Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East
April 15, 2002
JOANNE MYERS: I would like to welcome members, guests, and C-SPAN TV to our Author in the Afternoon series.
Today our guests are Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskander. They will be discussing their book, Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East.
When the announcements were sent out for today's program, some of you asked, "What is Al-Jazeera?" Al-Jazeera is the biggest media phenomenon to hit the Arab world since the advent of television. From the moment it was founded five years ago, this independent all-Arab television news network, which is based in Qatar, has revolutionized Arab-language television news. It has become the most watched, the most controversial news channel in the region. Today this station claims a global audience of 35 million Arabic-speaking viewers.
Traditionally, the Middle East has been accustomed to heavily censored offerings of state-controlled television. For a decade, most discussion programs on Arabic TV stations were non-controversial and did little else but serve as public relations outlets for their respective governments. However, by using the power and persuasion of television, this news channel provided the first exposure to opposing voices, and in so doing has managed to enrage all of the authoritarian Arab regimes at one time or another.
Following September 11th, when Al-Jazeera obtained a video recording of Osama bin Laden and his closest aides, this 24 hour news channel broadened its appeal and taught the West that the global marketplace of news and information was no longer dominated by the United States. Whether the message is one of hate or peace in the global communications environment, it is impossible to either silence those who send the message or stop those who want to receive it.
As one veteran Middle East analyst put it, "Just as CNN was created by the Gulf War, the Afghan conflict expanded Al-Jazeera's reach and is opening a window to issues long avoided and restricted."
With us today are authors Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskander, who will tell us how Al-Jazeera started, how it operates, the kinds of programs it broadcasts, the viewers it affects, and the reaction of the West and Arab states to the future of news broadcasting in the Middle East.
Mohammed El-Nawawy was born and raised in Egypt. He has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and in the United States. His experience includes the Associated Press in Cairo, the Middle East News Agency, and the Baltimore Sun. In addition to Al-Jazeera, he is the author of Israeli-Egyptian Peace Process in the Reporting of Western Journalists. Currently he is a Professor of Journalism at the University of West Florida.
His co-author Adel Iskander has conducted studies on viewership of Arab media and the use of North American media by Arab immigrants. He lived in Kuwait and in Egypt for many years and currently teaches communication at the University of Kentucky.
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: Several articles have appeared on Al-Jazeera in major American newspapers and magazines in the aftermath of 9/11. We believe that these pieces have not supplied the full picture and context for Al-Jazeera for the American audience. So the main objective of our book is to put Al-Jazeera into perspective for Americans, and also to describe the general Arab media scene through Arab eyes.
However, it is important to stress that this is not just a historical account of an Arab network's rise to fame. It is the story of the Arab people's dream of freedom of speech, a dream that has final become a reality through Al-Jazeera.
Al-Jazeera, which was launched by the Government of Qatar in November 1996, seeks to be provocative and controversial in a region where freedom of the press is limited to directives from government information ministries; in a region where the government-owned networks' main objective is to promote and enhance the policies of Arab leaders and to broadcast "protocol" news about the comings and goings of those leaders; in a region where there is no First Amendment, where freedom of speech is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution, as it is the case here in the United States, but rather a privilege granted by Arab governments to a selected group of reporters.
We believe that Al-Jazeera has changed all that. It has crossed all the red lines and boundaries in its coverage of daily news events, whether news events relevant to President Bush's press conferences or the Palestinian uprising.
We believe that Al-Jazeera's live, on-the-ground coverage of daily events is something that is really an unprecedented phenomenon in the Arab world. I still remember the press conference that was held by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on March 29th during which he announced the start of the wide-scale Israeli military operations in the West Bank. Al-Jazeera was the only Arab network covering that event live on-air.
One can safely argue that Al-Jazeera has pushed the limits for other Arab networks to be more critical of Arab regimes and to tackle all kinds of sensitive issues. Nowadays the philosophy among some of the Arab networks is "if we don't air that story, Al-Jazeera will."
So this gives you a very brief and condensed idea of what Al-Jazeera has done on the Arab media scene.
However, Al-Jazeera's rise to international media fame began on October 7, 2001, and that was thanks to its exclusive coverage of what was to become a series of bin Laden tapes, and also its exclusive coverage of the Afghanistan war, at least during the initial stages of that war.
One can safely say that Al-Jazeera is considered to be the first non-Western network to seriously challenge the monopoly of the Western networks, in general, over global news reporting.
In this context it would be interesting to compare the roles of Peter Arnett, the former CNN correspondent to Iraq, who was at one point the only correspondent in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, to the role of Tayseer Allouni, the former Al-Jazeera correspondent to Afghanistan, who was also at one time the only correspondent in the Afghan capital Kabul. Both correspondents were accused of bias in their reporting. Peter Arnett was accused of being pro-Iraq and Tayseer Allouni was of being pro-Taliban. This was despite the fact that many Taliban leaders have openly harassed Allouni for not having a long enough beard and for moving around with a television camera, something that was banned at the time.
I would like to switch gears here and mention the Al-Jazeera talk shows, which have tackled sensitive issues on the political, social, religious, and economic arenas, issues that have been a shock for many Arab viewers to see being discussed on Arab television screens, issues that have always been discussed behind closed doors. Not only that, but they can voice their opinions live on-air, without any censorship from the government.
Al-Jazeera's flagship program is "The Opposite Direction," an Arabic version of CNN's "Crossfire." The host of that program, Faisal Al Qasim, who is now the Larry King of the Arab world, invites two guests from extremely polar sides and puts them in a position to clash. Every issue is fair game for Al Qasim.
Many Arab governments have highly discouraged or even prevented their politicians and officials from appearing on "The Opposite Direction."
One politician insisted on appearing on the program, so he disguised his identity by wearing a fake mustache. Maybe ten or 15 minutes into the program, he got all excited and started shouting and wagging fingers, as is always the case on this program, so part of the mustache popped off his face. During the commercial break they pasted the mustache back on. Then, again he got all heated up, but this time he actually tore off the mustache and threw it away on-air. This gives you a sense of what really can take place on "The Opposite Direction."
This leads me to discuss the relationship between Al-Jazeera and the Arab governments. More than 450 official complaints have been filed by Arab governments against Al-Jazeera for bruising Arab sensibilities, breaching the Arab code of ethics, having inappropriate coverage of certain news events.
The example that illustrates that relationship and how far the Arab governments are willing to go to prevent their viewers from watching Al-Jazeera comes from Algeria, a country that has been suffering from a bloody civil war since 1992.
Three years ago Al-Jazeera decided to devote a program to the Algerian civil war to present the facts for the Algerian audience, facts that they have never seen in their own media. So the Algerian audience was eagerly awaiting this episode in their living rooms, when suddenly there was a power outage. As you can imagine, this power outage was not coincidental. It was planned by the Algerian Government to prevent the viewers from watching the program.
Other Arab governments have put pressures on advertisers to discourage their advertising on Al-Jazeera. Saudi Arabia has always monopolized the media scene in the Arabian Gulf area. The Saudi Government now feels that Al-Jazeera has been pulling the rug from beneath it. The Saudi entrepreneurs who started the Arab Radio and Television (ART) and the Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) feel that Al-Jazeera has taken some of their audiences. And so Saudi Arabia is putting pressure on its advertisers as a financial pressure on Al-Jazeera.
When we talk about the relationship between Al-Jazeera and the Arab governments, there are two interesting points.
One is the "love/hate relationship." Some Arab leaders, like the Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, have criticized Al-Jazeera on several occasions, accused it of breaching Arab nationalism, and yet he would do anything to appear on the channel. In fact, he appeared on a couple of occasions talking about Arab nationalism.
The other point is that most of the complaints that have been voiced against Al-Jazeera have been directed not to the channel itself but to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Qatari Government. This is an indication that Arab leaders are not used to having such an independent and free channel around them, to the point where they cannot realize that the Qatari Government has no effect and no editorial supervision on the editorial policy of Al-Jazeera.
Complaints against Al-Jazeera have not just come from governments, but from individuals. Here in the Western world, many individuals have accused the channel of being pro-bin Laden, pro-Taliban, pro-Afghanistan, even pro-authoritarianism.
In the Arab world, viewers have also accused Al-Jazeera, especially during the initial stages of the channel. Some accused it of being pro-Israeli, and even pro-Zionist, just because the channel was among the first Arab networks to interview top Israeli leaders. Cartoons in Arab newspapers and magazines have even portrayed the news anchors of Al-Jazeera with the Star of David on their shoulders. Other viewers have accused the channel of being pro-America, pro-CIA—accusations that have become moot now, since the U.S. Government has started to try to silence the channel.
In many cases if any network airs a story that does not appeal to its viewers, some of those viewers might easily accuse it of aligning with the other side. We saw that with CNN a few days ago, when it aired an interview with one of the top leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas. Some of its viewers actually sent a letter accusing CNN of being pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli.
The onus should be on the viewers to comprehend the context of the messages being delivered to them through a network, and to understand and to be media-literate enough to understand the perspective of the network. CNN and other American networks present the news from an American perspective, just as Al-Jazeera presents news from an Arab perspective.
Again, I will switch gears and describe how Al-Jazeera has prompted U.S. officials to try to sell their image in the Arab Middle East.
Recently, the United States Congress has approved funding for the start of an Arabian network targeted for the Arab audience, an American network called the Middle East View Network. The main focus of that network currently is entertainment. They have plans for news in the future.
As authors of this book, we believe that if the U.S. officials want to win the Arab audience's hearts and minds, they need to use the Arab world's own strongest, best media weapon right now, and that is Al-Jazeera. The Arab audiences trust Al-Jazeera, but they might not trust an American network that they know is overflowing with U.S. money and ideology. Especially given the animosity in the Arab world to American foreign policy.
Entertainment programs might not be as successful in really selling the American image to an Arab audience. You cannot use Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys to sell the American image to an Arab audience with so much animosity.
What the Arab audience needs is someone who understands the mentality of the Arab world, someone who can speak to them in their own language, and explain in detail the intricacies and complexities of the U.S. foreign policy— not someone who would appear for ten or 15 minutes, as if he's talking to Congress or the Washington Post.
We believe that very few people have done that. We can mention, for example, Christopher Ross, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Middle East. He appeared on Al-Jazeera on several occasions. One of them was in the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of the Al-Jazeera Bureau in Kabul. Some Arabs have accused Al-Jazeera of intentionally doing that. He appeared on "The Opposite Direction." He debated in fluent Arabic an Arab scholar about the accusations. That was very effective. That is what the Arabs need.
Not only officials have appeared on Al-Jazeera, but many prominent journalists, like Thomas Friedman, the columnist for The New York Times, who has appeared several times giving his point of view and interpretations of U.S. foreign policy.
But words in and by themselves are not enough. Actions are also needed at this point. The Arab audience needs to see action, a change in American foreign policy, and a serious and sincere commitment on the part of the United States to issues that are of importance to them—issues like the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. They need to see an impartiality in U.S. foreign policy. With both techniques combined, we believe that this can be a successful campaign.
In conclusion, we are not cheerleaders for Al-Jazeera. In the book we have highlighted several negative points, like not having sufficient coverage of the Qatari Government.
However, we still believe that Al-Jazeera is the only hope and choice for the Arab audience when it comes to democracy, freedom of speech, and openness in the Arab world.
We also believe that Al-Jazeera has been serving as a safety valve for the Arab audience through which they have been releasing their anger and frustrations about very sensitive issues. It is much better to release it through Al-Jazeera, than through other illegal channels, or even to suppress these feelings.
Finally, we hope that more U.S. officials will encourage Al-Jazeera by appearing on it. More Chris Ross's are needed on Al-Jazeera, which is the truly free and independent network of the Arab world.
ADEL ISKANDER: Yesterday I had the chance to visit Ground Zero for the first time. As I looked out on what used to be the site of the World Trade Center towers, I wondered to myself, "How could things go so fatally wrong?" This is a question that I've pondered long before 9/11, but today it has a very particular urgency to it.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing being perpetuated today around us, particularly in our media and elsewhere, is this notion of civilizations in clash. It's very popular, it's almost like a cliché, a notion first popularized by Samuel Huntington. In its simplest form, it posits that the West is on a collision course with the rest of the world's civilizations generally and with the Islamic world particularly.
As we watch our televisions today and witness the daily events in the Middle East, I'm sure they're extremely shocking and very grotesque. It appears, albeit falsely, that Huntington was prophetic in his assumptions. All of a sudden, there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between the West and the Middle East. We see images that perpetuate the stereotype of a hostile Arab world adamant on destroying the United States at every chance it gets.
With all the rhetoric that demonizes the Arab world here in the United States and that which demonizes the United States in the Arab world, it is not surprising that we have set these very wheels of civilizational clash into motion, making it almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that appears to be inevitable as well.
Now, is the gap between the West and the Middle East truly unbridgeable? We feel that the only way that this trend can be reversed is by ensuring that public discourse and freedom of expression in the Middle East is fostered, while a more learned view of the Arab world here in the United States is encouraged.
What is freedom of expression in the Middle East and what constitutes the public sphere in the Arab world? In many parts of the Arab world, any voices contrary to those of the ruling regime are silenced. Instead, these opinions were driven into the public sphere, where discussions of policy, religion, social justice became limited to homes and places of worship. In extreme cases, just a few year ago, typewriters had to be licensed in some countries to ensure that they weren't used to the detriment of the local government.
For this reason, a vibrant freedom of press is a breath of fresh air for many Arabs. It is in an environment that Al-Jazeera grew to become the only channel of its kind in the region. Its political talk shows have made it an objective to uncover controversies and discuss many taboo issues that were previously swept under the carpet of censorship.
In many ways, the talk shows, which often turn into heated debates, and maybe even fist fights or on the verge of fist fights, are representative of unresolved issues that the Arab world has ignored for many years. They are the very same discussions that people engage in in friendly confines, but not in public. Today Al-Jazeera is broadcasting live on-air to the entire world these very discussions. One observer mentioned that this amounts to the Arab world hanging out its dirty laundry.
Unlike other networks, Al-Jazeera has single-handedly placed contentious issues—like government corruption, polygamy, homosexuality, and apostasy— on the agenda for public discourse in the Arab world.
On the "The Opposite Direction," two diametrically opposed guests came on the show—two women, one ultra-conservative and the other liberal; one arguing in support of polygamy and one against. The discussion became so outrageous that the ultra-conservative woman had to walk off-air, live, as the show as broadcasting. Now, this is something that was completely unheard of for Arabic television. It may not seem as much of a surprise to us, but in the Arab world that's quite a precedent.
But what does this mean for the public sphere in the Middle East and the Arab world? Al-Jazeera's motto, "The opinion and the other opinion," flashes across the screen in between programs hundreds of times a day, serving not only as a reminder that this freedom has been hard to come by, but also emphasizing that public discourse can only be accomplished if all sides of a story are uncovered.
This is a brilliant example of the thought of the German philosopher Jorgen Habermas. Al-Jazeera, as does Habermas, believes that public discourse can only be equitable and effective if all possible opinions and views are expressed and demonstrated equally, whether they be Israeli, Palestinian, Taliban, American, Turk.
It is a mosaic of post-modernist perspectives with the objectives of the modernist project, a project that demonstrates how public policy can be best formulated after all possible options, opinions, contentions, are presented, and done so in an exhaustive fashion.
Now, what about Al-Jazeera and Qatar? Espousing such a philosophy has brought Al-Jazeera and its host country in for salutation and critique, depending on context, circumstance, and who's doing the criticizing or salutation. Emerging out of the tiny peninsular emirate of Qatar, Al-Jazeera has rapidly outgrown its host country. Something that we hear very often is "Al-Jazeera is a state with Qatar as its capital."
No doubt that Al-Jazeera is a major-league channel in a minor-league country. However, Qatar's Government has felt nothing but pride for the network's success, and may have even benefited from being placed on the political map by Al-Jazeera. This has given Qatar more leverage politically and regionally and reputability internationally.
It's a classic example of the mouse that roared. We have a nice cartoon that is emblematic in the book, where there is a little man sitting on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean with a huge loudspeaker and it says "Al-Jazeera."
What about Al-Jazeera's appeal? We recount the story of an Arab family living in eastern Canada and the role Al-Jazeera plays in connecting the Arab world and the Arab public to the issues that matter to it most. In some respects, this story reflects the extent to which Al-Jazeera has become a transnational network. That is a very important word.
So to what extent has Al-Jazeera affected public opinion and transnationalized and united the Arab public? Live, on-the-ground coverage of major events and controversial programming have made Arab audiences gravitate towards Al-Jazeera for their daily regimen of news and contentious broadcasts. Some even compare this particular phenomenon to the immensely popular broadcasts of the Egyptian musical diva Umm Kulthum, who drew millions of people from around the region throughout the Arab world to their radio sets to listen to "Voice of the Arabs from Cairo."
Somehow, it's reminiscent of the pan-Arabist Union, pan-Arabist period, that Arabs look at with nostalgia. Nowadays you're seeing many of these demonstrations with people holding up images of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
What does this really mean for the Arab public and what role does Al-Jazeera play? In some ways, no longer do they have to rely on foreign networks, like BBC and CNN, that have always offered a credible and more evenhanded approach to coverage of the Middle East. Now they have their very own network that has successfully filled that void and addresses them in their own language and with their own approach.
Even outside the Arab world, Arabs in the West converge around their television screens to hear what Al-Jazeera has to say about events in their homelands. They find no substitute to this in the Western media. Al-Jazeera understands them and speaks to them, while also appealing to their sensitivities to credible coverage, putting it ahead of other satellite networks from the region and from the West.
Now, what would make this kind of program appealing to an Arab-American, for instance? This is a question that we keep asking ourselves. Many feel that U.S. coverage of the Middle East is not impartial. Arab viewers constantly complain about being misrepresented in the American media. They also feel their issues are being compromised and ignored. With this, Al-Jazeera has satisfied a craving in the Arab audience.
Its appeal to Arabic language speakers and its distinctly Arab flavor alongside a Western image have made it more popular than some of the other networks in the region.
In addition, part of what draws Arab audiences to Al-Jazeera has been its Western-style journalistic tradition, something that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but, unfortunately, not in the Arab world.
Television viewers in the Arab world have grown accustomed and intolerant to their countries' propagandist networks and crave for a more critical approach to reporting. Many talk-show hosts worked for Western networks. Al-Jazeera's start-up staff came from the defunct BBC Arabic Television Network. Hafez Al-Mirazi, who is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Jazeera, worked for the VOA.
There is a very interesting relationship between Al-Jazeera and bin Laden, because bin Laden has effectively popularized the network. Fouad Ajami criticized the network for broadcasting bin Laden's videotapes and demonstrating some of the public opinion and support of bin Laden.
But does that really make the network radical? Now, we have to remember that bin Laden is a very important part of the story. If anybody is benefiting from these bin Laden videos, it is the Administration here. Apparently, the recent video essentially incriminates bin Laden for the September 11th attacks. So in that sense, it's doing us a favor more so than anything else.
But also bin Laden is a star. We can't deny him that right. He has earned some people's admiration and some people's hatred. He is a selling point for Al-Jazeera. They are generating revenue by selling their footage of bin Laden to networks all over the world.
So airing radical views does not necessarily mean that the network is in and of itself radical. We must judge the network, Al-Jazeera, and all other networks in the same way we judge Western networks. If ABC interviews Marilyn Manson, or even Charlie Manson, we don't assume that the network officials or the editorial board of the network espouse the same political views as these individuals. So it's a bit of an overstatement to brand Al-Jazeera as radical.
The consistent problem has been that if governments or audiences don't like what Al-Jazeera airs, they automatically accuse it of being oppositional and detrimental. They will eventually realize that the network serves as a conduit for information rather than the generator of information.
By showing bin Laden alongside the moderate or ultra-liberal -after virtually every broadcast of bin Laden there was a debate that included Western officials contesting his narrative - a discourse is forged, which almost always will lead to the view that bin Laden and his rationale is completely mutated and practically un-Islamic.
Another tricky issue is objectivity and subjectivity. There's much talk about whether Al-Jazeera is biased. Hafez Al-Mirazi captured that quite nicely in a presentation he gave in Chicago. He said that as he worked for VOA he tried really hard to be as Arab as he possibly could be so that people wouldn't accuse him of being American, but now that he works for Al-Jazeera, he's trying to be as American as possible so that people don't accuse him of being Arab. These are the kind of conflicts that Al-Jazeera has to deal with.
What constitutes biased coverage? It's a very tricky thing. In the book we talk about contextual objectivity.
The coverage of Intifada and the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territories can somehow be viewed as comparable to the coverage of the war in Afghanistan. It is not a secret that the Arab world is extremely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and so in that sense covering the casualties on the ground is no different from how the Western networks covered 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, obviously sympathetic to the War on Terror.
Today, following a radio interview here that Mohammed and I did this morning, a staff member light-heartedly commented that "we all want to be just like Al-Jazeera." Now, what does that mean? Al-Jazeera has its shortcomings, and we're not denying that, and it has made its mistakes. But this comment emphasizes that we shouldn't be silenced as the much-needed sole voice for evenhanded and critical reporting in the Arab world, because if we do, we are sending the worst possible message to the Arab audience, that freedom of expression in the Arab world is not valuable and, worse yet, that it is detrimental to our national interest.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: You described the singularity of Al-Jazeera, and that's also a part of the problem. There are no other media opinion views that could call themselves equally free and objective. Can you serve as a model for any other countries? And, if not, what chances to you have of really succeeding in your larger aims?
ADEL ISKANDER: Al-Jazeera occasionally seems like the only fish in the pond, the only network pursuing that single objective. But since its conception in 1996, the audience has grown accustomed to it, and other networks are starting to be held accountable. Many are starting to follow suit, perhaps not to the same degree as Al-Jazeera, but they are beginning to democratize their services in and of themselves.
Now, whether Al-Jazeera continues to exist, the ball has started rolling, is snowballing, and as the wheels turn and as the Arab audience starts to taste freedom of expression for the first time, it's inevitable that other networks will emerge to espouse the same philosophy as Al-Jazeera. It's just a matter of time.
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: Hafez Al-Mirazi, the Al-Jazeera Washington, D.C., Bureau Chief, was quoted the other day as saying that Al-Jazeera is sick and tired of being in the spotlight all the time. They really would like to see other Arab networks doing the same thing that Al-Jazeera does, so that they are not attacked as the channel that bruises Arab sensibilities.
QUESTION: You spoke about the talk-show phenomenon on Al-Jazeera. Could you speak in some detail about the quality of their journalism, what it is they do well, what it is you don't think they do well, and what you mean by "well?"
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: They have been doing well at presenting all sides to the story, not just focusing, for example, on the Arab side or the American side or the Israeli side.
The negative aspect is focusing on the extremes rather than inviting the moderates. For example, when they are tackling the Israeli/Palestinian or the Arab/Israeli relations, they invite someone who advocates totally cutting off any kind of relationship with Israel, and someone else who is totally for complete normalization of the state of Israel. The channel needs to address the middle ground.
Al-Jazeera's slogan is "the opinion and the other opinion" which it has been striving very hard to live up to.
QUESTION: You are speaking about opinion, but my question is about reporting. What does the reporting look like? What do the reporters do? Is it the kind of reporting that would look completely conventional for us, as along the model of CNN or NBC?
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: It's the same style that you would see on CNN or the BBC: a news anchor on the ground, trying to be as close as possible to where the news is and trying to convey this to the viewers, followed by someone in the studio who is asking him or her questions.
QUESTION: Why did the government of Qatar form the Agency Qatari?
MR. ISKANDER: There is an element of public relations involved in this. The Emir of Qatar was able to identify a niche, a vacuum almost, that needed to be filled. But the whole issue of catapulting Qatar into the political arena is probably also a motivation behind launching Al-Jazeera.
We have to also remember that we're talking about an Arab audience that has never dealt with freedom of expression on the airwaves before. And so immediately after the Gulf War, they got a taste of that, and it's contagious and quite addictive. And so, with that, he identified that niche and did so at the right time, just when BBC Arabic Service was falling apart or was no longer existent, and hired most of their former staff. It's an issue of timing as well as foresight.
QUESTION: Is Qatar a democracy?
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: It's a monarchy, so it's a one-man show. They don't yet have a Parliament. The Emir of Qatar announced during his latest visit to the United States after the matter of September 11th that he is planning to hold parliamentary elections in a couple of years.
But he has taken other measures on the domestic level, like abolishing the Ministry of Information, which is the main body in the Arab world that controls the media, and reducing censorship to some extent. Now, we are not saying that in Qatar there is no censorship. It's still a monarchy and an undemocratic regime.
QUESTION: You mentioned that you have 35 million viewers. Could you give us a more complete profile of what they are like, their education? Are there some areas of their world where Al-Jazeera does not reach?
ADEL ISKANDER: The audience that they appeal to is a generalized Arab audience, regardless of their location. Because of their satellite outreach, you can pick up the network with any satellite subscription package around the world.
The real limitation here is the cost of subscription. In countries like Egypt, with large populations, the subscription fee may be too hefty for the local population. But then again, when Arab audiences crave information, they will seek it out. You will be able to find bootlegged footage from videos of Al-Jazeera talk shows circulating in the public that people can watch on VCRs. Those are relatively accessible, even if they don't have access to the network itself.
But it also appeals to a rather sophisticated and intellectual populace as well. Many of the talk shows are very engaging. They require a certain command of language and knowledge of the political atmosphere in the region. And so it appeals to an elite, but also virtually every level of the population.
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: Adel mentioned the limitation to accessibility because they have to buy the satellite dish. There are also coffee shops in Arab countries where people can watch the channel. Most all coffee shops in the Arab world have Al-Jazeera on. It used to be the case that entertainment programs attracted people more. Now it's news programs. This is a big transition in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera should be commended for that, for making the news programs appealing to the Arab audiences, not just bland entertainment programs.
QUESTION: Would Al-Jazeera have been a successful prospect were it not for the actual open support by the ruler of Qatar, who was open-minded?
Since it has no advertisements and no commercials, did you look into the finances of Al-Jazeera?
ADEL ISKANDER: Al-Jazeera has not made a conscious decision not to have advertising on its airwaves. Instead, many of the governments in the region have coerced advertisers into not using the service, and so they haven't been able to generate a lot of revenue through advertising.
Instead, they have sought out other means: selling footage, like the bin Laden, or footage from the ground in Afghanistan; but also renting their equipment and selling documentaries. How much that is generating is slightly questionable. We don't have the figures.
What we do know is that since its inception Al-Jazeera has been almost exclusively funded by the Government of Qatar.
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: As for as your question on Qatari Government support, we believe that without the backing of the Government of Qatar, Al-Jazeera would not have survived. Given the situation in the Middle East now and that Al-Jazeera is playing a part of devil's advocate without being characterized as devil, this is very hard. The Government of Qatar took a very courageous step by launching Al-Jazeera.
ADEL ISKANDER: I hope that we're not misrepresenting the Middle East to assume that there has never been freedom of expression or freedom of choice in the Middle East prior to Al-Jazeera. In fact, there is a very vibrant civil society in Lebanon that recognizes and protects freedom of expression constitutionally, and also in Egypt. So there are many moderate regions.
As I said before, there is public expression, but it's only limited to places of worship and the household. It's quite unfortunate.
There has been a focal point, there has been a turning point, immediately after the emergence of Al-Jazeera, but it is not to overshadow what existed and the struggles that the Arab people have gone through prior to Al-Jazeera.
QUESTION: I would have loved to have seen Al-Jazeera following September 11th. I can remember my husband and I desperately trying to get some newspapers to get a different perspective. Does Al-Jazeera have an English-language channel?
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: We read recently an interview with the Managing Director of the channel that they have plans for starting a 12 hour daily English broadcast for the Western world. We hope this comes to fruition in the near future.
ADEL ISKANDER: When it comes to language, one of the opportunities that Al-Jazeera should pursue is providing an English-language Web site. That would be much more accessible for their audiences.
ADEL ISKANDER: There are a couple of Web sites where certain articles are being translated, but again it's very selective. I'm not sure what the editorial choices are, what's being translated and what isn't.
MR. EL-NAWAWY: CNN has just launched an Arabic Web site for the Arab world and Al-Jazeera is thinking of launching an English version of the Arabic Al-Jazeera. It should be the other way around. The accessibility to computers in the Arab world is still very low. So how many people are going to have access to CNN on-line? And how many Americans would be willing to purchase a satellite dish to watch Al-Jazeera?
QUESTION: What are the main criticisms made to the Government of Qatar? What are the main things that they find objectionable?
MR. AL-NAWAWY: The main criticism is breaching the Arab brotherhood and code of honor and having inappropriate coverage of other countries. There is the Arab States Broadcasting Union, which combines all Arab networks. Al-Jazeera has not been allowed to join, because it is breaching the Arab sensibilities.
As Faisal Al Qasim, the host of "The Opposite Direction," said, "There is so much dirt that has been hidden under the carpet for a long time in the Arab world and now we are showing that dirt."
ADEL ISKANDER: Another thing, too, is that this is something really important when it comes to Al-Jazeera's choice of critiquing Arab governments. They wear every one of those 450 complaints as a badge of honor on their chest. In many ways those criticisms have motivated the staff of Al-Jazeera to pursue it even more. It's an uphill battle, but it's on the right track. Whether Al-Jazeera continues to do what it does now or improve on it is yet to be seen, but nonetheless it has definitely set a precedent and the ball is rolling.
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