Al Jazeera: In an Intense Spotlight - Business Week March 26, 2003

Ralph Johansen michele at maui.net
Wed Mar 26 16:28:10 MST 2003


<As Al Jazeera looks to expand its scope, however, it's finding more
obstacles. On Mar. 24, it launched an English-language Web site that almost
immediately fell victim to hackers.>

Business Week
March 26, 2003

Al Jazeera: In an Intense Spotlight
By Laura Cohn in Doha, Qatar, and Susan Postlewaite in Cairo

While taking fire for showing footage of dead U.S. soldiers, the Arab news
service is must-see TV for U.S. brass and Arabs everywhere

The images of dead U.S. servicemen were more graphic than much of what
Hollywood has ever shown. But that didn't stop Arab satellite news channel
Al Jazeera. After apologizing for the "horrific" nature of what was about to
be broadcast, an Al Jazeera anchor explained: "In the interest of
objectivity, we felt we had to share them with you."

The grisly footage, which the channel said followed "bloody battles" near Al
Nasariya, Iraq, quickly drew the ire of U.S. officials. Lieutenant General
John Abizaid, the smooth-talking No. 2 at Central Command who is of Lebanese
descent, was so upset that he chastised an Al Jazeera reporter at a press
briefing the day the footage aired, saying: "I'm very disappointed that you
would portray those pictures of our servicemen. I saw that, and I would ask
others not to."

ANGERING EVERYBODY.  So it goes for Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language channel
founded in 1996 by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
After commanding worldwide attention by airing a tape of Osama Bin Laden
following the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S., Al Jazeera has become
impossible to ignore.

While it has yet to turn a profit, the independent channel has managed to
anger just about every nation in the Arab world with its critical coverage
of ruling families in such places as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And though the
U.S. military offers harsh criticism of Al Jazeera from time to time,
officials consider it so important that they monitor it in the secretive
nerve center at Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. The only other
channel shown there is CNN, which ruled the airwaves in the first Gulf War.

This war will be Al Jazeera's crucial test. With 30 staffers in Baghdad,
plus others in Mosul, Basra, and embedded with the U.S. military, Al Jazeera
has more reporters in Iraq than just about any other TV operation. "The
educated people in the Arab world usually switch between CNN and Al Jazeera,
but with this war, people say Al Jazeera is more true than CNN because it
shows us the two sides," says Talaat Mousa, a freelance TV presenter in Doha
with no affiliation to Al Jazeera, which has 35 million viewers in the Arab
world. CNN no longer has anyone in Baghdad covering the war, at the
insistence of Saddam Hussein.

"PLEASED AUDIENCE."  So far, the Arab world seems pleased with Al Jazeera's
coverage. Although the channel has angered nations like Kuwait so much that
its reporters are no longer welcome there, Al Jazeera's Arab viewers
apparently like that it shows "the opinion" and "the other opinion." Indeed,
according to an academic paper to be presented next month at a Broadcasting
Education Assn. conference, 71% of Arab speakers surveyed feel that Al
Jazeera is fair.

Mohamed Mira, a 35-year-old computer engineer in Cairo, says the recent
grisly footage helps viewers understand the war. "I wasn't happy to see the
[American POW] hostages in such a bad situation, but I was happy about the
reaction -- a stronger opposition to the war," he says. "I don't see the
footage as offensive. It is informative and telling." Sara Galal, 21, a
business student at the American University in Cairo, agrees, but for a
political reason: "I'm happy the footage was broadcast because it showed the
Americans the pain that Palestinians are going through every day."

As Al Jazeera looks to expand its scope, however, it's finding more
obstacles. On Mar. 24, it launched an English-language Web site that almost
immediately fell victim to hackers. The cyberattack followed a decision by
the New York Stock Exchange to boot Al Jazeera reporters out of the
exchange. While the official NYSE line was that it suddenly had space
limitations, the move was viewed as retaliation for Al Jazeera airing the
graphic footage of dead U.S. servicemen.

BRANCHING OUT.  "It's really unfortunate," says Jihad Ballout, a senior
executive at Al Jazeera. "This goes against the grain of everything we
believe America stands for."

Despite these setbacks, Al Jazeera is moving ahead. Next year, it plans to
launch two new channels: one in English and one for documentaries. It's
likely to continue airing its controversial broadcasts -- in both the Arab
world and elsewhere -- as it moves into the future.

"We've been called the mouthpiece of bin Laden, the channel of Saddam
Hussein, the channel of Israel," Ballout notes. "We've been under a lot of
pressure to change our editorial line. People who are open-minded can see
we're trying to be fair." With a war on, Al Jazeera's view seems to be any
footage is fair to air.

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By Laura Cohn in Doha, Qatar, and Susan Postlewaite in Cairo
Edited by Rose Brady

Copyright 2000-2003, by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. All rights reserved.
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