by Naomi Sakr
July 10, 2003
For a satellite channel that broadcasts only in Arabic, al-Jazeera has achieved an astonishing level of recognition way beyond the Arab world. To understand why this is so is to understand some key contradictions of contemporary media and global politics. Here is a TV station inspired by the format of American programs such as CROSSFIRE and LARRY KING LIVE. Yet it has been denounced as a dangerous anti-American force in newspapers such as the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS and the NEW YORK TIMES. Here is a TV station where Western-trained staff apply Western criteria of newsworthiness (“what bleeds, leads”), yet find themselves accused of radicalizing public opinion and fomenting unrest. At the heart of the contradictions is a history of stifling state censorship in an increasingly angry Arab world.
Today, even some Arab governments admit that decades of repression may be to blame for breeding fanatics who believe in violence rather than debate. al-Jazeera, based in Doha, Qatar, emerged into the limelight at a moment in history when fanatical violence was all too apparent, but the circumstances behind it remained largely concealed. By providing unprecedented coverage of turmoil and its causes, al-Jazeera opened a window onto conflicts not previously exposed to an international gaze. In doing so it provoked charges that it was not just reporting on conflict but stirring it up.
Such charges, however, have come mainly from policy makers inconvenienced by media exposure. Ordinary viewers, in contrast, have watched al-Jazeera’s live talk shows with a mixture of amazement and admiration. They have been stunned to see opposing sides argue ferociously on an Arab station and fascinated by the opportunity to phone in comments and questions while the show is on air. Statistics suggest that al-Jazeera’s arrival in late 1996 prompted a surge in satellite access in Middle Eastern homes and Arab households in Europe and the United States.
Satellite reception had already spread through Arab countries during the first half of the 1990s, in response to the launching of new Saudi, Lebanese, and Egyptian channels. The privately owned Saudi and Lebanese channels appeared to offer a different diet from that pushed by government-monopolized and heavily censored terrestrial TV. But in reality, being tied to ruling elites, they simply wrapped a pro-government agenda in new packaging to tempt viewers away from foreign alternatives like CNN. Al-Jazeera thus found an audience already hooked up to satellite dishes and hungry for serious non-government material in Arabic. With each new crisis in the region, word-of-mouth recommendations swelled the numbers gaining satellite access specifically to see the coverage on al-Jazeera. The second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000. A year later the suicide atrocities of 9/11 triggered U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan. Spring 2002 saw Israel invading Palestinian towns and refugee camps. Spring 2003 brought war in Iraq.
As a 24-hour news and current affairs channel, al-Jazeera has aired the kind of material that is mostly taken for granted in the West: tough interviews with officials, investigative journalism, quotes from one side in a conflict balanced by quotes from the other side. Indeed, many staff at the station honed their skills in London at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). From 1994 to 1996, the BBC ran an Arabic news service on contract with a Saudi-owned pay-TV network. The arrangement collapsed through Saudi aversion to the BBC’s frank reporting of Saudi affairs. Hardly had redundancy notices been issued than a surprising new backer surfaced to take over where the BBC left off. In the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, host to U.S. Central Command in the latest Gulf war, a new ruler had decided he could carve out a niche for his country by funding a vehicle for free speech. His ministers said it would be good for those in power to “feel the people’s pulse.”
When things move forward they sometimes look as if they are moving back. Hostile reactions to al-Jazeera from other Arab governments drew attention to the harshness of censorship across the region and its many forms. Media laws in Arab countries are replete with multiple vague prohibitions against harming national unity, sowing discord, or criticizing political leaders. Arab regimes protect themselves from unwelcome tidings by shooting the messenger, as demonstrated by the number of newspapers closed and journalists jailed.
Al-Jazeera reporters have stories to tell of limbs and equipment broken by police and hired thugs. Covering the general election in Egypt in 2000, the station’s cameraman suffered a broken leg and its soundman a broken arm. Palestinian security forces stormed the station’s office in Ramallah on the West Bank in March 2001 and forced it to close. Other sanctions may be more discreet. If physical access is denied to places where news is breaking, this also has a detrimental effect. In barring journalists from al-Jazeera in March 2003, the New York Stock Exchange engaged in similarly restrictive behavior. [Editor’s note: The al-Jazeera journalists have since been readmitted to the New York Stock Exchange.] At various times al-Jazeera has been banned from operating in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Bahrain. Even in countries where it is technically allowed, key sites may be out of bounds. Advertising is another weapon. Withdrawing advertisements, as both U.S. and Arab companies have done, hits al-Jazeera’s bottom line.
As a further safeguard for themselves, the authorities in Arab states have resorted to smear campaigns. When al-Jazeera interviews Israeli officials, word goes out that it is a Zionist channel. When it interviews Americans, critics accuse it of being paid by the CIA. When it airs tapes of Osama bin Laden, it is labelled “Osama TV.” Even so, by attempting to spread such smears, those in power acknowledge that al-Jazeera is widely watched. They also know they too could benefit from reaching such a wide audience one day. Al-Jazeera hosts welcome any leader or official who will face the music and accept to be challenged. People who might once have refused to appear on television now find it harder to hide.
Al-Jazeera has thus become a front-runner in the competition for television audiences in Arabic-speaking homes. Abu Dhabi TV was relaunched in 2000 to follow in its footsteps, and Al-Arabiya, a brand-new channel, started 24-hour news operations in March 2003. As frontrunner, al-Jazeera has dictated the terms of competition, by forging ahead with live phone-ins, digging deep for information, and being first with the news. Its motto is “Opinion … and the other opinion.” To date most competitors have followed the trend more in style than substance. But the practice of acknowledging the “other opinion” on Arabic television has stopped being strange.
This in turn makes it tempting to think that, had al-Jazeera or its equivalent been available 10 or 15 years ago, better informed Arab publics would have compelled their governments to pursue enlightened foreign and domestic policies capable of averting the regional crises of recent years. Such thinking, however, puts the cart before the horse. Al-Jazeera was not available precisely because authoritarian regimes put their own survival before all else. It exists now, and has been copied by channels like Abu Dhabi TV and Al-Arabiya, because a new generation of leaders in a few Gulf countries want managed change.
The problem for the leaders is that the global context has changed dramatically since 2000. Where better information might once have fostered hope, better information in an age of uncompromising U.S. and Israeli governments and remote Arab governments spreads frustration and gloom among those who watch Arab satellite channels that do not hide the facts. Al-Jazeera’s compelling programs may reacquaint people with the art of listening and engaging in debate. But for these people to have new avenues for political action requires thorough-going law reform. That is something no amount of tinkering with television content can achieve.
Dr. Naomi Sakr is the author of SATELLITE REALMS: TRANSNATIONAL TELEVISION, GLOBALIZATION AND THE MIDDLE EAST. She is a lecturer in communication at the University of Westminster in the U.K. and a consultant on media and development in the Middle East to several international organizations.