S. Abdallah Schleifer, TBS senior editor
There is no getting away from it. Al Jazeera continues to dominate
the discourse, despite significantly improved competition (reflected
in growing market share) from Al Arabiya and a step back over
the past year from its past tendency to overly emotionalize,
Fox TV-style, when framing the news.
The Al Jazeera newsroom.
was that more apparent than at the Fifth Doha Forum on Democracy
and Free Trade at the end of March 2005, hosted by HH Sheikh
Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, which brought together an amazingly
diverse group: the "upper crust elite of world experts
and intellectuals" to quote the rather exuberant Qatari
brochure. The Forum did indeed include members of the US Congress,
along with federal commissioners, present and former State Department
and Commerce Department officials, Arab League secretary general
Amr Mousa, former NATO commander Wesley Clarke, Palestinian
information minister Nabil Shaath, ministers of trade and industry
from Europe and Latin America, the directors of various think
tanks and academic centers from New York, Washington DC, Paris,
Strasbourg, and Cairo, Qatar's minister for foreign affairs,
a French minister of state, and a former foreign minister, as
well as present and former French parliamentarians, the widow
of the late French president François Mitterand, and
the managing director of Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, all gathered
to talk about the role of media in creating a democratic climate.
All of Khanfar's
fellow panelists, two of whom were from the American political
establishment, acknowledged that Al Jazeera, at the end of the
day, was making just such a contribution. Khanfar in turn insisted
that Al Jazeera was not anti-American and that in its earliest
years it had won praise in Washington for introducing free debate
and a pan-Arab vehicle for dissenters, before its unwelcome
coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. Khanfar blames
Al Jazeera's banishment from Iraq upon American pressure on
the Iraqi Interim Government. Khanfar's comments dominated press
coverage of the panel.
Al Jazeera, more than the opportunity to air recriminations
on that issue may result from this Forum. A high-ranking Iraqi
Interim Government official and member of the Sistani-blessed
governing parliamentary alliance was also in Doha for the Forum
and meeting with the Al Jazeera board of directors to talk about
the ban on Al Jazeera and hopefully to resolve a problem which
has further hurt Al Jazeera's ability to cover competitively
the biggest story in the region, while at the same time damaging
the Iraqi government's democratic credentials.
At the same
time, a two-hour media workshop was convened on the sidelines
of the Forum, chaired by Ghayth Armanazi of UK-based think tank
Arab International Media, that included among its seven panelists:
Mouafac Harb, Alhurra's vice president and news director; Hafez
al-Mirazi, Al Jazeera's Washington DC bureau chief (and host
of Al Jazeera's most balanced and informative talk show From
Washington); Hugh Miles, author of the recently published
book Al Jazeera (see Miles's What
the World Thinks of Al Jazeera in this issue; and Hans
Wechel, director of the US State Department's Middle East Partnership
on Al Jazeera was largely a corrective to the prevailing US
administration's (and supportive American media's) post-2001
take on Al Jazeera. Miles noted that along with a total of five
hours total viewing time of Usama bin Laden tapes, Al Jazeera
had transmitted 500 hours of President Bush's press conferences,
formal speeches and off-the-cuff statements, and whatever the
personal opinions of Al Jazeera staff towards the war or towards
Bush, the channel had certainly provided as much if not more
coverage of President Bush's perspective on Iraq and the Arab
world than American broadcasters.
that shaped Miles' paper shaped the discussion among the panelists,
as well as among those of us participating more as members of
a workshop than as an audience. Harb noted ruefully that despite
the workshop's broad title, "The Role of Media in Issues
of Economy, Women and Freedom," the discourse was dominated
by what Harb acknowledged to be "the inevitable issue of
Al Jazeera." Precisely because this was a workshop and
not a highly publicized and politically high-profile panel,
discussion was far more critical and yet also far more collegial
-- much the sort of talk one might find around the table at
the Frontline Club in London on a good night. Responding to
the assertion that Al Jazeera's coverage in the earliest hours
of the Iraq War did little to puncture the illusion and hysteria
in the Arab streets with their undertones of similar illusion
and hysteria on the eve of the June 1967 war, Hafez al-Mirazi
declared that if serious studies and polls are undertaken and
established that the Arab masses were surprised and shocked
at the rapid collapse of the Baathist regime, then "we
had failed in our mission to inform the Arab viewers."
had compared the sort of injudicious attack against Al Jazeera
that appeared in the American press only a year or two ago with
more recent and reasoned comments. This trend of reappraisal
seems to parallel the mutual reassessments that were so apparent
at the Doha Forum, and one that I personally experienced only
a few weeks later when I addressed the Foreign Policy Research
Institute, the first, and very influential, foreign policy think
tank in America, considered a bastion of the "Realist"
school of American foreign policy, dating back to the early
Cold War years, when it was an intellectual home for hawks.
My topic was, "Arab Satellite Television and Its Impact
upon the Prospect for Democracy in the Arab World." As
the Doha Forum and many other venues on the DC-Philadelphia-New
York-Boston circuit demonstrate, this issue is a major part
of this year's hot topic: democracy in the Arab World. I've
spoken before at the FPRI and often on vaguely similar and sensitive
regional issues topics. Given my central thesis that competitive
Arab satellite television (and in particular, Al Jazeera) often
in spite of itself, or as an unintended side effect, was a major
force for the adoption of the democratic process, I was struck
this time around by the close, careful, open-minded, and even
sympathetic attention of my audience.
will no doubt be greatly magnified towards the end of the year
with the launch of Al Jazeera International, an English-language
version of Al Jazeera. Led by Nigel Parsons, former director
of APTN and a veteran British television journalist, Al Jazeera
International (AJI) has already secured prime offices in Washington,
London and Kuala Lampur. Work is moving steadily forward for
its own headquarters within the Al Jazeera/Qatar Broadcasting
television compound. (See Jon Alterman's article The
Challenge for Al Jazeera International in this issue.)
All of the
AJI senior management is in place, including such seasoned veterans
of international broadcasting as Steve Clark, the director of
news who revitalized MBC's content in the years prior to the
move to Dubai. Before joining the team at Al Jazeera, Clark
was working as Executive producer at Sky News, where he launched
the channel's current affairs operation. Paul Gibbs will be
AJI's director of programming. His career includes overseeing
programming for BBC TV (Business) and the Discovery Channel
in Europe. Morgan Almeida is director of creative design. At
CNN International, he was responsible for the creative direction
of their global, on-air redesign strategy. He also has worked
for BBC TV, and served as creative director for Bell Atlantic's
interactive project "TeleTV." Parson and his senior
management's credentials, along with AJI's managing editor,
the highly professional BBC- trained Omar Bec, who was plucked
from Al Jazeera's newsroom, suggest that AJI will be a serious
to Parsons, "we are well down the line on the branding
work, as well as awarding contracts for systems integration,
which usually means integrating news product management, writing
and editing positions, satellite inputs, studios, live positions,
and video libraries for a seamless flow of news reports and
all other program content, right to the point of transmission."
By early April ALI's staff was 35; Parsons says that by launch
time it will be over 300.
AJI's strength will be based on intense familiarity and access
to news, features, and documentaries from the Arab world, but
AJI sees itself much more as a global broadcaster than a regionally
based one, appealing only to English-speaking Arab audiences
in the region or abroad. Instead, Parsons sees AJI as an irresistible
alternative channel -- the channel of second choice -- for anyone
following breaking stories from the Middle East, after getting
the first take on the story elsewhere. When we talked, he was
planning a trip to China that reflects the channel's globalist
see China as a huge story over the next ten years, and it's
important we have a strong presence there. We also want to broadcast
there. We see China as an important future market. In fact,
we have opened discussions on distribution in China, and throughout
the world, including the US."
characterizes the American market as "extremely important"
for AJI. He and his top management team have already made one
visit to the US and are planning more.
USA is still the most powerful country in the world and we are
anxious to cover stories about America," Parsons says.
"It isn't just that Americans are badly informed about
the rest of the world; the rest of the world is very badly informed
about America. The US government has failed abysmally to put
their message across and they acknowledge their failure and
they are not going to do it through Alhurra.
are anxious to tell both sides of the story and we think it's
important our audience hear the American side of the story,
and the administration should see us as a conduit for reaching
out to the world. We will be message bearers, and we hope we
aren't prejudged and ostracized by the administration. AJI wants
to be judged strictly on its own work and its own merits."
already begun commissioning documentaries and Parsons says that
the talk shows and human interest features it intends to produce,
along with the driving force of competitive field reporting,
will have an impact in the industry.
will be provocative in the sense that we want to provoke thought,
but as an alternative voice we will be young, fresh, and cutting
edge, but also extremely balanced. And we will do a lot of news
analysis," Parsons says. "For instance no one has
explained to me what really happened in Kyrgyzstan."
International is not the only new channel scheduled for launch.
Months before then, Al Jazeera's new children's channel will
be on the air. The veteran Tunisian broadcaster Mahmoud Bouneb
-- with years of professional experience in Europe and North
America -- is on his way to implement an extraordinary vision
for children's programming, a vision he shares with the driving
force behind this channel, HH Sheikha Mouza bint Nasir al-Misnid,
wife of the Emir of Qatar and the patron and visionary leader
of so much of the amazing educational and cultural infrastructure
that has risen from the sands of Doha.
Al Jazeera's children's channel is not located in the main Al
Jazeera television compound like AJI, and the new Al Jazeera
documentary and sports channels, the latter two of which already
are broadcasting. It has its own nearly finished state-of-the-art
studios in a broadcasting complex located at the heart of Education
City, within minutes walking time from the Sheikha's base at
the Qatar Foundation.
are here," says Bouneb, "because this project belongs
to its initiator, Her Highness Sheikha Mouza. The idea to open
this channel is hers. It goes back some two years and without
her support and involvement this project couldn't have been
achieved. And for an educational channel it is better to be
within an educational environment, as part of the Education
City. But we will be working with all schools in Qatar, both
Qatari and foreign schools, and we are dealing with schools
outside of Qatar, wherever we will have our bureaus, in Cairo,
Beirut, Amman, Rabat, and Paris. Paris is there for the Arab
communities in France and the rest of Europe." (TBS notes
that 50 percent of the total Arab population of Europe lives
in France.) These bureaus will be producing, promoting and reporting."
bureaus, and what is a children's channel doing with reporters?
I tell Bouneb that this sounds fantastic, but what are they
reporting on? Bouneb smiles at me with a professional pride
that borders on friendly condescension.
will report about kids, about schools, about issues that concern
children, like child labor and child abuse. Not to report from
a news or political point of view, but to give children background,
information on problems that concern them, as children. Issues
of daily life, like mobile phones, electronic games, TV addiction,
fast food addiction, the obesity epidemic, the anorexic syndrome,
drugs, drinking, verbal violence, racism. Not as news, but as
problems, as issues concerning children and concerning family.
So our reporting and programming will have to be strong on in-depth
coverage, background, and explanation, with an ability to focus
and simplify a story."
has a staff of 120 drawn from 30 nationalities. All or nearly
all of the Arab states are represented but he also has bilingual
staff from Australia, the US, Belgium, and France. The channel
will encourage Qataris. They will be given training and a chance
to improve their broadcasting skills, but Bouneb insists the
channel will not have a double standard. "They are in it,"
he says, "like everybody else."
it all up: "The idea of this channel is to be realistic,
to be positive, to be daring! By that I mean we want to be realistic
to help children grasp the reality of their social and educational
problems. We will debate those issues, those problems -- kids,
families, and school teachers. We will not have any taboos but
we will try to respect traditional values while dealing with
all the problems Arab children everywhere face at home, in school,
in the streets, and watching TV."
new channel surfaced quite unexpectedly in the middle of April:
Al Jazeera Mubashir (Al Jazeera Direct), an Arab equivalent
of C-Span that will provide start-to-finish coverage of conferences
and significant public events. The impulse for this coverage
was the availability in Doha on April 17 of the first Al Jazeera
Documentary Film Production Festival. Documentaries were screened
in part or as a whole, while well-known Arab film makers and
critics were present and available for coverage that far exceeded
the limited capacity of an all-news channel. It is not yet certain
whether Al Jazeera Mubashir will extend its live coverage beyond
the confines of Doha. If it is to have sustainable programming,
it will inevitably have to go that route.
All of this
new channel activity is not to suggest that Al Jazeera itself
is simply resting on its laurels. I spoke with Wadah Khanfar
during a break at the Doha Forum and reminded him how this time
last year he had predicted in an article of his own in TBS (see
Future of Al Jazeera, TBS 12) that Al Jazeera would
place an even greater stress on field reporting. Had that come
said that Al Jazeera had significantly extended its network
for field coverage over the past year to many other areas beyond
that of the Arab world and the global capitals to include Asia
and Africa. Al Jazeera bureaus have been launched in Japan,
Hong Kong, and Kazakhstan. The Al Jazeera presence in India
has also been expanded.
was planning to visit China within days of our talk to officially
launch the bureau there and to meet with broadcasters and officials.
"They have been very welcoming and we are looking forward
to signing a memorandum of understanding with CCT that might
include exchange opportunities for training as well as for images
and product, like documentaries," he says. "It's all
under study. An East African bureau has been established in
Kenya and we have relaunched our bureau in South Africa. In
Sudan our bureau is up and running (TBS: it had been closed
down for more than a year by the Sudanese authorities shortly
after the start of the Darfur rebellion and counter-insurgency)
and we are covering Darfur as well as stories on the Nuba Mountains
and the Eastern Province, the home of the Beja people, where
there has been tension and armed struggle.
Latin America, we have a team right now in Brazil doing a documentary
and we are exploring the possibility of having a bureau in Brazil
in addition to the bureau we will be opening in Caracas, Venezuela,
also put great stress on what he described as "institutionalized
editorial policy," by forming an editorial board and giving
that board powers to become the highest decision making editorial
body in the channel. This development is no doubt a response
to the frequent criticism that many of Al Jazeera's in-house,
non-news programs have indulged personal political perspectives
and that it is this that has been the problem with the Al Jazeera
product, rather than the existence of some sort of ideological
line, as posited by some circles in Washington but denied by
all Al Jazeera staff, right, left, or center, secularist or
decisions are no longer arbitrary," says Khanfar. "There
is a team that makes decisions: the chief editor Ahmed Sheikh,
his deputy Ayman Jabala, Said Shouli, head of programs, Jamil
Azza, who is chief anchor, and another veteran anchor, Muhammad
Krishan. We also have Jaafar Abbas, who is the head of the Quality
Assurance Division. We created this division to monitor Al Jazeera
and to report back to me and the editorial board about any shortcomings.
And if a reporter or producer departs from our Code of Conduct
-- particularly that paragraph that says we must differentiate
between what is news and what is analysis -- if he mixes his
personal opinion with his reporting, he will be held accountable."
So the stress
on professionalism that was so discernable a year ago continues
at Al Jazeera and is matched only by the recurrent reports circulating
everywhere except at Al Jazeera that the station, with its growing
bouquet of channels, is up for sale. The origin of this rumor
was a New York Times story originating from the US, shortly
after the new year, and most likely based on an off-the-cuff
remark by a Qatari diplomat to the effect that the prospect
of outside investors buying out Al Jazeera might just relieve
pressure on the Emir from the never-ending criticism of the
Qatari authorities for not reining in Al Jazeera.
based on talks with Qatari officials and journalists, appears
at first to conflict with a vow by the ruler himself that Qatar
will never abandon control of Al Jazeera to outside investors.
may lie in the word "control." Back in 2003, Al Jazeera's
Board of Directors voted to explore an initial public stock
offering (IPO), and the firm Ernest Young was commissioned,
according to Jihad Ali Ballout, Al Jazeera's official spokesman,
to conduct a feasibility study of an IPO that would not in any
way compromise Al Jazeera's editorial independence. The final
draft of that study is expected in Doha at any time. What this
data suggests is that the Qatari public body that owns Al Jazeera
could sell off significant minority shares through an IPO without
in any way losing control. Indeed, after all that Qatar and
its Emir have endured for the sake of Al Jazeera, it is impossible
to imagine Qatar ever letting it all go.