Al Jazeera: Voice of Arabia

(2002 original /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 mailroom@frif.com, URL www.frif.com.


Review
By David Chambers, TBS Editorial Advisory Board

The Viewer's 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.

The documentary 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."

Nevertheless, 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.

Despite 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.

No one 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 public—at 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.

The ultimate 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.

Strangely, there is no discussion about Al Jazeera's professionalism, and I would like to share a personal experience on this subject.

During 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.


Contents

For anyone thinking about showing Al-Jazeera: Voice of Arabia, here are some content details to consider.

Interviews 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).

Milestones 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.

Transliteration 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.

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