The New Face of Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera maintains a bureau in the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq but has been banned from the rest of the country since 2004, when interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi closed it for what he said at the time was incitement to violence and hatred. No specific incident was cited, but an Interior Ministry statement accused Jazeera of being the "mouthpiece" of terror groups. Coming from a mostly Shiite government, the charge was widely interpreted as Jazeera's support for the Sunni insurgency. From the perspective of Arab governments, however, Jazeera is a useful scapegoat to deflect criticism: They have hated and feared the station ever since its founding, because Jazeera allowed overt criticism of those governments even as it carefully avoided criticism of its patron, the government of Qatar.
"There's a difference between a channel being a spokesperson for Hamas, and one like Al Jazeera, which shouldn't try to play to what the street wants," Hafez al-Mirazi, the longtime Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera who resigned in the spring of this year, told the Arabic daily Al Hayat. "There's no doubt Al Jazeera has crossed the line."
The State Department's Fernandez, a frequent guest on the channel, says that while Jazeera should be respected and praised for its coverage of efforts to achieve reform and democracy in the Arab world, it can also play fast and loose with the facts. During Iraq's December 2005 parliamentary elections, Jazeera invited Mohammed Douri, Saddam Hussein's former ambassador to the United Nations, to comment about the process. "You could do that, I guess, but they identified him as an 'analyst,'" without mentioning his background, says Fernandez with a laugh.
Al Jazeera's talk shows frequently feature Sunni Iraqi guests who purport to speak for all Iraqis--and hosts who seldom hide their opinions. On the popular The Opposite Direction, where ideological opponents generally shout at one another, a typical exchange included State Department spokesman Adam Ereli and Mishaan Jubbouri, who was identified as "head of the Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc" in the Iraqi Parliament: The host, Faisal al Qassem, asked, "Did the Americans invade Iraq to free Iraqis or for oil?" Jubbouri responded, "It's not just Iraqi oil, it's all Arab oil. They want to kill off indigenous people and control their wealth." After Ereli, through an interpreter, cited America's Arab allies in the region in rebutting Jubbouri's claims, the host confronted Ereli: "The US is the biggest supporter of dictatorships. Aren't you ashamed to repeat these lies? Are you against dictatorships? The US created them with the CIA and all these other people, lying to the world." Ereli replied that the United States serves as a model for Iraqi Arab countries, and that Iraqi oil belonged to the Iraqi people.
Jubbouri then cited the "resistance" as the only force stopping the Americans from exporting Iraqi oil for their own profit. Jubbouri was not credited by al Qassem for his most well-known achievement: the creation of the Zowra channel, which broadcasts insurgent videos of American soldiers being killed. The website IraqSlogger.com reports that Jubbouri "was known for his sectarian attacks on Iraq's Shiite leaders and militias" and that he "regularly praises Saddam Hussein on Al Jazeera," which he did later in the program.
"There's a difference with them having an American on, say like me, who goes on for an hour and is beaten up by someone in Arabic, and basically having an echo chamber where you have, say, Hassan Nasrallah [leader of the Lebanese Shiite political party and militia Hezbollah] on for an hour without any critical commentary," says Fernandez. Nasrallah became a populist hero among both Shiites and Sunnis all over the Arab world after Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a draw in the summer of 2006. Nasrallah's popularity with Arabs unnerved Sunni Arab leaders, who had initially criticized Hezbollah for inciting the conflict. The undermining of Arab governments is something Al Jazeera is always happy to cover--and its celebration of Hezbollah and its leader Nasrallah is a notable exception to the channel's recent Sunni Islamist sectarian trend.
Wadah Khanfar, the head of Jazeera, says that Islam is more of a factor now in the influential political and social spheres of the Arab world, and the network's coverage reflects that. "Maybe you have more Islamic voices [on the network] because of the political reality on the ground," Khanfar says. He does not feel that Jazeera's tone has become more Islamist; he argues instead that a diversity of opinions, nationalities and ethnicities at the station is what has made it such a success. The diversity is undoubtedly there, but it doesn't take much viewing of the channel to discern a dual message: Sunni religious figures are almost always treated deferentially as voices of authority on almost any issue, and Arab governments as useless stooges of the United States and Israel.
Former employees of Jazeera interviewed for this article say the newsroom is becoming more religiously conservative. "Everyone is complaining about the new trend now--that the liberals, the secular types, the Arab nationalists are getting downsized and the Islamic position is dominating the newsroom," says Hamid, the former Baghdad correspondent. Mirazi, the former Washington bureau chief, told Al Hayat: "From the first day of the Wadah Khanfar era, there was a dramatic change--especially because of him selecting assistants who are hard-line Islamists."