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al-Jazeera overview

by The Guardian (London) Thursday, Oct. 11, 2001 at 1:37 PM

--- excellent overview of al-Jazeera, the 'CNN of the Muslim world'





Tuesday October 9, 2001

The Guardian

As the bombs fell on Afghanistan on Sunday night, Mohammed Kicham, the

Qatar-based anchorman of al-Jazeera television, was talking to camera

when a voice came through his earpiece. "Mohammed," it said, "you're now

on CNN... and BBC... and Sky News."

Suddenly, a sizeable proportion of the world's population was glued to an

Arabic- language satellite channel that most people outside the Middle East

have never heard of, transmitting from a place that even fewer have heard of

- Doha, the capital of Qatar on the Arabian peninsula. For the best part of

half an hour on Sunday night the world stayed with Doha, and is likely to

return again and again because al-Jazeera is the only channel with a live

link to Kabul.

Wars may be tragic but they can be the making of journalists or TV

channels. Who had ever thought they would spend hours watching CNN until

the night, in January 1991, when flares, bombs and tracer bullets lit up

the sky over Baghdad? Who had heard of Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw or the

al-Rashid hotel?

This time round, CNN found itself in the wrong place and al-Jazeera has

become our window on to the war, providing exclusive footage from

Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan. For Kicham, though, sitting in his studio

in Doha, the TV war did not begin well. Expecting a scene similar to the

attack on Baghdad 10 years earlier, al-Jazeera had set up a night-sight

camera over Kabul. But all it showed was flickering green images of next to

nothing. "When it started, it wasn't a real war as seen on the screen," he

said. "Kabul isn't a big city with lots of lights."

But the channel was soon boasting its second scoop of the night. The battle

had not been under way for long when a man with links to the Taliban

arrived at the station's office with a package: Osama bin Laden's

pre-recorded video message to the world. (By yesterday afternoon different

versions of the way in which al-Jazeera obtained the video were circulating,

including one in which it was deposited from a speeding car.)

Al-Jazeera's Kabul reporter, Tayfeer Allouni, watched it then called Doha.

The station's executives quickly recognised the exclusive they were sitting

on and, without viewing it themselves, told Allouni to feed it straight on to

the airwaves. "We trust our reporters," one of them said afterwards.

Al-Jazeera, uniquely, has a permanent 24-hour-a-day satellite link to

Kabul, plus others in Baghdad and parts of Africa. In Kabul, the link has paid

handsome dividends. Last January, the channel broadcast exclusive footage of

Bin Laden sitting serenely on a carpet at his son's wedding. It also

transmitted pictures of Taliban fighters dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas

and, last week, the demonstrators who stormed the US embassy in Kabul and

ripped down the large American seal.

The channel's Afghan outpost is not a plush studio but a small, ramshackle

building where visiting dignitaries have to be filmed outside or, more

likely, on the roof. The rudimentary conditions occasionally produce

moments of tragi-comedy. One of these came on Sunday night while

Mohammed Halimi, one of the staff of the Taliban foreign minister, was

being interviewed - live - on the roof.

"While Halimi was speaking we heard a big noise, like a bomb," Kicham said.

"Suddenly we had no picture and no sound at all. After about five minutes,

the sound came back and Allouni reported that a bomb had fallen nearby.

"I'm sorry," he told the studio in Doha, "but the cameraman has disappeared

and I've no idea where he is." The cameraman, it turned out, had fallen off

the roof. "Fortunately, it's not a high building," Kicham said. "So he climbed

back and finished the interview."

In the five years of its existence, al-Jazeera has become the most-watched

satellite channel in the Arab world and has infuriated every government

from Libya to Kuwait - both of which once threatened to pull out their

ambassadors from Qatar in protest.

What draws the viewers is not soaps, millionaire quizzes or

Big-Brother-style reality TV, but news and political debate of a kind that

the Arab world had never seen until the channel started in 1996. It has

become the channel that Arabs turn to for big events - such as the

Palestinian intifada or the Afghan conflict - though in some countries they

are technically breaking the law if they do.

Some describe it as "the Arab BBC", which is not surprising, given its

origins. They lie in the mid-90s when the BBC set up an Arabic-language TV

channel and contracted - unwisely as it turned out - with a Saudi satellite

company to transmit its programmes to the Middle East. It was not long

before the Saudis, unhappy with the content, pulled the plug.

That would have been the end of it had the Emir of Qatar not offered 0m,

spread over five years, to fund a new and independent-minded TV station.

Ready-trained staff from the BBC channel joined it en masse, bringing - as

they see it - BBC values with them.

Qatar - with a native population of only 500,000 - was not the likeliest

home for such a project. Ruled by the al-Thani family for almost 150

years, it was a British protectorate until 1971. It depended mainly on pearl

fishing until oil discoveries made it rich and led to the creation of an

all-embracing welfare state.

The present emir, who deposed his father in 1995, has brought in a series

of liberal reforms - among other things, allowing women to vote and stand

for office in the first council elections two years ago. But apart from

promoting liberal ideas, al-Jazeera proved a remarkably cheap way of

giving Qatar more international clout. "The emir's television station is

bigger than his country," the information minister of Syria grumbled

recently.

The first reaction to al-Jazeera, recalls Yosri Fouda, deputy executive

director of the channel, was utter shock - both from governments and

ordinary Arabs. This was not because the station said anything particularly

radical. Much of its news would be considered perfectly normal on

English-language television, and its political debates reflected the everyday

arguments that Arabs have in private among family and friends. But the fact

that it aired these issues in public, and in Arabic, broke a taboo. "It makes a

hell of a difference when you say it in Arabic," says Fouda, who worked for

the BBC before moving to al-Jazeera.

As Arab governments recovered from the initial shock, they set about

attacking it. Qatar came under diplomatic pressure, Saudi advertisers

boycotted the station. "We just reported the insults," Fouda says.

Nowadays, some of the pressures have gone as Arab leaders have developed a

love-hate relationship with the station. Some, such as President Salih of

Yemen, readily denounce it but can't wait to appear on it.

None of this had been of much interest to the United States until last week,

when secretary of state Colin Powell decided to have a quiet word with the

emir, asking him if the station could tone down its coverage of Afghanistan.

The emir responded by telling the press.

For Nadim Shehadi, of the Centre for Lebanese Studies in Oxford, the rise of

al-Jazeera is a lesson in the perils of censorship. "By trying to censor the

BBC, the Saudis created an opportunity for the creation of something that

was much worse for them. If you try to censor, you don't know what is going

to come out."

In a region where states still try to control the supply of information, there

was panic when governments realised that viewers were turning away from

official TV channels where the first item of news is usually the king or

president greeting important visitors at the airport. In some countries,

even the editors of supposedly independent newspapers are liable to be

summoned to explain themselves to the minister of information if the

leader's picture does not appear on the front page above the fold.

Al-Jazeera, Shehadi says, is helping to change all that. "It has had an impact

on the whole of the media in the region. The others are forced to catch up and

compete - even the printed media. There's a lot more freedom now, because

there's no point in controlling information if you know that people are going

to find out from somewhere else."

One of al-Jazeera's mainstays is its studio debates, where viewers can phone

in. Sometimes they go on for hours, with the antagonists wagging fingers and

screaming at each other. It's cheap television, but no one could accuse

al-Jazeera of dumbing down.

"It airs all the frustrations of the region," Shehadi says. "It's deliberately

aiming to be controversial and to upset all the governments in the region."

But some suggest that its search for scoops has brought it a little too close to

Bin Laden and the Taliban. A subtitle on Sunday night, which talked of the

Taliban firing at "the enemy's planes", certainly raised eyebrows. But Fouda

says the channel has had direct contact with Bin Laden only once - for the

famous interview in 1998, which it repeated recently.

More controversially in the Middle East, al-Jazeera has never had any

hang-ups about interviewing Israeli politicians. Back in 1996, it was the

first independent channel in the Arab world to do so. "Last month we had

Shimon Peres in our London office," Fouda says. "He praised al-Jazeera on

air for its credibility and professionalism."

If Al-Jazeera has a flaw, Middle East observers say, it may be that it

occasionally fails to distinguish between being controversial and

inflammatory. Mustapha Karkouti, a journalist and media consultant who

has covered the Middle East for many years, says: "It's happened with the

intifada, with Iran and Bin Laden - and that's not good for the station."

For al-Jazeera, worldwide fame may have come at just the right time. The

Emir's 0m subsidy runs out at the end of this year, and then the channel

will have to stand on its own feet. But the staff are confident. Advertising is

looking up, they have a new deal with BskyB to be included in its digital

package, and they're talking of floating the company.

Meanwhile, the royalties are pouring in from their exclusive Afghan footage.

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