Since its launch in 2006, Al Jazeera English has expanded into more than 190 million households in more than 100 different countries, including most of Europe and even Israel. But its sister station, Al Jazeera Arabic, became notorious in the U.S. after broadcasting communiques from Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, and the network has never managed to break free of that reputation and into the U.S. market. Perhaps because it’s something of a forbidden fruit, the network is an endless source of fascination for the American media. Need to Know sat down with Al Jazeera English host Riz Khan at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in New York to ask the BBC and CNN-veteran if there’s really anything to be afraid of.
Lauren Feeney: Two Al Jazeera journalists were arrested in Afghanistan last week on suspicion of having some affiliation with the Taliban.
Riz Khan: You know, you have to forgive me on that, I really don’t know the story because I’ve been stuck up here doing my own shows at the U.N. and haven’t had much time. But tell me what you heard.
Feeney: What I heard is that a staffer and a freelancer were arrested by NATO forces and that there was a suspicion that they were collaborating with the Taliban. But Al Jazeera was denying that, saying that they spoke both with members of the Taliban and of course people within the coalition forces, both as sources.
Khan: I don’t know about the specific case, but I can tell you that it’s never easy being a journalist, especially in conflict zones where there’s always suspicion around those who are not directly involved in managing the conflict. Especially with the military, they’re always ultra-cautious and ultra-wary of everyone. So it’s not surprising that something would happen. In many cases, journalists are considered to have an agenda. The team I work with has a pretty clear agenda, which is that we’re working with facts and figures.
Feeney: What’s the difference between Al Jazeera and other news networks you’ve worked for?
Khan: You know, the irony is, there’s more in common than there is difference. I was with the BBC, then with CNN, helped launch BBC World Service TV and the relaunch of CNN International, and then the launch of Al Jazeera English — and so many of my co-workers have been with all three. It’s not like somebody goes to a new company and suddenly becomes a different person. But the thing is that people watch with baggage. People think, if I’m watching my channel, I’m getting my views validated. So they watch Fox because they agree with what Fox is promoting. Or they may watch Hezbollah TV because that’s the particular view that they like. It’s very hard to get people to see things in a neutral way.
Even though BBC World, CNN and Al Jazeera share so much in common, the difference really lies in, well, a) CNN is a commercial channel where the other two are not; but the other thing is that Al Jazeera is the first channel that’s international, 24-hour, global news that’s not out of a Western center, that’s not headquartered in New York, Washington, London or somewhere else like that. And that immediately makes it different, and, ironically, from our very western point of view, makes people skeptical. But those who watch it — and this is the great vindicating factor — then judge for themselves, and I cannot say I’ve had negative feedback from anyone, which is kind of interesting.
My show is what I call very democratic TV, in that I invite viewers’ questions — I invite people to come in and ask questions directly to this president, that prime minister, this ambassador, this foreign minister, this celebrity — and the beauty of that is there is no agenda.
Feeney: The Washington Post recently reported that Pacifica Radio was considering broadcasting Al Jazeera but there was a fear that it wouldn’t sit well with their Jewish listeners. What do you say to that?
Khan: It’s kind of interesting because Al Jazeera Arabic, which was launched in 1996, was the first channel to feature Israelis to an Arab audience. Many of the Arab channels, traditionally, have never spoken to Israelis — they don’t recognize Israel, the maps don’t have Israel on them, so they don’t tend to feature Israelis or give an Israeli point of view, and Al Jazeera was the first to do that. With us, we don’t have any agenda — my team is mixed; I have people with family in Israel, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian — a real mix of people. I think if they listen — I mean, people who listen to us want to be informed about the world around them — I think if they listened to it, I don’t think they’d have any problem.
The carriage issues we’ve had in the U.S., they’ve been partly our own in terms of not being commercially strong minded. We’re not a commercial channel so we don’t go out and sell ourselves the way we should. But we’re also talking about a market which doesn’t have that much interest in international news. BBC World News had the same issue. I mean BBC America is a lot of happy programming as well as a bit of news, but CNN International when I was there never really had any traction in the U.S. We were told there’s no commercial foundation for it. I disagree. I think that Americans, when given information, do soak it up — you know Americans who watch it, or Americans who travel oversees, get this wide-eyed “oh, there’s a whole world out there what have I been missing all this time.” And you have a huge ex-pat population of just about everyone — I walk down the streets in D.C. and have the taxi drivers who are anything from Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, say, “Hey, we watch your channel, you cover Africa.” I think the issue is more with awareness rather than content, so that’s the sad part.
Feeney: What effect do you think the 24-hour news stations have had on the public’s understanding of the world, and what do you think of their politicization here in the U.S.?
Khan: You know, it’s sad — God bless America for being a very comfortable country, but people here become complacent because they don’t have to worry about what’s happening elsewhere. Those who live in small countries, who are affected by floods, disasters, border conflicts, refugees and so on — major issues that drive their day-to-day agenda — they tend to be much more receptive to international news.
I think America needs to know where its tax dollars are being spent — when it comes to pumping it into military conflicts, whether you agree or disagree, you need to know what’s being done by the government; and people have to hold their governments accountable through being educated, educated as voters. That’s what America is, it’s a democracy, so that’s important. Plus, it helps to build tolerance. If people know about the world around them they develop a sense of tolerance. The crazy stuff we have like the argument over the Park 51 mosque at Ground Zero — this level of debate shouldn’t be happening. At least not at an emotional level. It should be a smart reasoning, saying, OK, how do we balance the sensitivity that’s needed with the freedom of expression that America’s so famous for? These kinds of issues have to be debated, but from an educational point of view, and that’s what I think television like ours can do.