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 interestedin journalism?

Adel Iskander Farag: My interest in journalism startedin Kuwait during the Gulf War. I grew up in Kuwait and I remembervividly 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 disseminatedsuch misleading messages. That was my main motivation to becomea journalist.

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

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

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

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

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

AIF: Mohammed and I have been doing research onAl-Jazeera for a couple of years, but after September 11th,Al-Jazeera began to be portrayed in a very negative light in theUnited States. We thought it was our responsibility to highlightsome of their accomplishments and show how much they have done topromote public discourse and freedom of expression in the MiddleEast. All that existed prior to the book was a disconnected seriesof articles about Al-Jazeera, so we made this book all encompassingin that it captures the essence of the network, its philosophy,where it is going, and what its potential might be. But the September11th attacks were the primary motivation.

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

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

Carnegie Council: You talk about the Arab perspectivebeing mistakenly interpreted as biased. I will mention one specificcharge of bias on Al-Jazeera that has received a lot of attention:the use of the word “martyr” to describe Palestinianskilled in the current Intifada. Al-Jazeeradefenders say this is simply the way Arabs regard Palestinians killedin the conflict; but now that suicide bombing has become a secularphenomena—the fact is, we also have Christian martyrs and evenJewish martyrs—the word appears to connote something more thanjust an Arab perspective on the Palestinians.

AIF: Interestingly enough, there is a debate nowin the Middle East about the usage of “martyr” and whetheractive resistance or attacks on civilians constitutes martyrdom.My sense is, the term has been taken out of context insofar as itis a religious term. Plus “martyr” is a loaded term.That said, Al-Jazeera is hardly alone in favoring loaded terms –Westernnetworks, 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 hasdeep connotations that should not be ignored.

Me-N: From the Arab point of view, the Palestinianswho died resisting the Israeli incursions into Ramallah and Bethlehemand 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 wouldbe the exact kind of thing that is debated on the popular Al-Jazeeratalk show, “ TheOpposite Direction”?

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

Carnegie Council: Another big charge of biasis over the topics Al-Jazeera chooses to cover. For example,after the United States “liberated” Kabul, some accusedAl-Jazeera of ignoring the images of Afghani citizens celebratingin the streets, women taking off their burqas, etc., instead focusingalmost exclusively on pictures of the bombing and the dead. Someaccused this footage of being overly inflammatory.

Me-N: I agree with you that showing casualty footagecan be inflammatory. But on the other side, we have CNN and othernetworks that are not showing any footage of casualties. Americannetworks were focused on the military mission and interviewing soldiersand 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 inKabul was bombed during the military campaign, meaning that theAl-Jazeera staff were displaced. For a period of time, Al-Jazeerahad none of their own coverage of Kabul – in fact, they wereusing newsfootage obtained from Western networks. That was somethingof 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 fleeingand the Northern Alliance members were entering—it was a verydangerous situation for a reporter. The Northern Alliance couldhave mistaken an Al-Jazeera reporter for someone aligned with theTaliban, so basically, the the network’s reporters had nochoice but to flee the country. In that sense, I agree with yourpoint –there was a lapse in coverage.

Carnegie Council: One last point on the Afghanistanoffensive: Many people felt the United States did a good thing inremoving the Taliban, but was this sentiment shared by the Arabmedia?

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

Me-N: For most Arabs, the war in Afghanistan wasa “black and white” issue. The Taliban were a repressiveregime; 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 unitethe Arab world in viewership considering the Middle East is so fracturedpolitically, historically, and even in terms of religion?

Me-N: In Arab eyes, Al-Jazeera is not affiliatedwith any specific Arab government and has not sided with any particularArab regime. This in and of itself makes people trust the networkmore. They think of it as being objective and trust it to coverall sides. It does have an Arab perspective, but they think it comescloser to conveying reality and truth than other Arab news sources.

AIF: There are two reasons Al-Jazeera is so successfulin uniting the Arab audience. One is its willingness to highlightthe fact that Arabs are not all alike. Al-Jazeera’s talk showsreflect the considerable differences of opinion expressed acrossthe Arab world. This is integral to Al-Jazeera’s success –after all, you have 22 countries in the Middle East that are radicallydifferent in so many ways. But while noting differences, it tacklesissues that most Arabs feel strongly about.

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

Carnegie Council: You say in your book that manycompanies are reluctant to advertise on Al-Jazeera because theyfear retaliation from the Arab governments who host them and whodislike the station. But has Al-Jazeera now become too big a forcefor advertisers to ignore? Are companies showing any more willingnessto advertise on Al-Jazeera?

Me-N: Some governments have been putting a lot ofpressure on advertisers, and this has created many financial problemsfor Al-Jazeera. Other channels, in contrast, can make as much asfive times the profit as Al-Jazeera does from their advertisingrevenues. But Al-Jazeera has been exploring other channels for makingmoney, such as selling documentaries, renting its equipment to othernetworks, and selling footage of Osama bin Laden to media stationslike CNN. But at this stage, they are still experimenting.

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

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

Me-N: To some extent, I agree it has been too muchtoo fast. It was only founded in 1996, so for people to see worldaffairs 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 hastaken the lead, we hope other networks will follow suit.

I also totally agree with what Adel said with regard to Arab governmentsbeing afraid of criticism. They are not used to it. Even if a foreigncorrespondent from CNN were critical of an Arab regime, that personwould be considered an enemy. Arab governments think that the media’srole, whether foreign or Arab, is to serve their interests. Theyneed to recognize that there is a new reality, one that holds themaccountable for their actions. And whether or not Al-Jazeera canmobilize Arab publics into political activism—that has yet tobe seen. I think it is too early to judge. But there are alreadysigns of political mobilization as a result of Al-Jazeera, especiallywhen 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-Jazeeraand then say “let’s go and demonstrate.” It doesn’thappen 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, dothe Egyptian government channels cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflictin the same way, even though they have direct ties to Israel? Ordo they feel compelled to tone down their footage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AIF: I think the change in Arab government stationsis slower, but change is happening nevertheless. They are cautiousnot to cross the line but I think it’s just a matter of timebefore they do so. Freedom of expression is very contagious. Foran Arab audience that hasn’t seen it or heard it before, thiskind of freedom feels really good.

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

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

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

Interview conducted by Mark Pedersen, Carnegiecouncil.org.

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