. We know this will be a much more difficult,
much more competitive, environment than that faced by the Arabic service. So we
must match that very competitive level of news gathering. And certainly the reporters
working for the English TV service and the English website can cooperate and exchange.
We expect good links there.
We are also planning to
launch the documentary channel in June or July. These will be documentaries presented
in Arabic. We will dub foreign language documentaries and well as produce our
own or acquire other Arabic language documentaries. According to our plan, about
65 percent of the documentaries will be dubbed and 35 percent will be produced
by ourselves or other locals in Arabic.
What is your financial situation? The last time we were in Doha you were about
to be cut off from your subsidy.
Al Ali: That
funding ended November 2001 and up until November 2002 we were breaking even.
Right now we are in the beginning of our second year and I believe we will break
even despite the expenses of war coverage because we are investing in a lot of
new projects which will eventually turn a profit for us. TBS