Michael C. Hudson
officials and supporters of the Bush Administration's policies
in the Middle East have waged a sustained campaign against the
Al Jazeera Arabic satellite channel. Al Jazeera has also been
widely noticed, and criticized, in the (non-governmental) public
debate on Middle East issues. It has become so notorious that
it is satirized on light-night TV talk shows in the US. The
paper describes the debate over "the Al Jazeera effect"
and the Administration's campaign against it. The first part
will analyze Al Jazeera's overall coverage of the Arab Middle
East, with particular attention to its reporting on major conflicts
like Palestine and Iraq, but also on its relatively "non-political"
programming and the aesthetics or style of its presentations.
The second part will describe American attitudes toward Al Jazeera
and specific steps the US government has taken to curb or shape
Al Jazeera's coverage. The third part describes the responses
of Al Jazeera and its backers and supporters to these pressures.
In part four, the paper goes on to posit that Al Jazeera's construction
of Middle Eastern political realities fundamentally contradicts
the Administration's. Al Jazeera frames US involvement in the
region as a form of imperialism and domination; Washington's
self-image is that of a benign world power without ulterior
motives seeking to reform the region for its own good and America's.
The final part is a critique of Washington's policies. The paper
notes the contradiction between America's support for pluralism,
debate, and freedom of expression and its pressures on a media
outlet that it claims is undermining America's policies and
reputation. It contends that the rapid spread of global information
technologies, exemplified by satellite TV, are a powerful agent
for enlarging the political arena in the Middle East, rendering
more important than before the "hearts and minds"
factor. It argues that the United States should welcome such
developments rather than trying to "kill the messenger"
who carries unpleasant news. Washington's counter-efforts to
win hearts and minds through "public diplomacy" and
propaganda are unlikely to succeed if Washington's policies
continue to evoke deeply negative responses in Arab public opinion.
America, it concludes, should remain true to its liberal principles
and support rather than suppress "the free marketplace
of ideas" in the Middle East.
a story about the collision of two forces that are each, in
their respective and contradictory ways, reshaping the contemporary
Arab world -- the new information technologies, especially satellite
television, and America's project to secure the region, a quest
being carried out with new energy and determination since the
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On one level, the agents of change
share the goal of transforming the region. An Al Jazeera staff
member interviewed in Doha in 2002 told me that he saw the channel
as a "liberating force" in a stagnant and authoritarian
Arab world, while on the American side the President himself
has set a goal to bring freedom to this benighted region, by
force if necessary, in order to terminate the threat of "Islamist
terrorism" against the United States. But the "Al
Jazeera effect," while opening up new political space,
has created an opportunity for anti-American sentiments to be
voiced and, perhaps, anti-American activities to be encouraged.
And the "American effect," while supporting civil
society and limited political participation, also has inadvertently
stimulated nationalist as well as religious resistance to what
is widely seen as the neo-imperialist agenda of a superpower,
many of whose policies in the region are detested.
is being played out across the Arab and Islamic world. It influences
the domestic politics of every country in the region by shaking
established structures and underlining sociopolitical contradictions.
The twin transformations both weaken and strengthen authoritarian
government. They energize societies, but at the same time heighten
societal cleavages. They accentuate the global, but simultaneously
stimulate the local. Most observers agree that fundamental changes
are occurring, but they reach no consensus on the nature and
direction of these changes.
unfolds on a much smaller canvas. It takes place mostly in Washington,
DC and it involves only hundreds of people, not millions. It
is the story of the relationship between an agent of social
change -- the Al Jazeera bureau -- and an agent of political-military
change -- certain elements of the US government. The relationship
has not been static, but it would be simplistic to describe
it as one of "love-hate." In the beginning, less than
a decade ago, it appeared to be "love at first sight."
Washington and "the chattering classes" that influence
American policy welcomed the advent of an Arab media venture
based on a Western model (the BBC) that was prepared to challenge
existing political orthodoxies in the region, even to the point
of including Israeli spokesmen in its programming. For their
part, the creators of Al Jazeera and their backers -- notably
the ruling family of Qatar -- were seeking to open the minds
(if not the hearts) of Arabs everywhere to a global community
and sought to bring international standards to their profession.
To them, American policies toward Israel and Palestine were
a problem but America's liberal values and the remarkable societal
accomplishments that derived from them were qualities to be
emulated. Pundits and professors, Americans and Arabs alike,
celebrated the advent of Arabic satellite TV.
honeymoon ended abruptly after 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan.
When Al Jazeera aired a videotape from Usama bin Laden (the
first of many to come), Washington was outraged, and with the
US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the relationship soured even more.
While deep animosities remain, both sides have sought to smooth
them over, and there has been introspection on both sides about
the nature of the problem. Serious issues persist, however.
Can Al Jazeera ever come to appear as "fair and balanced"
to the US government when its mission is to report candidly
on American behavior in the Arab World, "warts and all"?
Can Washington reconcile its principled commitment to a free
press with its perceived security and other national interests?
Many Americans nodded approval when Al Jazeera reported and
commented critically about various Arab governments and criticized
those governments when they sought to muzzle Al Jazeera. But
when the channel showed the US in an unfavorable light, and
when its commentators attacked America, the US government showed
that it had little more tolerance than the thin-skinned Arab
story of Al Jazeera needs no recitation here. Suffice it to
say that since its founding in 1996 it has become a household
word wherever Arabs gather in front of a television set. The
channel estimates it has 35-40 million viewers in the Arab and
Muslim world, four million in Europe, and 200,000 subscribers
in the United States. Even in the US it is now famous -- or
notorious -- well beyond the Arab community. When late-night
comedians on American TV joke about Al Jazeera there can be
little doubt that it has become mainstream. Journalists and
academics alike have seized on the "Al Jazeera effect"
as a phenomenon of huge importance. El-Nawawy and Iskandar's
popular book, Al Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is
Rattling Governments and Redefining Journalism (see review
in this issue), celebrates its accomplishments not just in terms
of news coverage but in airing issues that bind 300 million
Arabs to each other. The influential American columnist Thomas
Friedman wrote that it was "not only the biggest media
phenomenon to hit the Arab world since the advent of television,
it also is the biggest political phenomenon" (Friedman
2001). The distinguished Arab columnist Rami Khouri, who is
not uncritical of Al Jazeera, nevertheless states:
have a pretty good view of a broad range of American television,
and then I watch European television. Every single day, I flip
through the channels to see what they are reporting. I concluded
that if you wanted to see the most comprehensive coverage of
the Iraq war, you should watch Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, no
doubt about it whatsoever. I challenge anyone who has done an
empirical study to go back and do a content analysis, to look
at CNN or CBS or NBC, to look at European stations and at the
Arab satellite stations. Far and away, the Arab satellite stations
presented the most comprehensive coverage. They broadcast every
single American official press conference with live simultaneous
translation into Arabic, they aired the Iraqi government spokespersons,
they put on Arab commentators and analysts from other Arab countries,
they interviewed the American generals sitting at their control
centers in Doha, and they interviewed the mothers whose children
had just been killed by American bombs.
also were quick to recognize that Al Jazeera was, as Jon Alterman
put it, "a hot story" (Alterman 1998: 22). But it
was not just the ability to provide "breaking news"
that was of interest; it was also that the station "intentionally
seeks to be provocative in a region in which news reporting
has often been the private fiefdom of government information
ministries, and in which dissent has been tightly controlled."
Indeed, for Arab regimes, it is the popular Al Jazeera talk
shows that have been most intolerable, because of the often
heated and intemperate utterances of the participants, who sometimes
end up shouting at each other or walking off the set. Thus,
the Al Jazeera effect was a combination of two elements: dramatic
on-the-ground uncensored reporting, particularly in conflict
situations such as Palestine/Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan; and
the heated airing of the most taboo sociopolitical issues such
as religion vs. secularism, men vs. women, and rulers vs. ruled
that captured and captivated a large and growing Arab audience.
took an even more expansive view. For example, I argued in 2002
that "as a potential 'fourth estate' in Arab political
systems, the press has gained new power and dynamism through
the internet and satellite television" (Hudson 2002: 14-15).
I suggested that the information revolution, including the Al
Jazeera effect, was loosening the grip of authoritarian regimes
over their societies and "creating a new transnational
public space for Arabs to converse, debate, and inform one another."
I also noted that Islamists were proving particularly adept
at harnessing the new information technologies for their purposes.
In fairness, I must add that some social scientists specializing
on the Middle East, including valued colleagues of mine, thought
that such views were exaggerated, or at least premature. But
I believe that they were, and still are, worth considering.
and Actions Toward Al Jazeera
be a mistake to assume that American attitudes toward Al Jazeera
are or have been uniformly hostile. Initial assessments by influential
opinion-makers were, as noted, quite positive. On its face,
the phenomenon of transnational satellite television in the
Arab world seemed to represent a liberal step forward. It was
also noted approvingly that Al Jazeera was giving Israeli spokesmen
a platform, and the channel's credibility in the US was probably
strengthened by the criticism in some Arab quarters that it
was an Israeli tool.
agencies and officials weighed in on the positive side. The
State Department's annual Human Rights Report for 2000
commended Al Jazeera for "operating freely." Kenton
Keith, a former US ambassador to Qatar, told The Christian
Science Monitor (2002) that Al Jazeera "no more than
other news organizations, has a slant. Its slant happens to
be one most Americans are not comfortable with. ... But the
fact is that Al Jazeera has revolutionized media in the Middle
East. ... For the long-range importance of press freedom in
the Middle East and the advantages that will ultimately have
for the West, you have to be a supporter of Al Jazeera, even
if you have to hold your nose sometimes." Christopher Ross,
a former US ambassador to Syria and an official in the State
Department's public diplomacy program, had a kind word for Al
Jazeera even as he was criticizing it for airing a Bin Laden
tape: "You at Al Jazeera know that since Al Jazeera's inception,
the US administration has been a great admirer of the channel"
(El-Nawawy and Iskandar: 95). Al Jazeera even got favorable
treatment on 60 Minutes, the widely viewed CBS-TV newsmagazine
events of 9/11, the US-led attack on Afghanistan, and the airing
of the bin Laden tape certainly changed the mood. On October
3, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the visiting
Ruler of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad, to rein in the channel because
it was unbalanced, anti-American, and airing vitriolic and irresponsible
statements (Dadge: 63). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
criticized Al Jazeera for repeatedly playing images of Afghan
children injured by American bombs, asserting that this amounted
to propaganda for the Taliban (Dadge: 66). The conservative,
pro-Israeli wing of the American foreign policy establishment
weighed in shortly thereafter with a slashing critique of Al
Jazeera, written by Fouad Ajami in The New York Times Magazine.
When American planes bombed Al Jazeera's offices in Kabul on
November 13, 2001, Al Jazeera officials accused the US Air Force
of a deliberate attack. The Pentagon firmly denied it. A year
and a half later on April 8, 2003, when US planes bombed the
Al Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing one of its correspondents,
Tarek Ayyub, and wounding a cameraman, suspicions about American
intentions toward the channel were rekindled.
pressure on Al Jazeera has continued to the present day. In
the summer of 2003, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
attacked Al Jazeera for false reports and endangering US troops.
According to Robert Fisk, writing in London's The Independent
a day after US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed
that the Arabic Al Jazeera television channel was "inciting
violence" and "endangering the lives of American troops"
in Iraq, the station's Baghdad bureau chief has written a scathing
reply to the American administration, complaining that in the
past month the station's offices and staff in Iraq "have
been subject to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation
of news material, and multiple detentions and arrests, all carried
out by US soldiers ...."
of Wolfowitz's claims involved the station's coverage of an
incident in the Iraqi Shiite city of Najaf. "Al Jazeera
ran a totally false report that American troops had gone and
detained one of the key imams in this holy city of Najaf, Muqtad
(sic) al-Sadr," he said. "It was a false report, but
they were out broadcasting it instantly." Wadah Khanfar's
detailed reply -- and his sense of frustration -- will be familiar
to any Western newspaper editor. "Al Jazeera never stated
at any time that Muqtada al-Sadr was detained," he wrote.
"Our correspondent Yasser Abu Hilala, a top reporter with
thirteen years experience covering the Middle East, stated he
had received phone calls from Muqtada al-Sadr's secretary and
two of his top deputies saying the imam's house was surrounded
by US forces after he called for the formation of an Islamic
Army. The phone calls were not only made to our offices but
to all the offices of al-Sadr's followers in Baghdad resulting
in a massive demonstration in front of the Republic Palace within
45 minutes which we reported, along with The New York Times,
CNN and a host of others."
of Defense has continued the attacks. According to The Associated
Press, on November 26, 2003:
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top military adviser said
Tuesday they had evidence the Arab television news organizations
Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya cooperated with Iraqi insurgents to
witness and videotape attacks on American troops. Rumsfeld said
the effort fit a pattern of psychological warfare used by remnants
of the Baathist government, who want to create the impression
that no amount of US firepower can end the insurgency. "They've
called Al Jazeera to come and watch them do it [attack American
troops], and Al Arabiya," he said at a Pentagon news conference.
"Come and see us, watch us; here is what we're going to
do." Pressed for details, Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that US forces
in Iraq had collected more than just circumstantial evidence
that one or both of the Arab news organizations might have cooperated
with the attackers. "Yes, I've seen scraps of information
over a sustained period of time," Rumsfeld said. "I'm
not in a position to make a final judgment on it," but
it needs to be examined in an 'orderly way'," he added.
2004, a high-ranking US officer in Iraq, Gen. Mark Kimmitt,
was quoted as follows: "My solution is to change the channel
to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations
that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children
are not legitimate news sources" (Loewenstein 2004). In
the same article, Secretary Rumsfeld is quoted as saying: "I
can definitely say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious,
inaccurate, and inexcusable. We know what our forces do. They
don't go around killing hundreds of civilians. That's just outrageous
nonsense! It's disgraceful what that station is doing."
2004, according to the Los Angeles Times, Secretary of
State Colin Powell complained to the visiting Qatari foreign
minister, Shaykh Hamad Jasim ibn Jabir Al Thani, that Al Jazeera's
broadcasts had "intruded" on relations between the
US and Qatar. Qatar hosts the largest American military base
in the region.
And on August
6, 2004, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke before the Chicago Council
on Foreign Relations. According to the official account:
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations
in Chicago August 6 that some of the reporting by Arab media
such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya has damaged US initiatives
in the Middle East. For example, he said, "They have persuaded
an enormous fraction" of people that the United States
is in Iraq as an occupying force, "which is a lie."
Or, he added, they have persuaded people that US soldiers "are
randomly killing innocent civilians, which is a lie. ... Rumsfeld
said some of the Al Jazeera reporters in Baghdad have been in
the past on the payroll of the regime of Saddam Hussein. By
conveying false or misleading information now, he said, it "makes
everything harder" for the United States and even for countries
that are neighbors to Iraq.
How do Al
Jazeera representatives in Washington view the situation? A
staffer in the Washington bureau (interviewed on September 30,
2004) disputed the notion that the US government is carrying
out a "sustained" battle against Al Jazeera. The worst
"enemies" are in the Pentagon: Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz,
Peter Rodman, and some others. At the National Security Council,
Condoleezza Rice falls in that category, as does the official
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. The staffer observed
that President Bush himself has been silent. In fact, the relationship
"has its ups and downs." Secretary Rumsfeld and Dr.
Rice have occasionally appeared on Al Jazeera, as have a number
of other civilian and military officials. The staffer recalled
that only a few days after Secretary of State Powell was reported
to have called Al Jazeera's coverage "horrible" he
was asking to do an interview on the channel. At the State Department
in particular, there is a viewpoint that the US government should
take advantage of Al Jazeera and other Arabic channels, with
their huge Arab audiences, and seize every opportunity to appear.
Some movers and shakers on the Washington political scene are
friendlier than others. At the Democratic Party Convention in
July 2004, the officials were quite nasty, tearing down the
channel's banner from its location in the convention hall. But
surprisingly the Republicans, at their convention, were very
In its early
years, Al Jazeera was praised by US liberals, mainly because
of its readiness to present Israelis, but later the warmth diminished.
For example, Norman Pattiz, the chief engineer of the US "public
diplomacy" campaign to the Arab world (godfather of Radio
Sawa and Alhurra satellite channel) was initially complimentary,
but today he is hostile. He disputes the idea of those in the
State Department and academia who argue that the US government
should engage the Arab media "because it presupposes that
the indigenous media is the solution, not the problem."
Moreover, he writes that "Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya transcend
traditional media roles. They function, in effect, as quasi-political
movements, reflecting two of the defining characteristics of
the Middle East today. One is the lack of political and press
freedom. The other is Arab nationalism. Arab networks manifest
both" (Shapiro 2005, 54).
The US government
is very large and composed of multitudes of offices, communities,
and factions, in addition to its formal separate divisions.
In addition, the influential "political circles" outside
government itself represent a diversity of backgrounds and points
of view. These include the political parties, the media, the
lobbies, the think tanks, and academia. While neoconservative
and strongly pro-Israel think tanks echo the hostility toward
Al Jazeera, the liberal and neutral organizations, if not necessarily
positive, take a rather more pragmatic stance. In response to
the unmistakable deterioration of the American image in the
Arab and Muslim world, the US government went to work to create
various boards and commissions to study the matter. The Congressional
Research Service was tasked to produce a report on Al Jazeera.
An Office of Global Communications was set up in the White House,
which had a series of short-lived managers. The US Agency for
International Development and the Department of Defense were
mobilized. A Strategic Communications Policy Coordinating Committee
(PCC), jointly managed by the National Security Council and
the State Department, was set up. In the State Department an
Office of Policy Planning and Resources was created. And an
important body called the Broadcasting Board of Governors was
established to undertake an American response to the challenge
of Al Jazeera and the other Arabic channels (see Feliz Sefsaf
Research Service (CRS), an arm of the US Congress, produced
a report on Al Jazeera in July 2003 which laid out, in neutral
terms, the "opportunities" as well as the "challenges"
presented by Al Jazeera to US foreign policy interests. Its
conclusions are worth stating at some length:
Jazeera's ability to cover breaking news, to promote its slick,
entertaining format, and to project subtly its pan-Arab, pan-Islamist
approach to covering the news has sparked some US officials
and analysts to suggest ways of promoting a response to its
distinctive influence. Others have dismissed calls for policy
responses. Some experts warn that any overt US action could
be viewed as heavy handed in a region which has traditionally
been sensitive to outside involvement in regional or local affairs.
Al Jazeera claims that US steps intended to promote a more balanced
media in the Arab world will backfire, because Arabs will consider
it a propaganda effort of the US government. A range of possible
actions has been proposed. In one category are actions that
actively promote US policy. They include:
Create an alternative Arabic Language Television Network. In
the emergency supplemental appropriations bill of April 16,
2003 (P.L. 108-11), Congress designated $30.5 million for the
Middle East Television Network (METN). According to Norman Pattiz,
the founder and chairman of Westwood One Radio Network and a
member of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), "as
most people in the region get their news and information from
TV, we need to be on TV so we can explain America and its policies,
its people, and its culture from our own lips rather than have
it described by the indigenous media." The exact scope
and style of METN has yet to be determined. The BBG already
sponsors Radio Sawa, an Arabic radio station, which combines
popular music with news headlines.
foreign aid to media reform. Some analysts contend that this
technique, which has worked for some human rights cases, might
be applied to the media as well. Buy commercial air time on
Arab networks. During the last two years, the State Department
Office of Public Diplomacy has been implementing the "Shared
Values Program," a $15 million effort to promote positive
images of Muslim life in America. TV advertisements depicting
American Muslims ran for 5 weeks in late 2003 in Pakistan, Kuwait,
Malaysia, and on some pan-Arab channels, but not Al Jazeera.
Although the overall campaign continues, the State Department
stopped running the commercials after the governments of Jordan,
Egypt, and Lebanon refused to carry them on state-run television.
Other policy experts have suggested more indirect ways of influencing
the Arab media, including the following actions:
US officials engage the Arab media more actively. As previously
mentioned, top United States cabinet officials have appeared
on Al Jazeera television for interviews. Proponents of this
strategy believe that more appearances by US officials, particularly
those fluent in Arabic, would convey confidence in US foreign
policy. Skeptics of this strategy believe that Al Jazeera and
other channels could skew the pre- and post-interview analysis
against the US position.
the more moderate Arab satellite networks. With almost a dozen
different Arab satellite channels, some analysts believe that
US interests would be better served if US officials appeared
on less sensationalist Arab networks in order to foster competitors
to Al Jazeera. Some even suggest encouraging US companies to
advertise on these types of stations.
more privatization of media. Under the auspices of the State
Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), there
have been plans to fund media reform programs in some Arab states.
As MEPI is just starting to take shape, the initiative could
fund media training for aspiring journalists, as well as programs
that promote freedom of the press.
which is widely circulated in Arab intellectual circles, is
that the best way to combat the coverage of channels such as
Al Jazeera would be to focus US foreign policy on solving the
Arab-Israeli conflict. Others argue that biased coverage will
continue no matter what direction the United States takes its
policy in the Middle East. With the United States heavily engaged
in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Al Jazeera will continue
to play a role in reporting and interpreting US foreign policy
to the Arab world.
2003, the Advisory Group on the Arab and Muslim World, an offshoot
of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, issued a report
entitled "Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic
Direction for US Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World."
Chaired by former Ambassador Edward Djerejian and staffed with
several Middle East experts, the report identified the problem
the US faces:
of many examples, we watched a program on Al Arabiya satellite
television titled "The Americanization of Islam,"
whose theme was that the United States had embarked on a sinister
plot to change the 1,500-year-old religion. The true American
position was nowhere represented. Our views were absent from
the program, just as we are absent, despite the dedicated efforts
of our public officials at home and abroad, from much of the
intense daily discourse on US policy and values taking place
throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
recommended various structural reforms that would reconnect
the US with the Arab and Muslim societies, reversing a decade-long
tendency toward isolation and neglect of public affairs and
cultural diplomacy. But its concluding statement is notable
for its recognition of the underlying causes of the growing
gap between the US and the people of the Arab and Muslim countries:
and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the
answer. Foreign policy counts. In our trips to Egypt, Syria,
Turkey, France, Morocco, and Senegal, we were struck by the
depth of opposition to many of our policies. Citizens in these
countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of Palestinians
and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing,
and they are genuinely distressed by the situation in Iraq.
Sugar-coating and fast talking are no solutions, nor is absenting
ourselves. America can achieve dramatic results with a consistent,
strategic, well-managed, and properly funded approach to public
diplomacy, one that credibly reflects US values, promotes the
positive thrust of US policies, and takes seriously the needs
and aspirations of Arabs and Muslims for peace, prosperity,
and social justice.
indicates a deeper and wiser recognition on the part of some
influential Americans that "killing the messenger"
is no solution for the problem that the United States faces.
Response to American Attacks
only some fifteen miles from the largest American base in the
Middle East, Al Jazeera's management must be unusually sensitive
to the mood of the US administration. The government of Qatar,
a Middle East mini-state, lacks the ability to protect its prized
if prickly asset from the wrath of the American military. Governments
in the region -- including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestine
Authority, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and the Iraqi interim government
-- may fume, but they lack both the force and the influence
that the US can bring to bear. And the American pressure has
been incessant. Qatari diplomats in Washington say that their
chief headache is Washington's (and especially the Pentagon's)
unhappiness with Al Jazeera. The Qatar government appears to
play a particularly audacious strategic game with its neighbors
large and small. On the one hand it actively courts an American
presence and caters to America's partiality to Israel; but on
the other it sustains and, so far, protects its famous media
outlet from the anger of Washington's neoconservatives.
On the local,
tactical level, Al Jazeera has sought to mollify and engage
its Washington community. The bureau chief, Hafez al-Mirazi
does not miss an opportunity to insist that he is "begging"
Administration officials to appear on the channel, and in fact
several of them do so (see also Interview
with Hafez al-Mirazi in TBS 13). He also has tapped
into the think tank and academic community of Middle East specialists
and commentators. Despite the hostile words from the top level
officials, the channel has good working relations at the middle
levels of the eecutive branch. It reports frequently from the
Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. "We
have a lot of friends in town," remarked an Al Jazeera
staffer. Al-Mirazi also has testified before the US House of
Representatives Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging
Threats and International Relations. In an Aug. 2004 hearing
on strengthening American public diplomacy in the region, he
forcefully defended his channel's work and urged American officials
who routinely make the rounds of the Sunday morning news talk
shows in the US to appear on the Arabic channels as well. He
criticized the idea of US government-run Arabic media outlets
as inconsistent with American values about an independent press.
And he endorsed the view of many American Middle East and foreign
policy specialists that America's problem in the region is its
policies, not its values. No amount of slick advertising could
get around that fundamental reality (al-Mirazi 2004).
In an important
sense, however, Al Jazeera's fate is beyond its control. Yet
its management has hardly been oblivious to the storms the station
has created. Saudi capital is underwriting an upstart but very
professional competitor, Al Arabiya, to try and clip the wings
of a channel whose very name is a backhanded insult to the dynasty.
Top management changes at Al Jazeera itself may have been influenced
by American pressure on the Qatari authorities, and some regular
viewers have recently noted a toning down in coverage and presentation.
Al Jazeera organized its first "World Forum" in Doha
in July 2004, a conference devoted both to self-criticism and
exogenous evaluation of the channel's product. Out of the meeting
emerged a new Code of Ethics (see the appendix). In it, the
channel pledges, among other things, to adhere to journalistic
standards of balance and validity; to treat audiences with respect
and decorum; to present diverse points of view, and to distinguish
between news and opinion. So worthy and well-understood are
these principles in the journalistic profession that one wonders
why it was necessary to state them at all. Perhaps the answer
is a felt need to respond to American (and Arab government)
part, the current management of Al Jazeera professes optimism
about its future (see Khanfar 2004). Despite lackluster advertising
revenues (mainly the result of Saudi pressure on would-be advertisers),
the channel is expanding. Plans are well advanced for a sports
channel and an English-language service. Its executives dismiss
the "threat" of competition from Al Arabiya by insisting
that their true competitors are global: BBC World and CNN International.
While no outsider can fathom the relationships between the station
and the Qatar authorities, it seems clear that it has been a
huge political, strategic, and public relations asset to that
small country. Qatar would be even smaller without it. It is
no exaggeration to say that Al Jazeera has put Qatar on the
global map in a way that even huge gas reserves could never
do. A careful combination of journalistic professionalism and
principled pragmatism may be Al Jazeera's best protection against
its numerous ill-wishers. And in the last analysis, as its managers
like to argue, successful competition for audience share may
preserve the project.
"Reality" is Real? Al Jazeera and Alternative Models
philosophers and social scientists deny the possibility of a
single objective reality, ordinary people go about their lives
acting as if there were one. Anthropologists and some political
scientists argue that communities are "imagined" and
realities are "constructed." The imagining, construction,
or reconstruction of sociopolitical identities in today's volatile
Arab world is a huge issue, both for Arabs and for outsiders
who believe, rightly or wrongly, that this region is too important
-- perhaps even dangerous -- to be ignored. Many structures,
institutions, ideas, and processes affect identity construction
and political legitimacy. The rapid implantation of new information
technologies across the Arab region would seem to play a significant
role in these formations. And the hegemonic presence of the
United States also would seem to play an important part -- with
perhaps unintended consequences.
Jazeera employees, as well as hostile critics and friendly commentators,
contend that the channel is the driving force behind a renewed
sense of Arab identity across the region. Some would argue that
it is building a new Arab nationalism and a new will to resist
foreign encroachment. For many Arabs, this development, if true,
is good news (see, e.g., El-Nawawy and Iskandar). For many American
officials, such as the BBG's Norman Pattiz, it is bad news because
it impedes the construction of a new global reality that would
be harmonious with American interests. There may be some truth
to this proposition, but there are some caveats to bear in mind
thing, few social scientists accept any longer the sweeping
claims of 1960s modernization theory that new, liberal, "modern"
identities and communities could be constructed by the new media
and educational facilities, thus "shattering the glass"
of "tradition." New media and information technologies
today may play a role, but it may not be transformative, and
it may take much longer than naïve modernization theorists
once thought. Moreover, there are other factors at work as well.
That said, one can still make a case that satellite television
and the Internet are engendering a sense of commonality in a
particularly powerful way. But the new media are not just Al
Jazeera or Al Arabiya. Entertainment and cultural programming
is far more popular in the Arab world than 24-hour news, just
as is the case in the United States and other countries. Prof.
Marwan Kraidy, who studies the effects of entertainment programming,
argues that these programs are as important, maybe more so,
in engendering a transnational sense of Arab community. This
sense of community is in itself not "political" but
it may stand as a cultural prerequisite for more ideological
manifestations of Arabism.
thing, Al Jazeera employees themselves almost certainly are
not of one mind about their "mission" and their effect
on Arab society. The staffer in Doha, cited earlier, articulated
an ideological agenda. But the staffer in Washington, also cited
above, demurred at a characterization of Al Jazeera as framing
a "nationalist-anti-imperialist" worldview. Remember,
the staffer said, Al Jazeera achieved its initial influence
and fame not by bashing the United States, but by providing
a forum for criticizing authoritarian Arab governments. Its
reputation was advanced by allowing Israelis air time on the
channel -- hardly a narrow "nationalist" policy. Moreover,
if the channel's current management is to be believed, Al Jazeera
sees its future as a global media institution, not just a regional
(or "nationalist") one. Any regular viewer of Al Jazeera,
however, cannot fail to note the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict and the Iraq situation in its coverage. Is that concentration
evidence of a nationalist agenda? The news people deny it. They
say "it is news" and this is what our viewers want
to see and expect from us.
Washington appears to have quite a different understanding of
"reality" in the Arab world. To the Bush administration,
and especially its neoconservative thinkers, this is a region
of mostly poor people whose highest priority is to be "free."
They are thirsting for democracy, and they are clamoring to
become part of the global economy. Unfortunately, their aspirations
are perpetually thwarted by authoritarian and inefficient governments.
Even more unfortunately, they are to some extent being brainwashed
by "Islamist terrorism" organizations which have hijacked
what Washington policymakers know to be the true Islam. Stagnant
economies and anachronistic educational systems are helping
create a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism, with its particularly
anti-American and anti-Israeli character. The new satellite
channels, especially Al Jazeera, promote incitement, xenophobia,
and retrograde nationalism instead of facilitating the Arabs'
quest for freedom, democracy, and global integration. It follows,
perhaps, that a vigorous program of public diplomacy in the
Arab world will somehow neutralize these impediments. Such a
program would educate Arabs about the virtues of American values
and deflect their misguided hostility to American policies.
is "real"? There may be kernels of truth in both.
But "real reality" is surely too complex to be compressed
either into a "nationalist" frame or Washington's
"liberal-global" frame. One thing, however, is clear:
Al Jazeera is hardly the sole player in this game of ongoing
cultural construction. Serious competition has now arrived in
the form of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned all-news channel based
in Dubai. The channel was profiled recently in The New York
Times Magazine (Shapiro 2005), as an antidote to Al Jazeera.
Shaykh Walid al-Ibrahim, the owner, declared that his intent
was to provide a more moderate alternative to Al Jazeera. "After
the events of Sept. 11, Afghanistan and Iraq, people want the
truth. They don't want news from the Pentagon or from Al Jazeera."
The free marketplace of ideas seems to have taken hold in the
Gulf, at least, guaranteeing that no single outlet will have
a monopoly on framing reality. What do the Al Jazeera people
feel about the competition? At a recent conference on the Arab
media held at Georgetown University, Hafez al-Mirazi, the Al
Jazeera bureau chief, remarked:
are positive ways to answer Al Jazeera, and there are negative
ways. Al Arabiya is a good answer to Al Jazeera, even if it
is a Saudi-owned, all-news network. The idea was to get some
of the people who founded Al Jazeera and try to construct the
same model, with different red lines and different sensitivities,
but not to do it as big as Al Jazeera has. In order to compete
with Al Jazeera, you have to push the envelope, widen the margin
of freedom. That is healthy competition because it prevents
Al Jazeera from retreating and covering up something that happened
in Qatar, like the car bombing of some of the Chechen leaders
that took place there. If Al Jazeera does not broadcast that
picture, Al Arabiya will. Thus, this dynamic really helps to
prevent de-liberalization by Al Jazeera. [But] when the leader
of the free world is encouraging Arab people to be free, and
is promoting democracy and non-government intervention in the
media, it really sets a negative example to contribute to a
government-run station like Alhurra. By creating Alhurra as
the "answer" to Al Jazeera, the US is telling the
Arab world that to solve its problems, get government-controlled
media to answer more independent media. The US is trying to
diminish a non-government-controlled media outlet that is modeled
on the BBC, a public corporation.
of Washington's confrontation with Al Jazeera is not yet over.
It would be a shame if it ends with the closure of the Al Jazeera
office. "Killing the messenger" who brings bad news
is not a substitute for sound policy. Even though, as we have
noted, the criticism from high Administration officials has
been fierce, it also appears that there are those in Washington
who appreciate the importance of Al Jazeera and the other transnational
Arabic channels operating there. The controversy over Al Jazeera
itself has had a beneficial effect in opening a debate about
what America's true intentions in the region are and should
be. An administration whose foreign policy mantra is "the
transformational power of freedom" should practice what
it preaches when it comes to dealing with the powerful new media
forces shaping tomorrow's Arab world. The United States should
remain true to its liberal principles and support rather than
suppress "the free marketplace of ideas" in the Arab
Michael C. Hudson is director of the Center
for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University. This paper
was presented to the Conference on Arab Media and Global Developments,
The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Abu
Dhabi, January 9-11, 2005.
author wishes to thank Dr. Leila Hudson for her advice and assistance
in the preparation of this paper. He also would like to acknowledge
the valuable help of his student research assistant, Sara Sari
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The Al Jazeera
Code of Ethics
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:
Adhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness,
balance, independence, credibility and diversity giving no priority
to commercial or political; considerations over professionalism.
Endeavor 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.
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.
Welcome 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.
Present diverse points of view and opinions without bias and
Recognize 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.
Acknowledge a mistake when it occurs, promptly correct it and
ensure it does not recur.
Observe transparency in dealing with the news and its sources
while adhering to internationally established practices concerning
the rights of these sources.
Distinguish between news material, opinion, and analysis to
avoid the snares of speculation and propaganda.
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."
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