Behind the Scenes with Al-Jazeera

Apr 15, 2002

Journalists el-Nawawy and Farag give the inside story on the Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera and the impact it has had on how Arab culture perceives the world.

Carnegie Council: How did each of you become interested in journalism?

Adel Iskander Farag: My interest in journalism started in Kuwait during the Gulf War. I grew up in Kuwait and I remember vividly how Saddam Hussein manipulated the media after Iraq invaded. The entire conflict was completely fabricated on Iraqi television, and I felt angry at all the Arab-controlled media that disseminated such misleading messages. That was my main motivation to become a journalist.

Mohammed el-Nawawy: I started developing an interest in communications during high school in Cairo. Then in my journalism classes at the American University of Cairo, I could see a discrepancy between what I was taught in class —my courses had a liberal arts focus, promoting the values of freedom of speech, freedom of the press – and what I could read in Egyptian newspapers or see on Egyptian TV. I totally agree with Adel about the Arab media during Gulf War. You could see CNN doing a marvelous job with its coverage but you would also see a big discrepancy between that and what the national Arab channels were broadcasting. That really led to my interest in journalism.

Carnegie Council: How did you learn there was another way of doing media in the first place?

AIF: Actually, the Middle East has a very vibrant civil society: there is constant intellectual discussion about political, economic and religious issues. But very little of that was ever put on the airwaves. The precedent was really set with Al-Jazeera, which showed us that freedom of expression is not only tolerable but also commendable.

Me-N: As a young student, I admired the role of foreign correspondents in reporting on different cultures. So after I graduated from the American University of Cairo, I went on get a Ph.D. in journalism in the United States and did my dissertation on the coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict by Western correspondents.

Carnegie Council: When did you decide to write this book, and why?

AIF: Mohammed and I have been doing research on Al-Jazeera for a couple of years, but after September 11th, Al-Jazeera began to be portrayed in a very negative light in the United States. We thought it was our responsibility to highlight some of their accomplishments and show how much they have done to promote public discourse and freedom of expression in the Middle East. All that existed prior to the book was a disconnected series of articles about Al-Jazeera, so we made this book all encompassing in that it captures the essence of the network, its philosophy, where it is going, and what its potential might be. But the September 11th attacks were the primary motivation.

Carnegie Council: How does Al-Jazeera differ from CNN or BBC—aside from being focused on Middle Eastern issues and being in Arabic?

Me-N: Good question. It’s not just a matter of language but of presenting the news through an Arab perspective. Arabs who were critical of their own media always wanted to watch CNN or listen to the BBC Arabic radio service. Now, however, they have their own channel presenting news that looks like CNN but shows an Arab perspective. People accuse Al-Jazeera of being biased towards the Arab cause and towards the Palestinians, but CNN and other American news networks do the same thing by presenting the news primarily from an American perspective.

Carnegie Council: You talk about the Arab perspective being mistakenly interpreted as biased. I will mention one specific charge of bias on Al-Jazeera that has received a lot of attention: the use of the word “martyr” to describe Palestinians killed in the current Intifada. Al-Jazeera defenders say this is simply the way Arabs regard Palestinians killed in the conflict; but now that suicide bombing has become a secular phenomena—the fact is, we also have Christian martyrs and even Jewish martyrs—the word appears to connote something more than just an Arab perspective on the Palestinians.

AIF: Interestingly enough, there is a debate now in the Middle East about the usage of “martyr” and whether active resistance or attacks on civilians constitutes martyrdom. My sense is, the term has been taken out of context insofar as it is a religious term. Plus “martyr” is a loaded term. That said, Al-Jazeera is hardly alone in favoring loaded terms –Western networks, for instance, are constantly referring to “terrorists.” What does “terrorist” really mean? Who is a terrorist? There is no universal definition, yet the term is being tossed around. Also, people now say “targeted killings” instead of “assassination.” All networks, whether Arab or Western, should be held accountable for their loaded language –it has deep connotations that should not be ignored.

Me-N: From the Arab point of view, the Palestinians who died resisting the Israeli incursions into Ramallah and Bethlehem and other Palestinian areas should be called “martyrs” because they died for a cause – that of an independent nation. But Al-Jazeera did not call the September 11th hijackers “martyrs.”

Carnegie Council: I would think this issue would be the exact kind of thing that is debated on the popular Al-Jazeera talk show, “ The Opposite Direction”?

AIF: I don’t think they have discussed the usage of term but they have discussed what constitutes “resistance.”

Carnegie Council: Another big charge of bias is over the topics Al-Jazeera chooses to cover. For example, after the United States “liberated” Kabul, some accused Al-Jazeera of ignoring the images of Afghani citizens celebrating in the streets, women taking off their burqas, etc., instead focusing almost exclusively on pictures of the bombing and the dead. Some accused this footage of being overly inflammatory.

Me-N: I agree with you that showing casualty footage can be inflammatory. But on the other side, we have CNN and other networks that are not showing any footage of casualties. American networks were focused on the military mission and interviewing soldiers and such, but not too much on the devastation left in their wake. That is an omission CNN can be criticized for.

AIF: You mentioned the “liberation” of Kabul. One thing to remember is that the Al-Jazeera bureau in Kabul was bombed during the military campaign, meaning that the Al-Jazeera staff were displaced. For a period of time, Al-Jazeera had none of their own coverage of Kabul – in fact, they were using newsfootage obtained from Western networks. That was something of a role reversal!

Me-N: Also, Al-Jazeera correspondents were all Arab, and for an Arab to be in Kabul when the Taliban members were fleeing and the Northern Alliance members were entering—it was a very dangerous situation for a reporter. The Northern Alliance could have mistaken an Al-Jazeera reporter for someone aligned with the Taliban, so basically, the the network’s reporters had no choice but to flee the country. In that sense, I agree with your point –there was a lapse in coverage.

Carnegie Council: One last point on the Afghanistan offensive: Many people felt the United States did a good thing in removing the Taliban, but was this sentiment shared by the Arab media?

AIF: Long before September 11th, the Arab world recognized that the Taliban regime was extremely repressive. It has always been branded as extremely radical, and very few Arabs would support the Taliban regime as an institution. But I think the means by which the Taliban was replaced – perhaps along with the West’s disregard for human casualties – is what led to Arabs covering the offensive in a critical fashion. But the war in Afghanistan did not inflame public opinion as much as another issue they feel much more passionately about – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Me-N: For most Arabs, the war in Afghanistan was a “black and white” issue. The Taliban were a repressive regime; plus they were hosting Osama bin Laden and a group of terrorists. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, by contrast, is much more complicated.

Carnegie Council: How has Al-Jazeera managed to unite the Arab world in viewership considering the Middle East is so fractured politically, historically, and even in terms of religion?

Me-N: In Arab eyes, Al-Jazeera is not affiliated with any specific Arab government and has not sided with any particular Arab regime. This in and of itself makes people trust the network more. They think of it as being objective and trust it to cover all sides. It does have an Arab perspective, but they think it comes closer to conveying reality and truth than other Arab news sources.

AIF: There are two reasons Al-Jazeera is so successful in uniting the Arab audience. One is its willingness to highlight the fact that Arabs are not all alike. Al-Jazeera’s talk shows reflect the considerable differences of opinion expressed across the Arab world. This is integral to Al-Jazeera’s success – after all, you have 22 countries in the Middle East that are radically different in so many ways. But while noting differences, it tackles issues that most Arabs feel strongly about.

Me-N: Al-Jazeera’s own staff come from many different Arab countries, so they all merge together in a sort of melting pot.

Carnegie Council: You say in your book that many companies are reluctant to advertise on Al-Jazeera because they fear retaliation from the Arab governments who host them and who dislike the station. But has Al-Jazeera now become too big a force for advertisers to ignore? Are companies showing any more willingness to advertise on Al-Jazeera?

Me-N: Some governments have been putting a lot of pressure on advertisers, and this has created many financial problems for Al-Jazeera. Other channels, in contrast, can make as much as five times the profit as Al-Jazeera does from their advertising revenues. But Al-Jazeera has been exploring other channels for making money, such as selling documentaries, renting its equipment to other networks, and selling footage of Osama bin Laden to media stations like CNN. But at this stage, they are still experimenting.

Carnegie Council: Is Al-Jazeera too much too fast for the Middle East? In your book, you say that Al-Jazeera should not be held responsible for the effects of its broadcasts; but if the network is serving to destabilize Arab governments, shouldn’t Al-Jazeera at least be wary of this?

AIF: Al-Jazeera should continue to operate freely and critique Arab regimes. If your country’s parliament is not a viable democratic institution, then, by all means, it should be subject to criticism. Whether or not there is enough public opinion inside any of these countries to change the governments has yet to be seen. The reason these governments hate Al-Jazeera so much is because their hold on power is so fragile, and the reason it’s so fragile is because the leaders were not democratically elected. No one would worry about Al-Jazeera if politics were out in the open.

Me-N: To some extent, I agree it has been too much too fast. It was only founded in 1996, so for people to see world affairs issues being debated on television is still a huge shock. There is no question that Arabs are still getting used to this. Still, it had to happen at some point. And now that Al-Jazeera has taken the lead, we hope other networks will follow suit.

I also totally agree with what Adel said with regard to Arab governments being afraid of criticism. They are not used to it. Even if a foreign correspondent from CNN were critical of an Arab regime, that person would be considered an enemy. Arab governments think that the media’s role, whether foreign or Arab, is to serve their interests. They need to recognize that there is a new reality, one that holds them accountable for their actions. And whether or not Al-Jazeera can mobilize Arab publics into political activism—that has yet to be seen. I think it is too early to judge. But there are already signs of political mobilization as a result of Al-Jazeera, especially when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Carnegie Council: That leads to my next question, which is the degree of linkage between Al-Jazeera and the huge anti-U.S., anti-Israel demonstrations happening around the Arab world today.

Me-N: Its not that people sit and watch Al-Jazeera and then say “let’s go and demonstrate.” It doesn’t happen that way. They often see the same footage on other Arab networks. But Al-Jazeera has a more objective way of presenting it and a more “on-the-ground” feel that makes it effective.

Carnegie Council: Just for my own benefit, do the Egyptian government channels cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the same way, even though they have direct ties to Israel? Or do they feel compelled to tone down their footage?

AIF: You would be surprised. If you look at the Egyptian press, it is very critical of Israel.

Me-N: Peace between Egypt and Israel is still on paper. Even before the recent developments, the Egyptian government’s relations with Israel was becoming controversial.

Carnegie Council: Why was Ariel Sharon never interviewed on Al-Jazeera?

AIF: Sharon wanted to impose some restrictions on the way the interview would be conducted, so Al-Jazeera turned it down. Al-Jazeera takes pride in not bowing to anyone who wants to impose rules. That is why they didn’t air their interview with Osama bin Laden after September 11th. They thought it was too staged and that their reporter was being subject to intimidation tactics. CNN recently broadcast parts of this interview.

Carnegie Council: What do you think will happen with Al-Jazeera?

AIF: One thing we have to realize is it’s not just about Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera is just a case study. But they have opened the door for free expression in the Middle East to a point where other networks will have to follow suit, whether they like it nor not. So many other networks in the Middle East are democratizing their approach to news coverage. Whether Al-Jazeera is around ten years from now doesn’t matter. The wheels are now rolling in the right direction.

Carnegie Council: You mean to say that even Arab-controlled news stations are moving towards covering all sides, even if that means criticizing the government?

AIF: I think the change in Arab government stations is slower, but change is happening nevertheless. They are cautious not to cross the line but I think it’s just a matter of time before they do so. Freedom of expression is very contagious. For an Arab audience that hasn’t seen it or heard it before, this kind of freedom feels really good.

Carnegie Council: So what would happen if Al-Jazeera was shut down tomorrow?

AIF: Something else would come up, simply because the demand is now there.

Me-N: People would feel a void. They have gotten used to this news and programming, and once you’ve tasted this freedom, it is very hard to relinquish.

Interview conducted by Mark Pedersen,

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