The New Face of Al Jazeera

The New Face of Al Jazeera

On the long, flat highway joining the Persian Gulf country of Qatar with Saudi Arabia, a small yellow sign reads “Army Camp” in English and Arabic. But this is no ordinary encampment for Qatar”s tiny military. Instead, it”s the Al Udeid air base, a billion-dollar complex that has hosted the US Central Command since 2001. The Qatari government believes the presence of an American base on its soil protects the country”s immense natural gas fields from its ambitious neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Still, even with the discreet American air base set deep in the rocky desert, Qatar would be just another Persian Gulf statelet were it not for another government endeavor: the pioneering Arabic sattelite news channel Al Jazeera. The headquarters of the channel that has been branded “Terror TV” by some US officials is only half an hour away from one of America”s most important strategic outposts, where tanks and planes damaged in Iraq are repaired and sent back into battle.

When Al Jazeera was first launched in 1996, it offered the kind of freewheeling, uncensored debate never publicly seen on Arab televisions, and Arabic speakers couldn”t get enough of it. The talk shows brought in guests from across the political spectrum, and the channel featured smartly produced news bulletins and correspondents stationed seemingly everywhere. But 9-11 brought a new anti-imperialist and, many argue, a pro-Sunni Islamist bent to the network. (The observations and reporting in this article apply only to Arabic-language Jazeera; in November 2006 the network opened an English-language counterpart, now called Al Jazeera English, which gives no evidence of sectarian tendencies.)

Al Jazeera”s programming breaks down into roughly four categories: newscasts, which tend to be fairly balanced; talk shows and related programs, to which viewers call in; documentaries; and reports from correspondents in the field. The last category is where the reporting has frequently turned away from international standards of journalism and toward a sensationalistic and Islamist bias. The field reports are overwhelmingly negative, with violent footage played over and over, highlighting Arab defeat and humiliation. And there”s a clear underlying message: that the way out of this spiral is political Islam.

“How things are covered, the prominence of things, what words are used–sometimes you do see that very clear Islamist subtext, depending on the issue,” says Alberto Fernandez, the director for press and public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near East Affairs at the State Department. “We see the unconditional support of Islamic movements, no matter where they are: Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan,” says a Jordanian official who did not wish to be identified because of what he characterized as the deteriorating relations between his country and Qatar. Dozens of hours of viewing Al Jazeera for this article confirm the charge. Whether it”s reporting the Hamas perspective from the occupied territories without mention of the Palestinian Authority”s version of events, or the fawning depiction elsewhere of Islamist parties and militias as the grassroots reflection of Arab sentiment, Al Jazeera has moved away from its ideologically diverse origins to a more populist/Islamist approach.

After the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera replaced its longtime secular bureau chief in Baghdad, Faisal Yasiri, with Wadah Khanfar, who had reported from Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001 and then Kurdish-controlled territory as the war with Iraq was launched in 2003. Shortly thereafter, the secular head of Al Jazeera, Mohammed Jassem Ali, was ousted and replaced by Khanfar, whom more than a dozen current and former employees of the station interviewed for this article characterize as an Islamist.

It was around this time that Jazeera”s Iraq bureau “became a platform for [Sunni] extremists,” says Shaker Hamid, a secular Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad from 1997 to 2000, who left to work at another Arab satellite station after getting what he says was a better offer. “I can”t say that Jazeera”s rhetoric is completely against Shiites,” Hamid says. “The Americans introduced this, but the media should not make it worse, and Jazeera did.”

Yasiri argues that Jazeera”s Islamist influence is “creating tension to fit their beliefs and increase the differences between people.” In other words, he says, the station portrays Iraqi Sunnis, a demographic minority to the country”s Shiites, primarily as victims of American and Shiite aggression. The latter charge is echoed even by friends of the network. “There is clear sectarianism in Iraq, and Jazeera takes the Sunni side for many reasons,” says Yasser Abu Hilala, the station”s correspondent and bureau chief in Jordan. “The whole [Persian] Gulf region has fears of Iran in mind. Theoretically, they could occupy the whole Gulf.” What Jazeera is doing in Iraq and elsewhere, Abu Hilala says, reflects the general political climate in the Sunni Middle East (Qatar is overwhelmingly Sunni). “The newsroom is part of Arab society, not cut off from it,” he points out. Nidal Mansour, president of the nonpartisan Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, in Amman, Jordan, bluntly argues that Sunnis in the Arab world do not like Shiites in Iraq, nor do they like Iraq”s Shiite-dominated government, and that Jazeera understands this.

What is hotly debated is whether this coverage is simply a mirror reflecting the way most Sunni Arabs see Iraq or whether Jazeera is creating that image and then reinforcing it. The answer may be a bit of both. “I believe Al Jazeera follows the Arab street and also moves the street the way it wants,” says Mansour. Abu Hilala echoes this view. Jazeera “influences and is influenced by public opinion, just like the Western media,” he says.

Al Jazeera maintains a bureau in the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq but has been banned from the rest of the country since 2004, when interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi closed it for what he said at the time was incitement to violence and hatred. No specific incident was cited, but an Interior Ministry statement accused Jazeera of being the “mouthpiece” of terror groups. Coming from a mostly Shiite government, the charge was widely interpreted as Jazeera”s support for the Sunni insurgency. From the perspective of Arab governments, however, Jazeera is a useful scapegoat to deflect criticism: They have hated and feared the station ever since its founding, because Jazeera allowed overt criticism of those governments even as it carefully avoided criticism of its patron, the government of Qatar.

“There”s a difference between a channel being a spokesperson for Hamas, and one like Al Jazeera, which shouldn”t try to play to what the street wants,” Hafez al-Mirazi, the longtime Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera who resigned in the spring of this year, told the Arabic daily Al Hayat. “There”s no doubt Al Jazeera has crossed the line.”

The State Department”s Fernandez, a frequent guest on the channel, says that while Jazeera should be respected and praised for its coverage of efforts to achieve reform and democracy in the Arab world, it can also play fast and loose with the facts. During Iraq”s December 2005 parliamentary elections, Jazeera invited Mohammed Douri, Saddam Hussein”s former ambassador to the United Nations, to comment about the process. “You could do that, I guess, but they identified him as an “analyst,”” without mentioning his background, says Fernandez with a laugh.

Al Jazeera”s talk shows frequently feature Sunni Iraqi guests who purport to speak for all Iraqis–and hosts who seldom hide their opinions. On the popular The Opposite Direction, where ideological opponents generally shout at one another, a typical exchange included State Department spokesman Adam Ereli and Mishaan Jubbouri, who was identified as “head of the Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc” in the Iraqi Parliament: The host, Faisal al Qassem, asked, “Did the Americans invade Iraq to free Iraqis or for oil?” Jubbouri responded, “It”s not just Iraqi oil, it”s all Arab oil. They want to kill off indigenous people and control their wealth.” After Ereli, through an interpreter, cited America”s Arab allies in the region in rebutting Jubbouri”s claims, the host confronted Ereli: “The US is the biggest supporter of dictatorships. Aren”t you ashamed to repeat these lies? Are you against dictatorships? The US created them with the CIA and all these other people, lying to the world.” Ereli replied that the United States serves as a model for Iraqi Arab countries, and that Iraqi oil belonged to the Iraqi people.

Jubbouri then cited the “resistance” as the only force stopping the Americans from exporting Iraqi oil for their own profit. Jubbouri was not credited by al Qassem for his most well-known achievement: the creation of the Zowra channel, which broadcasts insurgent videos of American soldiers being killed. The website reports that Jubbouri “was known for his sectarian attacks on Iraq”s Shiite leaders and militias” and that he “regularly praises Saddam Hussein on Al Jazeera,” which he did later in the program.

“There”s a difference with them having an American on, say like me, who goes on for an hour and is beaten up by someone in Arabic, and basically having an echo chamber where you have, say, Hassan Nasrallah [leader of the Lebanese Shiite political party and militia Hezbollah] on for an hour without any critical commentary,” says Fernandez. Nasrallah became a populist hero among both Shiites and Sunnis all over the Arab world after Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a draw in the summer of 2006. Nasrallah”s popularity with Arabs unnerved Sunni Arab leaders, who had initially criticized Hezbollah for inciting the conflict. The undermining of Arab governments is something Al Jazeera is always happy to cover–and its celebration of Hezbollah and its leader Nasrallah is a notable exception to the channel”s recent Sunni Islamist sectarian trend.

Wadah Khanfar, the head of Jazeera, says that Islam is more of a factor now in the influential political and social spheres of the Arab world, and the network”s coverage reflects that. “Maybe you have more Islamic voices [on the network] because of the political reality on the ground,” Khanfar says. He does not feel that Jazeera”s tone has become more Islamist; he argues instead that a diversity of opinions, nationalities and ethnicities at the station is what has made it such a success. The diversity is undoubtedly there, but it doesn”t take much viewing of the channel to discern a dual message: Sunni religious figures are almost always treated deferentially as voices of authority on almost any issue, and Arab governments as useless stooges of the United States and Israel.

Former employees of Jazeera interviewed for this article say the newsroom is becoming more religiously conservative. “Everyone is complaining about the new trend now–that the liberals, the secular types, the Arab nationalists are getting downsized and the Islamic position is dominating the newsroom,” says Hamid, the former Baghdad correspondent. Mirazi, the former Washington bureau chief, told Al Hayat: “From the first day of the Wadah Khanfar era, there was a dramatic change–especially because of him selecting assistants who are hard-line Islamists.”

The charge that Jazeera is biased against Arab regimes other than Qatar”s has led nearly every Arab government to formally complain, withdraw its ambassador from Qatar or close the local Al Jazeera bureau at some point or another. The Jordanian official cited above claims that Qatar”s purpose is clear: to use Al Jazeera “to undermine the stability of Arab regimes and reduce the stature of Arab leaders.”

Khanfar dismisses the criticisms of Arab governments, which he says lack credibility “as legitimate democratic leaders.” When those governments feel their hold on power loosening, they tighten it more than ever, he says. “They resort to intimidation and intelligence [services].”

Abu Hilala, one of the most respected correspondents at the network, described the two times he was arrested and held by the Jordanian authorities for his Jazeera reporting. “You can”t imagine what it”s like when they force themselves into your house,” he says. “You can report 80 or 90 percent of what you want. But not 100 percent. If you approach certain topics, you might lose everything.” Jordanian law, like that of most other Arab countries, says it is a crime to publish material that “disparages the King or Royal Family, relates in any way to the Armed Forces or Security Forces, unless permission has been obtained from those forces…and includes false information or rumors that harm the common good.” Abu Hilala notes, “There”s no security for Arab journalists, no law to protect them.”

Meanwhile, the Jordanian media, especially the official outlets, offer the same stale, retrograde fare that”s been used by Arab state networks for decades. Before its flagship program, the 8 o”clock evening news, Jordan Television usually broadcasts patriotic songs (“My country, my country, O! My country!”), accompanied by dizzyingly fast panoramic shots of Jordan”s topography. The news leads with what the king did that day, which is generally to call for peace somewhere in the region or to conduct a meeting with foreign visitors. Silent footage of the king greeting said visitors is broken by the text of the report, which conveniently matches what the official press agency, Petra, puts out the same day. No wonder Jordanians, like Arabs all over the region, flocked to Al Jazeera when it opened.

Even so, preaching to other Arab governments for stifling political and media freedoms and doing otherwise in Qatar does undermine Jazeera”s credibility. “That is probably the most vulnerable point,” says Marc Lynch, an expert on the Arab media and a professor at George Washington University. “They don”t touch Qatari politics because the Emir pays for [the station].”

When asked about Jazeera”s infrequent coverage of Qatar, Khanfar invokes the tiny size of the country, arguing that this makes it less newsworthy than other states. If Qatar has acquired “a huge status in the region” through Jazeera, as Khanfar claims, it apparently is one not worth reporting on.

Khanfar would not answer specific questions about the station”s financing other than to cite the Qatari government as its source. The channel submits expenses to the Ministry of Finance, which reimburses the deficits. Al Jazeera has expanded its brand in recent years; in addition to the positively reviewed English-language Al Jazeera International, the network has opened four sports channels, a children”s channel and a documentary channel. These efforts will boost profitability, Khanfar says. For now, though, the network is almost totally dependent on the government. Al Jazeera maintains that this is because of a Saudi-imposed boycott, in which anyone who advertises on the Qatari network is denied access to the lucrative Saudi market. The Saudi-Qatari rivalry is certainly not imaginary; Al Jazeera”s primary competitor remains Al Arabiya, the Saudi-funded news channel based in Dubai.

A Qatari royal, Sheikh Hamid bin Thamer (whom Yasser Abu Hilala calls the “backbone” of the network), sits at the head of Jazeera”s board. He is a powerful figure, not only at Al Jazeera but in the Qatari official media as well. And while Khanfar says that “successful journalists question centers of power,” it seems that local Qatari reporters are not given that opportunity, or are afraid to exercise it. Qatar”s official media are full of the comings and goings of Emir Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani and other family members. And Jazeera, which competes with other international news channels such as the BBC and CNN in breaking news about the rest of the world, is as bad as the other Arab state networks when it comes to reporting on Qatar.

After years of a near-monopoly in the televised Arab media, Al Jazeera has inspired countless imitators throughout the Arab world. The only competitor that has come close is Al Arabiya. Jazeera still holds a majority market share, a remarkable accomplishment after more than ten years. And Jazeera has forced the Arab governments to at least consider the possible media consequences of their actions, something that would have been unthinkable before the network”s 1996 launch.

Jazeera”s pandering to the so-called Arab street feeds off and into the anger of a part of Arab society that is spoiling for a fight–people who are angry about what they consider Western decadence and the oppression of Muslims. It may also offer solace or diversion to the many who are poor and politically powerless, and who feel that their government does not address their concerns in any way.

What Jazeera misses is the middle-class Arab population that isn”t angry, that has given up on politics and doesn”t have time to call in to these programs. They try to ignore their governments, which have so little to offer. And when such people turn on the television, says Nidal Mansour, they expect entertainment. For those who regularly watch Al Jazeera, the constant parade of blood and guts may even have an inuring effect. “Al Jazeera turned death into yet another boring soap opera,” says Mansour.

In a region so controlled for so long, Al Jazeera created a mainstream, Arab-centered narrative for the Israel-Palestine conflict and others in the region. But for all its achievements, the grip of repressive Arab regimes seems to be as tight as ever. Ten years of breaking taboos, promoting reform, exposing corruption and rigged elections has meant those governments have to work a little harder to cover up their abuses. But power is still very much centralized. Jazeera has a tangible impact on public opinion, but that public has–so far–failed to mobilize and seriously challenge the dictatorships.

“Arab governments saw this kind of [free] media change nothing,” says Faisal Yassiri, Al Jazeera”s former Baghdad bureau chief. “It”s just coffeehouse talk.”