Inside Al Jazeera
Considering its influence, Al Jazeera's newsroom is puny. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak peeked in during a visit to Doha, Qatar, a couple of years ago, he asked, "All this noise comes from this matchbox?" Behind a glass wall at one end is the smallest of Al Jazeera's three broadcast studios, where anchors read five-minute newscasts every hour. On the opposite side of the room an illuminated map of the world, flanked by thirty-two television screens, serves as a backdrop for the newscasts. In between are forty-eight computer terminals.
It feels like an American newsroom at first, until you notice the details. While a few of the monitors are tuned to CNN, BBC, and AP Television News, most are set to stations from across the Arab world: Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Abu Dhabi, Beirut-based Al Manar, and the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), soon to move from London to Dubai. Journalists bang away at keyboards with Arabic characters, which they read on their screens from right to left. Many of them wear khakis or Western business suits, but some men dress in traditional white thoubs and several women wear headscarves. Virtually all employees are Arab Muslims, although Al Jazeera's headquarters is a secular place. Employees who choose to pray during work hours do so in a tiny mosque behind the main building.
The journalists are a loose, sociable bunch, representing almost all twenty-two members of the Arab League. Moroccan producers, Syrian talk show hosts, Iraqi translators, Algerian fixers, Sudanese librarians, Palestinian secretaries, and Qatari executives all speak together in Arabic.
A few paces away from the newsroom is the corner office of Mohamed Jasem Al Ali, Al Jazeera's managing director. Al Ali strides around his office, his thoub flowing and white kaffiyeh held on his head by black cords, pointing out some of the dozens of plaques, trophies, and framed certificates jamming the sill along two walls. He points to citations from the Netherlands, Germany, Lebanon, Egypt, and Russia, clearly proud of the honors his satellite network has garnered in barely five years.
But he is especially eager to explain the significance of one framed newspaper page: the cover of the Times of London from December 18, 1998, on which a color photo taken from a television broadcast fills most of the space above the fold. The photo shows a cruise missile exploding over Baghdad. More significant to Al Ali than the picture itself, however, is the logo in the screen's bottom right corner. There, partially obscured by the logo of CNN, is that of Al Jazeera -- then barely two years old -- which originally shot the pictures. That design, Arabic letters in the shape of a flame or a teardrop, has become recognized across the Arab world as the symbol of a television network that stirs more emotions than any news medium the region has ever seen.
Al Jazeera, which translates as "the Peninsula," was established by emiri decree in February 1996. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who seized power in 1995 from his father, created Al Jazeera as part of an effort to modernize and democratize Qatar. He allocated $137 million to Al Jazeera with the goal that the station would be self-sustaining within five years of its November 1, 1996, debut.
It has grown rapidly, expanding from its original six hours a day to twelve and then, on January 1, 1999, to twenty-four hours. It employs 500 people, including seventy journalists. Among its twenty-seven bureaus are offices in Washington, New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Djakarta, and Islamabad.
Al Jazeera is the only twenty-four-hour Arab news station. In addition to its fast-moving, video-heavy newscasts, it has built an audience through its talk shows, which probe political, social, and religious issues previously untouched by Arab media. Perhaps the most popular program is The Opposite Direction, hosted by Faisal Al Qasim, a British-educated Syrian who has a talent for drawing out guests with opposing views and goading them to mix it up on air. He has pitted an Egyptian supporting normalization of relations with Israel against another Egyptian who quoted anti-Semitic writings. A woman opposed to the abolition of polygamy walked off the set, fed up with her counterpart's insistence that it was an anachronistic practice.
Allowing guests to speak freely was radical enough, but then Al Qasim introduced viewer call-ins. Al Jazeera's microphone was not just open, but wide open. Some of his shows have become such shouting matches that some viewers are convinced Al Qasim filters out the moderate voices in favor of extreme ones. Another popular program is Islamic Law and Life, in which the host, Yusif Al Qardhawi, a professor of Islam at the University of Qatar, has discussed sensitive topics, such as female circumcision and rules that forbid women to work.
The U.S., meanwhile, was introduced to Al Jazeera in the days following the September terrorist attacks. And some here didn't like what they saw. The Taliban quickly forced all foreign journalists to leave Kabul, allowing only Al Jazeera, which had a history of covering Afghanistan, to stay. When the U.S. launched strikes on Afghanistan on October 7, the world wanted what only Al Jazeera had: war video, including live footage of bombs falling on Kabul. And soon the network aired something even more jolting. In a tape that Al Jazeera staffers say was probably recorded about two weeks after September 11 and delivered via many Taliban hands to their Kabul bureau once U.S. airstrikes began, Osama bin Laden denounced the U.S.
Suddenly, Al Jazeera was not only delivering the news to its thirty-five million viewers, including 150,000 in the U.S., it was telling the world's top story to billions of people around the planet via international media that had little choice but to use Al Jazeera's pictures. It was not simply covering the war; it became an important player in the global battle for public opinion. Al Jazeera also rebroadcast portions of the ninety-minute interview with bin Laden it had aired in June 1999. In that program, the al Qaeda leader said he had "high regard and respect" for the people who bombed U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996. Americans "violate our land and occupy it and steal the Muslims' possessions," he declared, "and when faced with resistance by Muslims they call it terrorism."
Al Jazeera's programming irked the United States so much that Colin Powell expressed concern about its inflammatory rhetoric to the Qatari emir during their October 3 meeting. Six weeks later, on November 13, a pair of 500-pound U.S. bombs destroyed Al Jazeera's Kabul bureau.
In early December, Al Ali received a letter from Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense, asserting that the U.S. did not know the facility was used by Al Jazeera. "Whether it was targeted or not, I can't answer," Al Ali says, slowly rotating his worry beads. "But I can say for 100 percent that the United States knew about the office. Everyone knew we had an office in Kabul. It was very easy to find." On January 31, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists formally asked the Department of Defense for an explanation of the bombing.
'ARE WE A MOUTHPIECE?' The U.S. government has not been the only American voice critical of Al Jazeera. A particularly scathing cover story, by Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, ran in the November 18 New York Times Magazine. Ajami's piece was based on his viewing of the station's news and talk programming in October, not long after U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan began. He argued that the station had made bin Laden its "star." "One clip juxtaposes a scowling George Bush with a poised, almost dreamy bin Laden," Ajami writes. "Between them is an image of the World Trade Center engulfed in flame." Ajami asserted that "in its rough outlines, the message of Al Jazeera is similar to that of the Taliban: there is a huge technological imbalance between the antagonists, but the foreign power will nonetheless come to grief," and he accused the station of "mimicking Western norms of journalistic fairness while pandering to pan-Arabic sentiments." He cited an October 30 report by Al Jazeera's main man in Kabul, Tayseer Allouni, about which Ajami wrote:
As Allouni presented it there appeared to be nobody in Kabul who supported America's campaign to unseat the Taliban. A man in a telephone booth, wearing a traditional white cap, offered a scripted-sounding lament that even Kabul's telephone lines had been destroyed. "We have lost so much," he said, "because of the American bombing." Allouni then closed his survey with gruesome images of wounded Afghans. The camera zoomed in on an old man lying on his back, his beard crusted with blood; this was followed by the image of a heavily bandaged child who looked propped up, as if to face the camera. The parting shot was an awful close-up of a wounded child's face.
The Washington Post, two weeks later, ran a thinner but also critical piece. Sharon Waxman quoted Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist. "They are being led by the masses, they don't lead the masses," he said of Al Jazeera. "They know the taste of the Arab street, and the Arab street is anti-American. They are just like the New York Post. This is not very good."
Al Jazeera's journalists do not seem particularly worried about this or any criticism, but they do say that critics frequently confuse the network with the newsmakers and talk-show guests that appear on it. "Are we a mouthpiece for bin Laden?" says Dana Suyyagh, an Al Jazeera news producer who was educated in Canada. "Maybe, but that would make us Bush's mouthpiece as well. He gets more airtime, actually."
Hafiz al-Mirazi, Al Jazeera's Washington bureau chief, sounds weary when asked about accusations of bias. "The network is much more balanced than it gets credit for," he says. "During this crisis we have been criticized for making Al Jazeera a mouthpiece for the U.S. government. Why? Almost on a daily basis we bring on spokespersons for the administration."
Al Ali points out that Al Jazeera provides Arab news from an Arab perspective, with journalists who hail from Mauritania to Iraq -- no single nation dominates -- and that it has bureaus in almost all Arab countries, including one in the Palestinian West Bank.
The question of what an Arab perspective means comes to the fore in coverage of the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Al Jazeera's top story before September 11. No other issue so rouses or unites Arabs.
Viewers across the Arab world have followed correspondent Walid Al Omari's reports from Ramallah, as he has chronicled the Palestinian uprising since it began in late 2000. They've seen more blood, more burned and mutilated corpses than have viewers of CNN. Al Omari tends to refer to Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers in this bitter conflict as "martyrs," as he conceded to 60 Minutes, but to Israelis killed by Palestinians as just that -- "the Israeli is killed by Palestinians." When news breaks, it's not long before Palestinian sources are on the air. By 7:03 on the morning of January 19, 2002, for example, Al Omari was interviewing the director of the Voice of Palestine, whose headquarters had been blown up by Israeli forces before dawn.
In our interview, Al Ali used the previous night's news to illustrate his desire to achieve balance. "Israeli Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon had a press conference about the ship carrying weapons," Al Ali says, referring to Israel's January 3 capture of a ship smuggling munitions. "He said the vessel is bringing arms to the Palestinian Authority. We covered this press conference. At the same time, we expect to hear from the Palestinian Authority. When they hold an event, we will cover it. It doesn't mean we are supporting Sharon or the Palestinian Authority."
In four days of viewing of Al Jazeera's hourlong news roundup, Al Hasad, or The Harvest, in mid-January, the primacy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was clear. It was the lead story almost every night. And in its reporting from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the show featured only one brief interview with an Israeli spokesman. In reporting on the assassination of a young militant leader in the West Bank by the Israelis that week, there was no effort to provide the context for Israelis. Questions from anchors and reporters, meanwhile, sometimes betrayed clear sympathies. On January 15, Jumana Namour interviewed Mohammed Dahlan, a high-ranking security chief for the Palestinians from the Gaza Strip:
Q. Before September 11, you were viewed as resistance fighters. After September 11 it is as if the right to resistance was taken away.
A. After September 11, we, who were victims in the eyes of the world, became the terrorist Palestinian Authority.
Still, the station did go twice to Washington to talk to U.S. experts on the Middle East, who offered points of view clearly at odds with the Palestinians. Indeed, as the State Department was pressuring Al Jazeera to limit anti-American content, it was offering the station its own officials for interviews. Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice all appeared on Al Jazeera, as did Christopher Ross, a former American ambassador to Syria who speaks fluent Arabic. The Americans were not alone. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also made his case for "dismantling the network of international terrorism" directly to Al Jazeera viewers.
'I WANT MY AL JAZEERA' If American officials were to claim that Al Jazeera is against them, their Middle Eastern counterparts likely would reply, "Join the club." According to Yousef Al Shouly, a Palestinian senior producer for Al Jazeera, Western leaders are now absorbing the lesson that Arab heads of state learned over the past five years: "Use Al Jazeera to spread your views; use Al Jazeera to your own benefit." When there is controversy in a country, he says, his station allows both "the government and the opposition to give their point of view. Al Jazeera gives both sides a chance. Al Jazeera has not changed its policy. Governments have changed their policy" to adapt to the network, he says.
Before Al Jazeera began broadcasting in 1996, Arab leaders were accustomed to state-owned media that did not question the status quo. In the choice between pleasing governments or pleasing viewers, Al Jazeera chose the latter.
There's hardly an Arab government that the station has not offended. Al Jazeera staff say the Qatari foreign ministry has received more than 400 complaints. When the network aired a program probing Algeria's civil war, the government in Algiers cut the signal. Nadia Tabib, an Al Jazeera employee, says Algerians soon flooded phone lines with cries of "I want my Al Jazeera!"
Egypt's state media ran a campaign against Al Jazeera's "yellow programs," denouncing the station's "sinister salad of sex, religion and politics" topped with "sensationalist seasoning." Yasir Arafat was reportedly incensed by Al Jazeera's frequent interviews with the Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. And the network upset Palestinian authorities with a preview for a March 2001 documentary that explored the role of Palestinian guerillas as players in Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Security personnel entered the Palestine bureau and demanded that images insulting to Arafat be removed. Al Jazeera refused, and continued to air the footage.
Saudi Arabia bars Al Jazeera from its territory, except to cover special events like the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Jordan temporarily closed Al Jazeera's bureau there after a guest on a debate program criticized the regime in Amman. Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Al Jazeera coverage, reinstating them once their point was made.
As a result of all this, Al Jazeera is an inhospitable place for advertisers who dislike divisive issues. The ad business tends to be more political in the Middle East than in more democratic parts of the world. Regional companies and multinationals alike avoid ruffling the feathers of their host governments.
Al Ali says Saudi Arabian companies have tried to influence Al Jazeera's coverage by cutting ad budgets for the station or threatening to do so. The tactic has had no effect, Al Ali says. "We would lose our credibility with the audience." Pepsico and General Electric recently canceled advertising campaigns on Al Jazeera worth a combined $3 million, according to Al Ali. GE did not return requests for comment; Pepsico says it has not regularly advertised on Al Jazeera.
Despite its ranking as the region's most-viewed news network and second-most-watched pan-Arab station, Al Jazeera generated only $15 million in ad revenue in 2000. In contrast, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre garnered $76 million in ad revenue in 1998, while Lebanon's entertainment network, LBC -- the region's most-watched -- took in about $93 million, according to the Pan Arab Research Centre in Dubai.
Al Ali says that while other Arab stations earn about 90 percent of their revenue from advertising, commercials account for only about 40 percent of Al Jazeera's revenues. The rest comes from renting out equipment, selling programming and videotapes, and cable subscription fees. The station now operates, he says, without government subsidies.
Al Jazeera says it was teetering on the edge of breaking even as its fifth anniversary deadline approached. Then came September 11. The war has been good to it. "Because we were alone in Afghanistan at that time, we made a lot of money from selling pictures, hiring out facilities," Al Ali says.
CNN forged an affiliation with Al Jazeera in the weeks following September 11. ABC News, the BBC, and the German market leader ZDF also have signed contracts with the network in recent months.
Al Jazeera is expanding into the UK, as well as into Indonesia and Malaysia -- a market with 220 million Muslims. In November, the Malaysian pay-TV operator Astro began showing Al Jazeera, translated into Malay, for six hours a day.
Perhaps the most intriguing opportunities Al Ali is exploring involve launching new Arabic-language networks. He says he is close to a deal that would create a business news channel in cooperation with CNBC and may produce a documentary channel along the lines of National Geographic or Discovery. At a January 28 press conference marking the first anniversary of the station's Web site, aljazeera.net, station officials said they are considering launching a corresponding site in English.
One of Al Jazeera's profitable revenue streams lately has been its exclusive videos of Osama bin Laden. Three-minute clips of bin Laden have reportedly fetched the station as much as $250,000 apiece. But bin Laden tapes, it appears, can be a double-edged sword.
On January 31, CNN aired a previously unseen interview with bin Laden. It had been conducted by an Al Jazeera correspondent on October 21, two weeks after the bombs began falling on Afghanistan and some three weeks before the fall of Kabul. Al Jazeera had not aired the interview on the ground that it was not newsworthy. The tape reportedly had been circulating in intelligence circles, and had been quoted, though not identified, by British Prime Minister Tony Blair last November. CNN, which said it obtained the tape from "a nongovernmental source," found the interview newsworthy indeed. In it bin Laden first denies "carrying out" the September 11 attacks, but Al Jazeera's reporter presses him. "If inciting people to do that is terrorism and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism," bin Laden says, "then let history be witness that we are terrorists." And he adds later, "I say it's permissible in Islamic law and logic."
CNN says its agreement with Al Jazeera gave it a right to broadcast the tape, but a furious Al Ali said the network would sever its partnership with CNN. "Al Jazeera would have expected CNN to . . . respect its special relationship with Al Jazeera by not airing material that Al Jazeera itself chose not to broadcast."
Al Ali has declined to discuss the reasons that the network did not run the interview.
Joshua Micah Marshall, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, theorized (without evidence) in Salon on February 2 that the network buried the interview because "it was too unfavorable to bin Laden" at a time when the Arab world was not convinced of his guilt.
On the other hand, the interview came not long after Vice President Dick Cheney met with the emir of Qatar to complain about the broadcasts, and at a time of ferocious Western criticism of the network for broadcasting the October 7 bin Laden tapes that had been supplied to it. An anonymous Al Jazeera journalist told Reuters that the bin Laden interview had been ditched for such reasons. "We decided, under the circumstances at that time, that airing the interview would have strengthened the belief that we are a mouthpiece for bin Laden." Which, if true, must have been an awkward decision for a network that prides itself on standing up to everybody.
Rick Zednik is a free-lance journalist living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He recently spent twelve days in Qatar. In 1995 he co-founded The Slovak Spectator, which remains the only English-language newspaper in Slovakia. Stephen Franklin of the Chicago Tribune provided some tape translation and analysis.