November 2003 and May 2004, while I was writing my book about
Al Jazeera, I spent time interviewing a multitude of miscellaneous
individuals and organizations about their feelings towards the
network. I heard a diverse range of opinions about the channel,
stretching from the overwhelmingly positive to the vehemently
negative. I soon saw patterns emerging. I could see at once,
for example, that there were clear differences between how Americans
and Europeans viewed the channel. Americans essentially regarded
Al Jazeera as part of the problem in the Middle East; Europeans
regarded it as part of the solution.
Israelis seemed divided
over the benefits of Al Jazeera. Some saw it as a welcome catalyst
for change; others viewed it as something scarcely more palatable
than Hizbullah's Al Manar channel, which has recently been banned
from all European Union broadcasting satellites and last year
was designated a terrorist organization in America (see Of
Bans, Boycotts and Sacrificial Lambs: Al Manar in the Crossfire
in this issue).
The most passionate
critics of the channel I met were Arabs living in the West.
Some Iraqi Shiites living in Detroit for example thought Al
Jazeera had given too much support to Saddam Hussein during
the invasion of Iraq. Pro-Republican Arabs working in Washington,
the kind who subscribe to the neo-con vision of the greater
Middle East initiative even more heartily then the neo-cons
themselves -- like employees at the ill-conceived Alhurra for
example -- were adamant that Al Jazeera was responsible for
the Iraqi insurgency, in addition to having links to the Baathists
(for more on Alhurra, see A Second Look
at Alhurra in this issue).
But that was then
and this is now. A new tide of democracy seems to be sweeping
the region and much in the Arab world now is under reexamination.
Since I finished the research for my book in May last year,
I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel
extensively once again, this time to take part in debates, conferences,
and seminars related to Al Jazeera and the Arab media.
I have been struck
by the degree to which long-held opinions about the channel
seem to have evolved. In particular, I have been surprised by
the level of interest in Al Jazeera now apparent in many disparate
groups that one might not necessarily think of as particularly
concerned with alternative perspectives on Arab satellite television
news. Amongst others, I have recently had dialogues about Al
Jazeera with the Pentagon, Sandhurst Military Academy, NATO,
the BBC, CBC, the New York Daily News, Salon.com, a wide variety
of European radio stations and magazines, NPR, CNN, and ABC.
Although there are still preconceptions and prejudice, often
mixed with envy and fear, increasingly there is also a deep
One thing has not
changed. Al Jazeera's staunchest critics are still to be found
in Washington. (Note: I have not been to either Saudi Arabia
or Syria, where they are none too keen on Al Jazeera either.)
The neo-conservatives simply hate Al Jazeera. Many think it
has a religious agenda, even that it is a militant Islamic organization
and that the new English language channel called Al Jazeera
International should be shut down at all costs. (See The
Challenge for Al Jazeera International in this issue.)
Others told me that they had serious doubts about the legitimacy
of the channel's funding. It is held by some in Washington that
Al Jazeera is backed by a terrorist organization, possibly Al
Qa'ida. This is ironic of course, since in fact Al Jazeera's
principal sponsor and long-time benefactor is the Emir of Qatar,
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, America's principal ally
in the region.
It is also still
widely held that Al Jazeera is in league with the insurgents
in Iraq, that it knew about attacks on coalition soldiers before
they occurred, and that money changed hands with militant groups
when the network acquired its various video tapes. Most Americans
believe Al Jazeera to have repeatedly shown beheadings, when
in fact it never has.
By contrast, I found
military opinions in Europe to be much more sympathetic towards
Al Jazeera. Sandhurst Military Academy was intrigued by the
new network, regarding it as a useful new tool to communicate
positive messages about the coalition's intentions toward Iraqis.
They want to use Al Jazeera to stress important messages to
Arabs, such as that the war in Iraq is not a war against Islam,
and to point out to viewers that a coalition similar to that
now in Iraq once assisted Muslims in Bosnia and in Kosovo.
NATO was eager to
learn more about Al Jazeera for strategic reasons. To them,
whether Al Jazeera is biased or not is less important than the
fact that it is so influential. It is clear they recognize the
network as the most important non-state actor in the Middle
East today -- and therefore worthy of extremely close attention.
The European media
have become by and large very sympathetic towards Al Jazeera.
This contrasts with their stance as recently as the invasion
of Afghanistan, when British tabloids branded Al Jazeera Bin
Laden's "mouthpiece," claiming it was run by Palestinian
and Syrian extremists. The Daily Telegraph called it
"Bin Laden TV." The "taxi driver" talk radio
stations in the UK, Spain, and Ireland still enjoy joking about
the station's connection to Al Qa'ida, but not in a particularly
malevolent way. Anchors often expressed a great deal of interest
in the new English-language channel, and readily affirmed that
one would be a fool to trust completely anything one saw or
heard on any television news channel. Often the callers on the
shows were Arabs living in Europe who said they enjoyed what
they saw on the English-language website and could not wait
for Al Jazeera International to rescue them from the incessant
anti-Arab bias they perceived in Western news coverage.
The opinion of the
American media towards Al Jazeera -- and consequently the image
of the network in America -- has changed even more radically.
In the past, the big American news networks adopted a policy
of attacking Al Jazeera in public while secretly petitioning
it in private so that they might use its exclusive footage.
Although one ABC producer recently asked me whether Al Jazeera
could fit him up with an interview with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
American anchors no longer seem to assume the channel is simply
the hotline to the Axis of Evil. There is a new willingness
to hear what Al Jazeera might have to say, coupled with a genuine
interest in the origins of the channel, and even a desire to
learn from its news-gathering strategies in the Middle East.
CNN is planning a one-off special on the history of the channel.
Some in the American
media -- at Salon.com, for example -- asked me whether the ripples
of democratic reform we have seen in past weeks in Egypt, Palestine,
Iraq, Lebanon, and Kuwait are attributable to Al Jazeera. Even
Murdoch's New York Daily News has conceded that "many
analysts consider the Qatar-based network a greater catalyst
for democracy in the Middle East than any US policy." This
is the same paper which once called Al Jazeera "the great
enabler of Arab hatred and self-deception. It propagates the
views of Osama Bin Laden. It cheerleads for Palestinian suicide
bombers. It has become Saddam's voice." The paper also
had called on the US military to violently and permanently close
down the "Arab propaganda outfit controlled by the medieval
government of Qatar."
The seeds of this
shift in perception were sown when the American people were
so grievously mislead by their own media during the run-up to
the invasion of Iraq. Feelings have since been catalyzed by
a number of Western observers, regarded by and large as impartial
in America, who have spoken out in favor of the channel. I am
one; BBC World Services Director Richard Sambrook is another.
I have noticed that when I tell Americans that the official
British television regulatory watchdog, Ofcom, has consistently
criticized Fox News more often than Al Jazeera -- not just for
biased news but also over other issues, such as giving undue
prominence to commercial products in what is supposed to be
a news item -- they tend these days to be more impressed than
Al Jazeera's more
salubrious reputation has not escaped discerning, internationally
minded Americans, still smarting over the issue of the non-existent
weapons of mass destruction and increasingly anxious about the
seemingly endless conflict in Iraq. The BBC and CBC have already
profited from the many Americans who, disenchanted with Fox's
flag-waving during the war, have begun to look further afield
for their news.
BBC is now all the more anxious about Al Jazeera International,
which threatens to pinch their newly acquired American audience.
When I addressed a crowd of BBC journalists this spring at the
annual BBC news conference, I found everyone asking the same
questions: How many people will switch from BBC World to Al
Jazeera International when it starts up in November, and what
can we learn from Al Jazeera's Arabic service right now to stop
They are right to
be worried. Around the world, many people still choose the BBC
as the most trusted name in English-language news. Of course,
no one knows what the future holds for Al Jazeera, and the launch
of the new channel certainly comes with risks. But it is not
impossible to imagine that in a couple of years from now Al
Jazeera International may eclipse the BBC, not just in America,
but also in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and
Afghanistan, where anecdotal evidence suggests that even if
people don't speak Arabic, they already recognize that little
calligraphic teardrop logo as an incontrovertible stamp of authenticity.
is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written for
the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and
the Sunday Times. Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of
the Arab News Channel That is Challenging the West is his
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