after Algeria's presidential election last April, the Ministry
of Communications abruptly ordered correspondents for Dubai-based
broadcaster Al Arabiya and its rival, Al Jazeera, to suspend
news operations in Algiers indefinitely. No convincing explanations
were given, but Algerian officials had complained bitterly about
Al Arabiya's election coverage and were apparently angered by
an episode of Al Jazeera's controversial talk show al-Ittijah
al-Mu'akis (The Opposite Direction).
In the span of 12
weeks, Algeria's government had effectively pulled the plug
on the local newsgathering operations of the region's two most
influential satellite news stations.
As far-reaching as
the influence of satellite news broadcasters has become, the
bans show that governments are still quite capable of disrupting
newsgathering. The broadcasters' local news bureaus face the
same onerous restrictions that vex domestic Arab media: restrictive
press laws, arrests and criminal prosecutions of reporters,
sudden government-ordered closings of news offices, and interference
from state security agents who use behind-the-scenes pressure
to quash enterprise reporting.
But the terms of
engagement do not favor the state exclusively. Governments are
waging local battles against satellite channels that have global
reach. A government may shut a news bureau but cannot kill the
technology that allows satellite stations to continue reporting
and distributing the news. Officials may be offended by coverage
but they have to respect the fact that millions of people are
watching these stations.
The effect of government
pressure is seen more in the quality and depth of reporting.
Local news managers and journalists are often forced to make
choices between covering contentious issues on the one hand
and protecting their staff or preserving access on the other.
This helps explain why satellite news tends to rely heavily
on spot reporting and entails relatively little documentary
work, in-depth profiling, or investigative journalism.
In the last year
alone, Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, and Sudan either arrested correspondents
for Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya or banned them from working in
reprisal for unwelcome coverage of the government. Authorities
in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Oman arrested or harassed guests
who spoke critically about their governments on pan-Arab television
shows. Al Jazeera is not allowed to establish local offices
in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Last year in Sudan,
for example, a court sentenced Islam Salih, Al Jazeera's Khartoum
bureau chief, to a one-month prison term on trumped-up charges
of spreading "false news" and obstructing a government
employee who had attempted to confiscate equipment from the
station's office. Salih's imprisonment was widely understood
as retribution for Al Jazeera's coverage of the crisis in Darfur.
Local bureaus for
satellite news channels have endured other forms of interference.
Prior to Salih's imprisonment, Sudanese authorities regularly
bullied Al Jazeera's Khartoum bureau, summoning Salih for questioning
on several occasions and complaining to him and his editors
in Doha about his coverage. In Jordan, security forces have
notoriously hounded Al Jazeera's local staff, detaining or interrogating
reporters about coverage on numerous occasions, confiscating
expensive news equipment, seizing film, and barring employees
from transmitting footage through state-run television facilities.
Most chilling have
been physical attacks and threats of violence. Recently, in
the West Bank and Gaza Strip, correspondents working for pan-Arab
broadcasters have been assaulted, threatened, or had their offices
ransacked by militant Palestinian factions when reporting on
internal splits within Fatah.
As each of these
examples demonstrates, pressures on local news operations can
be daunting. Like their colleagues in the domestic press, correspondents
for satellite news channels are beholden to "red line"
prohibitions such as criticism of heads of state, the security
services, or other high level officials.
In Jordan, Al Jazeera's
reporters said they often defer to Doha on politically sensitive
stories and avoid taboo subjects such as the presence of US
troops in the country in the run-up to the Iraq war. In the
Occupied Territories, journalists are exercising increased self-censorship
in covering internal strife within Fatah. Said Palestinian media
analyst Daoud Kuttab, "They are aware that many Fatah militants
on either side of a conflict have weapons and have shown little
regard for the safety of the general public once it came to
their internal issues."
The fear of losing
access in fiercely competitive places like Iraq and staff concerns
of persecution have affected coverage.
Since the US-led
war, both US and Iraqi authorities have used harsh rhetoric
and punitive restrictions on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in response
to what they consider inflammatory and anti-coalition coverage.
In 2003-04, the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council sanctioned
Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya on numerous occasions, barring them
from covering official press conferences or entering official
buildings. In 2003, Al Arabiya was temporarily banned from airing
live broadcasts from Iraq in retaliation for its broadcast of
a reputed audiotape of then-fugitive Saddam Hussein. US and
Iraqi officials have launched withering verbal attacks against
both stations. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused
Al Jazeera of "consistently lying" and "working
in concert with the terrorists," and referred to Al Arabiya
as ''violently anti-coalition.''
When US-Iraqi pressures
were at their peak last spring, The Guardian of London
reported, an Al Jazeera staff memo said news editor Ahmed al-Sheikh
was "upset" with the station's reporting and urged
reporters to tone down coverage of "extreme violence."
Station staff also spoke last spring of management pressure
to avoid coverage that might antagonize the United States or
Iraqi interim authorities. Critics maintain that Al Jazeera
was noticeably restrained in its reporting on the US military's
assault on Fallujah in November 2004, especially when compared
to how it handled a previous assault on the city in April of
that year. Perhaps more telling was the scant mention by Al
Jazeera of allegations by members of its Baghdad staff that
they were detained and abused by US troops last year.
Iraqi officials eventually
closed Al Jazeera's bureau last August after accusing the channel
of incitement to violence and hatred. Al Jazeera remains banned
from Iraq to this day.
Still, while self-censorship
pressures may be strong, they are not absolute. Satellite stations
have proved themselves resilient in reporting under difficult
circumstances, even in countries where they are banned.
Despite the existing
ban in Iraq, Al Jazeera's Baghdad staffers, relocated to Doha,
continue to report on events. A network of stringers and volunteers
on the ground help provide information and video footage. From
Doha, Al Jazeera has conducted on-air interviews with analysts
and politicians on the ground.
It has been able
to circumvent bans in other countries as well. Three years ago,
Bahrain prohibited Al Jazeera from covering its 2002 local elections,
but the station was able to provide limited coverage.
"When the Bahraini
opposition decided to boycott the election and they had a conference
in Manama to announce it, we got the picture the same day from
Bahrain from three sources," then-news editor Ibrahim Hilal
remarked at the time. "So we don't have many problems in
getting pictures and getting news from Arab countries because
viewers in the Arab countries like to get the news to us."
Technology such as cell phones, text messaging, video transmission,
and the Internet have aided newsgathering.
The stations also
use their popularity as a counterweight to government coercion.
Governments such as Egypt and Jordan have realized that to enjoy
the benefits of Al Jazeera -- positive coverage that reaches
a mass audience -- they must also endure the burdens. "In
the end Jordan needs Al Jazeera more than Al Jazeera needs Jordan,"
noted Kuttab, referring to Jordan's closure of Al Jazeera's
Amman bureau in 2002 after a talk-show guest poked fun at King
Abdullah's Arabic. "Al Jazeera won't lose anything by having
their office closed. For them it's another feather in their
cap." The bureau reopened several months later.
A mass audience also
can provide cover for local staff. "Because of the viewers,
many of our staff couldn't be harmed all over the world,"
Hilal said in a 2002 interview. "Many of our staff could
be arrested, but not harmed or jailed, because of the millions
of viewers we have. If we just put an item of news against any
government it will (embarrass) them a lot."
Journalists can use the power of the free media to their advantage.
"We tell it
to all correspondents," he said. "(Push) the limits
of freedom to enlarge and protect (it)."
is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East
and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
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