Jazeera: Voice of Arabia
/2003 English subtitles. Director - Tewfik Hakem. Producer -
Alain Taieb. RIFF International Production and ARTE France coproduction,
with TV5 Monde and le Centre National de la Cinématographie.
(52 minutes, color)
US Distributor: First Run Films Icarus (FRFI), 32 Court Street,
21st Floor, Brooklyn NY 11201, Tel (7180 488-8900, Fax (718)
488-8642, Email firstname.lastname@example.org,
By David Chambers, TBS Editorial Advisory Board
Choice of the 2003 Middle East Studies Association Film Festival,
Al-Jazeera: Voice of Arabia gives a zesty, post-9/11
taste of the controversial satellite television channel for
those unfamiliar with it, through a series of interviews with
and commentary from the channel's director and journalists,
interspersed with a review of milestone news stories.
lets Al Jazeera proudly proclaim its viewpoints: pro-Palestine,
pro-Arab, pro-democracy, pro-freedom of expression. Nearly a
decade after its inception, this manifesto remains shockingly
independent and daring. Al Jazeera's journalists are outspoken
and critical of the West for its racism as well as the Arab
World for what talk-show host Fayçal Al-Quassam calls
"a dictatorial, single-party culture which does not know
the meaning of dialogue."
Al-Jazeera: Voice of Arabia does not go beyond overview;
it remains a plate of appetizers with no main course. There
is no in-depth discussion of any difficult issues surrounding
the channel such as relations with the Arab World, inability
to privatize due to lack of advertising, its share in a global
debate over the nature of news broadcasting, or the differences
between the traditions of European journalism with its commentary
(a long, strong tradition in the Arab World) and American journalism
with its "unbiased" news reporting.
regular mention of the British training of many of Al Jazeera's
journalists, the documentary does not trace the history of Al
Jazeera. It is in fact a spin-off of Orbit's BBC-produced Arabic
news channel, following the 1996 scandal over the channel's
airing of an interview with London-based Saudi dissident Muhammad
Al-Masari.(1) To date, it remains amazing that the State of
Qatar would dare to accept these Saudi-rejected journalists
and underwrite and house a television news channel even more
outspoken than its Orbit original. The documentary contains
no discussion which compares and contrasts Al Jazeera with any
other international competitor, not BBC World Television or
another European news channel, nor CNN (some might suggest Fox)
or a possible host of American cable and satellite competitors.
interviewed expresses self-criticism or self-doubt, but, given
the channel's relative youth and the barrage of criticism heaped
upon it both in the Arab World and in the West (particularly
after 9/11), one could hardly expect much introspection, especially
from a documentary wholly dependent on the subject's full cooperation.
Nevertheless, it is a shortcoming that the documentary presents
neither person nor viewpoint outside Al Jazeera. Certainly,
Tewfik Hakem, who works with Radio France and Le Monde, is capable
of criticizing a subject: in a March 11, 2004, article in Le
Monde he suggests that Alhurra is a channel in search of a publicat
least, an Arab one. One wishes he had spiced up Al Jazeera:
Voice of Arabia with similar treatment. Without any outside
explanation, the documentary may find itself doomed to obscurity
in a few years, as the generally known controversies surrounding
the channel are forgotten. Nevertheless, Westerners (or, at
least, Americans) who are unfamiliar with Al Jazeera receive
a reasonably unedited presentation of its people and reporting.
documentary about Al Jazeera can only be in Al Jazeera-style
and must include interviews with founding members, other former
members, and current members of the organization, as well as
regional and international media experts and regional and international
competitors. That will have to wait, however, until political
pressures let up enough to allow the channel to breathe a little
self-criticism without being choked to death.
there is no discussion about Al Jazeera's professionalism, and
I would like to share a personal experience on this subject.
2003, Al Jazeera badly misquoted a prominent Arab official over
a highly sensitive issue. When asked, I had only one piece of
advice: take no action until calling Al Jazeera's news desk
in Doha, to make sure that the error was purely an accident
(or that the error would be treated as such, for the highly
cynical) rather than deliberate and political, as might appear,
given the degree of error. To their credit, Al Jazeera took
the following, immediate steps: they stopped running the story,
an erroneous follow-up reaction story, and erroneous subtext
that had been airing for hours. To their far greater credit,
however, Al Jazeera immediately offered to interview that Arab
official at the nearest Al Jazeera studio-all less than four
hours from the time when the official first discovered their
error. Thus, an error actually turned bad not just to good but
to better. Offhand I (a watcher of daily and often hourly news)
cannot recall seeing the same from any television news service,
ever. Perhaps it is this experience that leads me to wish for
so much more from this or any other discussion of Al Jazeera.
thinking about showing Al-Jazeera: Voice of Arabia, here
are some content details to consider.
include: Mohamed Jassam Al-Ali (Qatar's [managing] director),
M'hamed Kirchéne (journalist), Khadidja Bengana (anchor),
Jivara Al-Badouri (Palestine), Teyssir Allouni (Afghanistan),
Youssef Al-Chouli (Qandahar), Hafez Al-Mirazi (Washington),
Ibrahim Hellal (editor-in-chief), Yousri Fouda (investigative
journalist for Top Secret), Fayçal Al-Quassam (host of
Opposite Direction), Leila Smati (sports journalist), and Sheikh
Youssef Al-Karadaoui (regular guest on Life & Sharia).
include: the Israeli siege of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
in Bethlehem, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers
on 9/11, broadcasts of videotapes showing Osama Bin Laden, contrasting
American reactions-from interviews with Donald Rumsfeld and
Condoleeza Rice (who expresses near-joy at being on Al Jazeera
as a beacon of free press in the Middle East) to the bombing
of Al Jazeera's Kabul office by Northern Alliance forces two
months into the war against the Taleban, Guantanamo prisoners,
a live and explosive exchange between an Algerian dissident
and former prime minister Redha Malek, the Islamic Women's Olympics
in Tehran, and discussion of oral sex between married couples.
Note: All spellings in this article follow those used in
the documentary. Sometimes these spelling change within the
documentary itself, and more often than not they differ from
more English forms (e.g., the documentary lists Opposite Direction's
host as Fayçal Al-Quassam, who appears in The New York
Times as Faisal al-Kasim). That is no new problem for Arabic-to-English
transliteration, especially when a third party like French is
involved, but it may make further research difficult for non-Arabic
(and non-French) English speakers.TBS
(1) See John
F. Burn's "Arab TV Gets a New Slant: Newscasts Without Censorship,"
New York Times, July 4, 1999; also "Al Jazeera, Radio
Sawa Founders Report on Media in the Middle East," UCLA International
Institute, November 4, 2003, http://international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=5087.