A Few Notes on Al-Jazeerah’s Role in Covering the War in Afghanistan

Interventions from an international electronic debate

Date: 5 Oct 2001

The recent request by US Secretary Powell of the Qatari Prince to “reign in” al-Jazeerah Network, the “independent” Arab News Network, is rather unfortunate and unwise. Opinions of professional journalists aside, for the average man in the “Arab Street,” al-Jazeerah represents a “democratic” medium through which he can express himself. The sentiments and opinions expressed by the various correspondents of the popular network seem to echo his own. As such, to say that al-Jazeerah fosters or provokes anti-American aggression is really missing the point. It is rather reflecting the anti-American feelings out there.

For Secretary Powell to make the request he made out of the Qatari Prince is tantamount to telling most Arabs that their freedom of expression is as “anathematic” to the Americans as it is to the Arab leaders. This is definitely not the kind of message that the American Administration would want to convey to the Arab Street at this stage. Unfortunately, however, this is exactly the kind of message that got delivered. Could any Arab country, or any other country in the world for that matter (except for Israel that is, which has already done and got what she wanted) tell a US Administration to “reign in” CNN?

On the other hand, the “Syrian Street,” as far as I could tell, spoke more of the Request, than it did of the 320 million USD Bush Initiative of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

Years from now, I am sure, informed Americans will remember and speak of the Initiative and will know nothing about the Request. But the Arab Street will remember the Request and will continue to dismiss the Initiative as a having been nothing more than a “political ploy.”

What scares me about all this is that, being thirty-something and all that, I might still be alive then to witness still more foolishness and still more violence in terms of both words and deeds.

I don’t relish the prospect.

Date: 8 Oct 2001

I think that as the situation in Afghanistan unfolds, and as the l-Jazeerah continues to report from Kabul, it being the only network operating from Kabul at this stage, and to broadcast interviews with various Taliban officials, not to mention the Bin Laden tape, the request of Secretary Powell seems to acquire a new dimension.

One is forced to wonder here if this situation was indeed not the very thing that Mr. Powell was trying to prevent. Namely: for an Arabic News Network to afford a platform for Taliban to address the Arab and Muslim peoples in attempt to stir then into action?  This does not justify the request, of course, but it might explain what exactly the American Administration was trying to accomplish here.

The initial response in Syria to the Bin Laden tape, even among those who are not in any way fundamentalists and are in fact quite antagonistic to fundamentalism, not to mention the response of the “popular classes” is, as far as I could tell from the various meetings and interviews I and my associates have conducted,  nonetheless quite positive. They were impressed by the man’s defiant and confident attitude. Obviously, he is echoing their grievances and sentiments with regards to America’s regional foreign policy. Still, and while such reaction is expected, it remains ominous to say the least. One always hates to see decent people so willing to be so credulous and to allow themselves to be exploited so readily by a fiend like Bin Laden. The need for self-criticism and self-analysis in our culture should once again be stressed here.

As for the al-Jazeerah Team, despite their BBC background, they seem to me to be more influenced by the CNN style of journalism, which clearly tends to be propagandist in times of “national crises.” CNN’s primary objective is to address the American people and echo their sentiments, so it is with al-Jazeerah and the Arab and Muslim peoples.

And while CNN often seems to lapse into some kind of coordination, no matter how indirect, with the American Administration during times of crises, al-Jazeerah paradoxically enough does not have that liability, except perhaps when it comes to internal Qatari affairs. As such al-Jazeerah, at his stage, might be less subject to censorship than CNN.

Still, and as I have pointed out earlier, their adopted task will not simply be to report the news and development as they are, but to do so in a manner that will reflect the sentiments and concerns of the “Arab and Muslim Street,” regardless of consideration of objectivity. “National interests” are at stake here too.

Of course, there will be some reporters who will show this tendency much more clearly than others, like Tayseer ‘Allouni, for instance, reporting from Kabul.

The al-Jazeerah correspondent in Quetta, on the other hand, was much more “objective” in his reporting on the rioting there that took place this morning. Thus he would use sentences like: “and they [the rioters] are calling to what they consider to be a jihad against the Americans.” And so on. There is much room in this situation for the individual biases of the individual reporters to appear.

Still, objective reporting seems to be one of the first casualties during war times, even in the US, not to mention the ME. This is the lesson of Vietnam.

Date: Wed, 10 Oct 2001

The al-Jazeerah story is still going full steam ahead with CNN devoting today a whole program to its role in covering the ongoing strike against Afghanistan.

But more important in this regards was White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer’s claims that the Bin Laden tape might have contained “coded messages” to various al-Qaeda agents in the world. With this claim, the Bush Administration is firing a new salvo at al-Jazeerah in its continuing campaign to deprive the Taliban of all access to media. The US Administration is continuing its efforts to force the last independent TV station still operating in Kabul to come under the umbrella of US media pool where all journalists are turned into agents of American propaganda.

No matter what one should personally think of al-Jazeerah’s style of reporting, and putting aside for now the accusations of duplicity leveled against some of its reporters as being linked to al-Qaeda, it is very clear that al-Jazeerah is mounting a global coup against US dominance in the media world, at least when it comes down to regional events and developments. TV Networks from all over, including the US, are now airing the “infamous” Bun Laden tape under al-Jazeerah’s emblem. And the al-Jazeerah reporters and administrators are now stars in their own right making appearances in TV stations all over the world, and striking new deals on future cooperation. Barring some disaster, the al-Jazeerah will most likely emerge at the end of the this war as one of its anointed victors.

Furthermore, and despite persisting criticism of al-Jazeerah’s style of reporting, known journalists and scholars all over the world are rushing to its defense, perhaps appreciating the importance of its defiant stand. In the program aired by CNN today as part of its coverage of the “strike against terrorism,” hosted by Zein Verjee, Professor Edmund Ghareeb and Journalist Howard Kurtz, while conceding that one could raise some objections to al-Jazeerah’s style of reporting on some occasions, rushed to the defense of “the first independent Arab news station” noting that its focus on presenting the Arab point of view is no different than CNN’s predilection for focusing on American topics. After all, each station has its own targeted audience, a fact that should not necessarily make us question the “objectivity” of the  station involved.

The third person to take part in the program, his name eludes me at this stage, noted that al-Jazeerah should not be blamed for its choice to air the Bin Laden tape, pointing out that other TV stations around world, such as the BBC, ABC, NBC, CNN among others, were also quick to get the tape from al-Jazeerah and air it.

As for the accusations leveled against some of al-Jazeerah’s reporters as being connected with al-Qaeda, especially Ahmad Mansour who was mentioned by name, I have to stress that having a connection with al-Qaeda does not necessarily make you an agent. After all, why can’t al -Jazeerah have its own “Deep Throat” (pun unintended), to paraphrase a remark by the head of al-Jazeerah’s office in Washington in another piece on al-Jazeerah to be aired on CNN today?

Moreover, Ahmad Mansour might foster fundamentalist Islamic believes, but his Islamic views do not seem to taint his program.

Like it or not the Arabs now have their independent new channel. It is not perfect by any means, but that does not mean that we have to tear it down. We can help improve it, or we can build a rival one that we believe could be better. Competition is part of the game too, and heaven knows there is plenty of room.