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The CNN of the Arab World

Al-Jazeera, the 24-hour Arab news network that came to prominence when American media aired its videotapes of Osama bin Laden, has been called highly objective and extremely biased. Which is it? AlterNet spoke to veteran Middle East journalist Lamis Andoni to find out.
 
 
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A week into the bombing campaign against Afghanistan, Americans learned that CNN is not the only 24-hour news outlet with an elephant-size budget and a reach of millions. Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel, founded in 1996 and broadcast from the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, can now also make that claim. And by providing a video to American networks of Osama bin Laden declaring holy war against the United States the very day bombs began falling in Afghanistan, it at last brought itself into the wide berth of the American living room.

Al-Jazeera has been praised, vilified, described as both highly objective and highly irresponsible. On Oct. 7, day one of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced the network for airing "vitriolic, irresponsible statements"; in other words, for broadcasting bin Laden's threat to terrorist war, which was picked up by every American network and played to the horror and shock of many.

American news outlets followed Powell's suit. The New York Times opined that Al-Jazeera "often slants its news with a vicious anti-Israel and anti-American bias" and airs "deeply irresponsible reporting [that] reinforces the region's anti-American views." Dan Rather questioned whether there was "any indication that Osama bin Laden has helped finance this operation." NPR warned listeners that Al-Jazeera's coverage should "come with a health warning."

So it was not surprising that when National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice requested networks not to air Al-Jazeera's bin Laden footage because he might be transmitting coded messages, they immediately said they wouldn't -- even though many realized terrorists could easily get bin Laden's alleged messages through Web or satellite broadcasts.

Meanwhile, Arab-American journalists and writers (as well as many Western reporters familiar with the network) leapt to Al-Jazeera's defense, describing it as a revolutionary force -- the first Arab news outlet to offer viewers in the Middle East uncensored information and free interpretation of political events. They pointed out that the channel interviews Israeli leaders and Arab government opposition leaders (something uncommon in the Arab world) and allows guests and viewers who call in to its programs to openly criticize Arab regimes and to discuss such taboo issues as sex, polygamy, political corruption and Islamic fundamentalism. They also argued that Al-Jazeera has unprecedented reporting freedom and a reach of 40 million people, because it receives a $30 million annual subsidy from the Qatar's Emir, who does not exercise editorial control, and because it employs over 50 correspondents from 31 countries.

"Because of its free-wheeling talk shows, Al-Jazeera has evoked the wrath of almost every Arab government," wrote Hussein Ibish and Ali Abunimah of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in a Los Angeles Times editorial titled "Al-Jazeera Tells the War Story Unfiltered." They also wrote that "Among the more remarkable developments since Sept. 11 is that the Western monopoly on global news production has met its first serious challenge from a Third World Source."

Does Al-Jazeera provide unfiltered news? Is it broadcasting more accurate and in-depth war coverage of the war in Afghanistan than American networks? Is it revolutionizing Middle East media? And what are its biases?

AlterNet spoke with veteran journalist Lamis Andoni to get behind the controversy brewing over the "CNN of the Arab world." Andoni is an appropriate interlocutor. A native of Jordan, she has reported on Middle Eastern affairs for two decades, and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, Al Hayat (London), Al Ahram (Cairo), Le Monde Diplomatique and the Journal of Palestine Studies. She covered the War of the Camps in Lebanon from 1983-87, the Iran-Iraq war from 1984-88 and the Gulf War for the Christian Science Monitor. AlterNet spoke with Andoni from her home in Washington, D.C.

Why do you think the U.S government is critical of Al-Jazeera?

Lamis Adoni: Well, the United States wants to control the flow of information, especially now that there is an Arab station broadcasting live from the front line in Afghanistan. The other thing to remember is that there were no such outlets during the Gulf War. And now, with such outlets, Arab viewers are not just watching what's happening in Afghanistan, but they're watching all kinds of debates, hearing all kinds of views. Al-Jazeera is giving a bigger voice to Arab public opinion. And the U.S. is not used to that. The U.S. has been used to pressuring its allies in the region to stifle dissent and has always disregarded Arab public opinion. But now that there is Al-Jazeera and other TV stations and newspapers in the region, public opinion has become too loud and too inconvenient for them to ignore.

Many Middle Eastern writers, journalists and citizens have argued that Al-Jazeera has revolutionized television in the region. Do you agree? What is striking about Al-Jazeera's news coverage?

L.A.: I agree that Al-Jazeera has been revolutionary. But I also have to note the precedents set by other satellite networks in the region, such as MBC [Middle East Broadcasting Company], Orbit TV and LBC [Lebanese Broadcasting Company]. The difference, in the case of MBC, is that it was under strict control of the Saudis, whereas Al-Jazeera is mostly free of government interference. Together these stations, and now Al-Jazeera, have given people a greater choice of news sources. But Al-Jazeera has a special place because, first, it was the first 24-hour news service and, secondly, it ran interviews with people not heard on television before: opposition leaders, dissidents, intellectuals of all stripes.

And is that because Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, has given the network relatively free editorial reign?

L.A.: Well, it's relatively so because the Emir of Qatar, who owns Al-Jazeera, comes from a very tiny country that does not have the same political challenges to his regime as other countries in the region. Al-Jazeera has put Qatar on the map and increased its role in the region. The moment they decided to run live broadcasts, live talk shows and receive calls on the air from around the region, they opened up the airwaves to dissenting views.

How would you say Al-Jazeera's coverage differs from CNN or what you might see on ABC or other Americans networks?

L.A.: There's a big difference. Of course, you see all of the statements from American politicians. For example, when I turned it on earlier, I saw [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfield speaking live about the bombing campaign in Afghanistan with simultaneous translation. They broadcast all of Bush's statements. In addition to that, you see more news from around the world and the region that goes beyond the two-minute flashes and sound bites you see on American TV. For example, now, because of the violence in the West Bank and Gaza, you see what the Israelis are doing live: the tanks going in, the shooting, civilians dead.

One of the critiques by some U.S. journalists and government officials is that some of Al-Jazeera's correspondents call Palestinian suicide bombers martyrs, not terrorists, whereas they call those responsible for the attacks terrorists, or they do not label them in any definite way. Is that true, and how do you account for that?

L.A.: It's not just Palestinian correspondents that call the suicide bombers martyrs, it's Al-Jazeera. It's their policy and I can understand their policy. Mind you, I don't represent it, but I can tell you what they say. They say if you are reporting what's happening in Palestine, then you are reporting and acknowledging the occupation of Arab people by Israelis, and so Palestinians who are fighting for freedom from occupation are labeled martyrs.

What do you think about that acknowledgment?

L.A.: Well, I have to tell you, nobody is questioning the American media in the terms it uses. The U.S. media calls anyone Israel calls a terrorist a terrorist. Their definition of terrorism is always consistent with what Israel says. So if you want to debate the use of terms, the American media must also be questioned. Remember that in the Arab world, all Arab media outlets find the U.S. media extremely pro-Israel and the U.S. media doesn't hide its pro-Israeli stance. If you read any American newspaper, in the reporting or the editorials, it is blatantly pro-Israel. So what do I think? I think it would be difficult for Al-Jazeera not to call them martyrs.

What does Al-Jazeera call those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks? Are they terrorists or are they martyrs?

L.A.: No, they do not call them martyrs, because Al-Jazeera correspondents see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differently, as one of occupation, whereas they do not make the same connection with what happened in the U.S. No, they don't call them martyrs. Some of them may think they are martyrs, but they don't say it. No, not at all.

Some critics in the U.S. and the West have argued that Al-Jazeera promotes the views of Islamic fundamentalists and therefore helps the movement win converts. Do you think that's true?

L.A.: Winning converts to Islamic fundamentalism is not an intention of the network. I think what happens is that Al-Jazeera and all the media of the Arab world are conscious of the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism and they have programs discussing this and surrounding issues. Al-Jazeera is not completely immune to non-secular thinking, although, mind you, most of its journalists are secular.

But my personal critique of Al-Jazeera is different. Sometimes on the talk shows, especially the most popular one, "The Opposite Direction," the producers pick people who represent the extreme sides of an issue. This irritates me because they bring into opposition two extreme views; for example, someone completely pro-U.S. with absolutely no criticism of U.S. policy and someone who totally rejects the U.S. I dislike this because it doesn't help understanding much and also because there are plenty of people critical of the U.S. in the Arab world who would say some of the same things, but not with the same vehemence.

Yet at the same time, Al-Jazeera does interview many people in the Arab world who are erudite and thoughtful, like Edward Said, and others who put forth a critique of globalization or American policies based on values of justice, equality and human rights. So my critique of Al-Jazeera must include the fact that you see more dissenting views and thoughtful commentaries than on American television. I think many in the West don't like the fact that these shows air many voices, whether they're Islamic ones or ones just critical of the U.S. What they don't understand is that the freer the Arab media is, the more criticism you will find of the U.S. role in the region.

This week it was reported that the Pentagon has hired the Rendon Group, a PR firm in Washington, D.C., to help explain the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan to global audiences and, I assume, Middle Eastern audiences in particular. There are also reports that the U.S. government is considering buying political ads on Al-Jazeera. Do you think the U.S. can improve its public image in the Middle East through Al-Jazeera?

L.A.: Al-Jazeera might be useful to convey messages from the U.S. government, but the problem is their message. I can't believe it will make a difference. Buying paid advertisements assumes that political opinion can be bought by advertisements. It's not like that at all because actions speak louder than words. They're not going to change people's minds. In fact, every time I see an American official speaking on Al-Jazeera, I think of how much that person is inciting sentiment against America by promoting the American view. It backfires. What does the U.S. have to say: That in order to get bin Laden it has to bomb all of Afghanistan and cause more misery in Afghanistan? This doesn't sell in the Arab world. Neither does any position that tries to explain sanctions in Iraq or support of corrupt regimes.

So is your opinion that U.S. policies in the region, now followed by the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, have created a situation where it is impossible to convince Arabs that the U.S. has good intentions for the Arab world?

L.A.: The U.S. is starting from the position of zero, less than zero. It has no credibility in the Arab world. And when you start from a position of less than zero, you have to restore your credibility and you don't do that by bombing. You do it by taking measured steps.

But let's just say, best case scenario, the bombing campaign in Afghanistan results in the demolition of the Al Qaeda network and the imposing of a government in Kabul that is more democratic than the Taliban. Would that help the United States' credibility in the region?

L.A.: No, it wouldn't at all, because what Americans don't realize is that many people in the Arab world don't think that the U.S. has sufficient evidence against the Al Qaeda, even if they hate the Al Qaeda. This is important, and this is how bad the state of Arab opinion toward the U.S. is. Secondly, most people who follow the Arab media don't think that bombing Afghanistan and getting bin Laden will end terrorism. They think it will create more terrorists. Thirdly, with this war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has once again put forth a double standard when it comes to terrorism, when it comes to international law. Also, you have to remember that people don't have faith in U.S.-imposed governments because of the meddling of the CIA in governments in the region.

What images and reports of the war in Afghanistan are you seeing on Al-Jazeera that are not being shown on American media?

L.A.: A lot of civilian destruction, a lot of displaced people, people getting poorer. Also we see a lot of debate among Afghanis about the war. The Afghanis are divided, of course, but the bombing is making the divisions worse because supporting the campaign would undermine their credibility and not supporting it could also be dangerous. You also see more of U.N. statements on Al-Jazeera, and you see more interviews with international aid organizations, giving more details. You see more interviews about the situation in Pakistan. The front pages of Arab papers also show images either of destruction in Afghanistan or destruction in Gaza. Imagine the impact of these images. Remember these reports and images are juxtaposed to the reports and images of CNN, because CNN is watched across the Arab region. But CNN has not contributed to an understanding of why force in being used in Afghanistan or U.S. foreign policy.

I'd like to add that I don't view Al-Jazeera as an extremely progressive organization. It just shows the power of television. The journalists on Al-Jareeza are from all over the Arab world: Jordanian, Iraqis, Palestinians, Syrians, everybody. Al-Jazeera also has shown that there are many qualified journalists in the Arab world. It has given many people professional experience. And many correspondents are women who appear on television uncovered, empowering their role in the region.

In an opinion piece in the London Guardian, the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif wrote, "Within the Arab world, this channel has made censorship of news and opinion pointless. For us, on the outside, it provides the one window through which we can breathe ... [through it] we hear a variety of opinions of which ours is one." Do you view Al-Jazeera in the same way, as a means to gage Arab public opinion?

L.A.: No, my experience is very different because I have been a journalist covering Middle Eastern politics for a long time and I go there often. I am very aware of Arab public opinion. I'm just amazed it's on television. It hasn't changed my understanding because it has been part of my work from the beginning.

I'll tell you the difference: In the '80s people like me were persecuted because we were writing reports critical of governments. I lost my Jordanian passport twice, I was thrown out by the Syrian government, many of my articles were edited out of existence. It was an uphill struggle. So it's very personally important that Al-Jazeera is there, because people like me were slandered, censored, harassed, everything. When I see Al-Jazeera, it feels like what I and others worked for has been vindicated, that what we were writing about and what we were punished for is now in the open. Journalists can now say things they couldn't say before.

Given the changes wrought by Al-Jazeera and the changes in the state of journalism you describe, how hopeful are you for continued press freedoms in the Arab world? And do you think governments will become more democratic as public opinion becomes a stronger force?

L.A.: This war is setting back the struggle for democracy in the Arab world. Arab governments are very aware that they have to support the U.S. line, so they are curtailing press freedoms and forcing papers to curtail their critiques of the U.S. All Arab newspapers are receiving such instructions because they are owned partly by Arab governments. My opinion is that this war is creating more censorship, more fear, less chance for democratic progress in the Arab world.

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org