The New Face of Al Jazeera
On the long, flat highway joining the Persian Gulf country of Qatar with Saudi Arabia, a small yellow sign reads "Army Camp" in English and Arabic. But this is no ordinary encampment for Qatar's tiny military. Instead, it's the Al Udeid air base, a billion-dollar complex that has hosted the US Central Command since 2001. The Qatari government believes the presence of an American base on its soil protects the country's immense natural gas fields from its ambitious neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Still, even with the discreet American air base set deep in the rocky desert, Qatar would be just another Persian Gulf statelet were it not for another government endeavor: the pioneering Arabic sattelite news channel Al Jazeera. The headquarters of the channel that has been branded "Terror TV" by some US officials is only half an hour away from one of America's most important strategic outposts, where tanks and planes damaged in Iraq are repaired and sent back into battle.
When Al Jazeera was first launched in 1996, it offered the kind of freewheeling, uncensored debate never publicly seen on Arab televisions, and Arabic speakers couldn't get enough of it. The talk shows brought in guests from across the political spectrum, and the channel featured smartly produced news bulletins and correspondents stationed seemingly everywhere. But 9-11 brought a new anti-imperialist and, many argue, a pro-Sunni Islamist bent to the network. (The observations and reporting in this article apply only to Arabic-language Jazeera; in November 2006 the network opened an English-language counterpart, now called Al Jazeera English, which gives no evidence of sectarian tendencies.)
Al Jazeera's programming breaks down into roughly four categories: newscasts, which tend to be fairly balanced; talk shows and related programs, to which viewers call in; documentaries; and reports from correspondents in the field. The last category is where the reporting has frequently turned away from international standards of journalism and toward a sensationalistic and Islamist bias. The field reports are overwhelmingly negative, with violent footage played over and over, highlighting Arab defeat and humiliation. And there's a clear underlying message: that the way out of this spiral is political Islam.
"How things are covered, the prominence of things, what words are used--sometimes you do see that very clear Islamist subtext, depending on the issue," says Alberto Fernandez, the director for press and public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near East Affairs at the State Department. "We see the unconditional support of Islamic movements, no matter where they are: Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan," says a Jordanian official who did not wish to be identified because of what he characterized as the deteriorating relations between his country and Qatar. Dozens of hours of viewing Al Jazeera for this article confirm the charge. Whether it's reporting the Hamas perspective from the occupied territories without mention of the Palestinian Authority's version of events, or the fawning depiction elsewhere of Islamist parties and militias as the grassroots reflection of Arab sentiment, Al Jazeera has moved away from its ideologically diverse origins to a more populist/Islamist approach.
After the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera replaced its longtime secular bureau chief in Baghdad, Faisal Yasiri, with Wadah Khanfar, who had reported from Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001 and then Kurdish-controlled territory as the war with Iraq was launched in 2003. Shortly thereafter, the secular head of Al Jazeera, Mohammed Jassem Ali, was ousted and replaced by Khanfar, whom nine current and former employees of the station interviewed for this article characterize as an Islamist.
It was around this time that Jazeera's Iraq bureau "became a platform for [Sunni] extremists," says Shaker Hamid, a secular Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad from 1997 to 2000, who left to work at another Arab satellite station after getting what he says was a better offer. "I can't say that Jazeera's rhetoric is completely against Shiites," Hamid says. "The Americans introduced this, but the media should not make it worse, and Jazeera did."
Yasiri argues that Jazeera's Islamist influence is "creating tension to fit their beliefs and increase the differences between people." In other words, he says, the station portrays Iraqi Sunnis, a demographic minority to the country's Shiites, primarily as victims of American and Shiite aggression. The latter charge is echoed even by friends of the network. "There is clear sectarianism in Iraq, and Jazeera takes the Sunni side for many reasons," says Yasser Abu Hilala, the station's correspondent and bureau chief in Jordan. "The whole [Persian] Gulf region has fears of Iran in mind. Theoretically, they could occupy the whole Gulf." What Jazeera is doing in Iraq and elsewhere, Abu Hilala says, reflects the general political climate in the Sunni Middle East (Qatar is overwhelmingly Sunni). "The newsroom is part of Arab society, not cut off from it," he points out. Nidal Mansour, president of the nonpartisan Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, in Amman, Jordan, bluntly argues that Sunnis in the Arab world do not like Shiites in Iraq, nor do they like Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, and that Jazeera understands this.
What is hotly debated is whether this coverage is simply a mirror reflecting the way most Sunni Arabs see Iraq or whether Jazeera is creating that image and then reinforcing it. The answer may be a bit of both. "I believe Al Jazeera follows the Arab street and also moves the street the way it wants," says Mansour. Abu Hilala echoes this view. Jazeera "influences and is influenced by public opinion, just like the Western media," he says.