“I hope al-Jazeera is going to be around to… report to the Arab public, and I think at that point the Arab public will realize that we came in peace, we came as liberators [to Iraq], not conquerors.”
Colin Powell, US National Public Radio, March 2003
The rise of Osama bin Laden as the world’s most wanted man can be directly linked to the ever-increasing reach of Qatar based TV station, al-Jazeera. The al-Qaeda leader has frequently used the Arabic channel to release audio and video messages to supporters and “infidels” alike. During a period when virtually every Middle Eastern country is ruled by unelected and dictatorial figureheads, al-Jazeera has brought a dose of truth to the steady diet of government approved propaganda frequently fed to the Arab world. There is mounting evidence that the vast majority of the Arab world simply doesn’t believe President Bush when he talks about bringing democracy and freedom to their region.
For the first time in many Arab’s lives, their satellite dishes are bringing a diverse range of opinions and images unimaginable only a decade ago. Launched in 1996 by a group of disillusioned BBC journalists after Saudi investors pulled out of an Arabic arm of the BBC, it receives funding from the Qatari crown prince, Emir al-Thani and reaches over 35 million homes daily. It’s the most successful news service in the region.
US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt reflected the view of many in the Bush administration when he said in March that, “my solution is to change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources.”
One can only imagine what kind of “honest news station” he had in mind. Extreme pressure has been placed on the channel to show more positive images of the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, but the station refuses, saying they receive footage of startling brutality and it’s their duty to show it, blood, guts and all.
This infuriates Washington and London but it’s not something worrying Mahir Abdullah, senior correspondent for al-Jazeera. Speaking exclusively to Webdiary, Abdullah dismisses claims of anti-American bias:
“American politicians were full of praise for al-Jazeera when it was highlighting the shortcomings of some Arab regimes”, he says. They used to say we are furthering the cause of democracy when we were critical of Arab policies and politics. We still do the same today. Nothing changed as far as we can see. The only difference is that now the American media was overwhelmed by patriotism after the 11th of September.”
It’s a view echoed by Arthur Neslen, former London correspondent for al-Jazeera.net. “Many al-Jazeera journalists have American passports, I’m sure,” he tells me, “People unable or unwilling to distinguish between concepts of a ‘country’ and a ‘country’s foreign policy’ should not be setting the terms of the debate.”
Neslen sees the channel reporting multiple viewpoints, journalism virtually unimaginable in the Western media, “a willingness to take risks in showing controversial images of the horrors of war, reporting from ‘behind enemy lines’, critical coverage of Saddam Hussein and George Bush alike and an avoidance of the ‘news pool’.”
A sign of the increasing interest being generated by al-Jazeera is the release of the film Control Room. Telling the story of how the channel decided and made the news during the Iraq war, the film has already broken box-office records in the US. With senior Bush officials accusing the station of anti-Americanism, an increasing amount of Americans clearly want to make up their own minds. The Christian Science Monitor highlighted the main thrust of the film: nobody has a monopoly on truth.
Abdullah presents a weekly live show that discusses modern Islamic thought. He joined al-Jazeera in 1998 after working at the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). He has also been a news editor. He arrived in Iraq one week after the Iraq war had started to present a political analysis program. “We already had one from Washington looking at the war from there, one in London seeing things from the UK and many from Doha [al-Jazeera’s headquarters] – all trying to reflect Arab public opinion. It was only natural to try and see a Baghdad perspective on things.”
He soon realised that their resources in the Iraq capital were insufficient and the program didn’t begin until after the war. Abdullah’s role, therefore, became even more dangerous: reporting the conflict and coordinating the team of al-Jazeera reporters on the ground.
A common complaint leveled against al-Jazeera has been its alleged blindly pro-Arab perspectives during the Iraq war. It’s a charge roundly rejected by Abdullah:
“War is about pressure. Before the fall of Baghdad, the Iraqis exerted a lot of pressure. I think our bureau was the most visited office in Iraq by the former Iraqi Information Minister, Al-Sahhaf. I assure you that none of his visits were pleasant despite the fact that he personally was a somewhat pleasant man. Many of our reporters were ordered to stop working at one point or another. Three were given ultimatums to leave the country. Threats were made against some others. As for the Americans, we were not worried about them in Baghdad at first.”
The targeting of journalists and media organisations now appears to be standard practice by elements of the American military. Too many reporters have been injured or killed during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts for these incidents to be dismissed as mere accidents. Serious questions remain, and US military reports into the bombing or shooting of unarmed journalists leave the disturbing impression that the “war on terror” means more than we’ve been told so far.
“Management had already given them the co-ordinates of our offices [in Baghdad],” Abdullah said. “Despite all the negative references to al-Jazeera in the American official’s press conference, we thought we were safe in dealing with a democracy that respects freedom of the press. Then came the 8th of April  when early in the morning our offices were hit by a couple of air-born bombs. Our colleague, Tariq Ayyoub, died instantly and our assistant cameraman was injured by shrapnel going into his neck.
“This was the third “accident” that happened to al-Jazeera. The first was in Kabul during the war in Afghanistan when four rockets accidentally hit our offices there. A few days before the hit on the Baghdad offices, another rocket accidentally hit the hotel at which our Basra team was staying. What was interesting about the accident in Basra is that it came when Tony Blair and his officials were telling the British public that the people of Basra were dancing in the streets celebrating their liberation. To this day, we havn’t receive any apology for any of these accidents.”
Faisal Bodi is a senior editor for <al-Jazeera.net>. Writing in The Guardian in March 2003, he highlighted the agenda from which the channel operated when covering the Iraq war:
“Of all the major global networks, al-Jazeera has been alone in proceeding from the premise that this war should be viewed as an illegal enterprise. It has broadcast the horror of the bombing campaign, the screaming infants and the corpses. Its team of on-the-ground, unembedded correspondents has provided a corrective to the official line that the campaign is, barring occasional resistance, going to plan.”
Bodi painted a powerful picture of Western media double standards and less than rigorous reporting of both sides of the war:
“The British media has condemned al-Jazeera’s decision to screen a 30-second video clip of two dead British soldiers. This is pure hypocrisy. From the outset of the war, the British media has not balked at showing images of Iraqi soldiers either dead or captured and humiliated.” His argument has only become more prescient in the last year, especially since the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos.”
Bodi contributed a chapter to Tell me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq (Pluto Press, 2004). Revealing the ways in which al-Jazeera operated in Iraq and the violently hostile US response, he offers a chilling explanation of the possible reasons behind the bombing of the channel’s offices in Baghdad:
“al-Jazeera, according to Paul Wolfowitz, was practising ‘very biased reporting that has the effect of inciting violence against our troops.’ It is not a big leap from here to the suggestion that American soldiers are only acting in pre-emptive self-defense, when in the words of al-Jazeera’s indignant reply they routinely subject al-Jazeera’s offices and staff in Iraq ‘to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation of news material, and multiple detentions and arrests, all carried out by US soldiers who have never actually watched al-Jazeera but only heard about it’.”
John William Racine III, a hacker based in California, shut down al-Jazeera.net during the Iraq war. As reported by Arthur Neslen in The Guardian in April 2004, “with a maximum of 25 years available, the US attorney’s office agreed a sentence of 1,000 hours community service”. Racine was clearly doing the bidding of the Bush administration. After the recent slaughter in Fallujah by American troops, US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, articulated the feelings of many in the American government:
“I can definitely say that what al-Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable. We know what our forces do. They don’t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That’s just outrageous nonsense! It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.”
Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the war-like “dove” of the administration even met in early May with the Qatari’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Bin Jassin Bin Jabr al-Thani, requesting his government control the Qatar-based channel. It’s unimaginable that any other country’s government would complain about an American TV station’s coverage of their situation, though many would have legitimate claims.
Abdullah argues that al-Jazeera is playing an essential role in bringing openness and democracy to the Middle East, taking the role that America claims it brings with the Iraq enterprise:
“I think it [al-Jazeera] has already helped in furthering the cause of democracy in the region. Just think of numerous Arab governments that express displeasure at the channel. Think of the ambassadors who have been withdrawn from Doha in protest at our reporting of opposition groups. Think of the other Arab stations that are trying to imitate the level of freedom we have.
“I think al-Jazeera has raised the level of political discourse in the Arab world. It’s a great injustice to al-Jazeera as to the cause of freedom to see it only in terms of what an interested party (the US) perceives as a biased coverage of the war.”
Neslen documents the constant intimidation he has received while a journalist with al-Jazeera:
“I myself have been detained for an hour by British special branch officers at Waterloo station. The questioning focused on my employer. The officers also wanted information about other al-Jazeera journalists in Paris and London, and asked if I would speak to someone in their office on a regular basis about my work contacts. I declined both requests.”
Western governments are clearly scared of eyewitness accounts emerging from the increasingly exposed tactics of the US military. al-Jazeera is documenting these atrocities and exposing unpleasant realities to the Arab world and beyond.
Perhaps Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, puts it best:
“Officials in Washington keep saying they want to encourage democratization in the Middle East, but the Bush administration’s moves to throttle al-Jazeera certainly indicate otherwise.”
The US’s standing in the Arab world is at an all-time low, and many see the attacks against al-Jazeera merely symptomatic of a deeper unease with multiple viewpoints of America’s misguided adventures in the Middle East. Reese Erlich, a foreign correspondent who has covered the region for two decades, says that the US has lost both the moral and ethical battle in the most volatile area in the world:
“The US is losing the war in Iraq and is increasingly isolated politically in the Arab world, so what’s the response? Blame the media. The US media wouldn’t accept such an argument from Bush the candidate, so why accept it from Bush the commander in chief?”
Abdullah is confident in stating that the Arabic channel is more responsible that its Western counterparts because it is willing to show the dirty and violent images of war:
“Any showing of the bad side of war was seen as harming the war efforts. Luckily the American media is now waking up to reality. They are uncovering the lies themselves [remember WMDs?]. They are showing the photos of abuse of the Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers. They are talking about ‘civil war’ between the Defense and State Departments over the handling of the Iraqi situation. Is the American media becoming anti-American too? Donald Rumsfeld wanted a ‘clean war’ and we were showing some of the dirty aspects of it – does that make us anti-American? We are not in the business of being anti or pro anybody. We are in the business of reporting the news. That’s not always a good thing for politicians.”
While acknowledging some weaknesses of al-Jazeera (“funding and relatively inexperienced journalists in some instances”), Neslen insists that Western governments and propagandists fundamentally misunderstand the multifaceted perspectives of the channel:
“The targeting of al-Jazeera is all the more remarkable given that it is the only Arab TV network to routinely offer Israeli, US and British officials a platform to argue their case. The Israeli cabinet minister, Gideon Ezra, famously told the Jerusalem Post, ‘I wish all Arab media were like al-Jazeera.'”
During the US military’s bombardment of Fallujah during April, al-Jazeera was reportedly the only media organization recording the devastation. Reporter Ahmed Mansour documented the offensive that claimed the lives of up to 700 Iraqi lives and injured more than 1000. The channel aired footage of civilian casualties in the town and provided the world with rare access into “shock and awe” American military tactics. Too much of this story remains untold.
al-Jazeera still faces many challenges, especially the need to confront some of the major issues facing the region itself. The last decade has seen an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in the Middle East with incitement against Jews and Israel. A number of prominent Arabic newspapers have published these views with regularity. Edward Said wrote in Le Monde in 1998 that it was the responsibility of the Arab world to speak out against injustices against the Jews, otherwise the world would never understand the pain suffered by Arabs:
“Why do we expect the world to believe our suffering as Arabs if (a) we cannot recognise the sufferings of others, even of our oppressors and (b) we cannot deal with the facts that trouble simplistic ideas or the sort propagated by…intellectuals who refuse to see the relationship between the Holocaust and Israel?”
Mahir Abdullah believes that al-Jazeera may well be the connection between the West and the East (al-Jazeera is launching an English language channel later this year). He argues that this ever-widening gulf in understanding must diminish before we can ever hope for a more balanced and harmonious world order: “I think the West, and I’ve lived in the West for most of my adult life, suffers from an intrinsic, if not instinctive, lack of understanding of the East. Is there any chance of changing that? I guess there is no harm in trying.”
Antony Loewenstein writes the Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media for the Sydney Morning Herald. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org