sudhirdin at gmail.com
Wed Oct 26 02:53:26 MDT 2005
that voice of the free world, the darling of the western media, bbc,
has smelled danger from an upstart. in the greatest tribute the
fledgling al-jazeera has received so far, bbc has desperately axed 10
programmes to find resources to fund an arabic channel. an obvious
design behind this ploy, is to launch a flanking attack on jazeera, in
the context of their proposed english news channel going on air in
2006. the fat cat has turned on the pigeon in full flight.
report from the independent:
Al-Jazeera: The new power on the small screen
It only started broadcasting in 1996 but the Qatar-based station has
already changed the face of broadcasting. Now even the World Service
is launching an Arabic-language channel. Paul Vallely reports on a
global media phenomenon
Published: 26 October 2005 The Independent
It must have been seen as something of a back-handed compliment in the
tiny Gulf state of Qatar. The BBC yesterday confirmed it is to axe 10
of its World Service radio services to find the money to launch an
Arabic-language television station. The decision is powerful testimony
to the extraordinary growth of al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite station
which in less than a decade has developed from the personal indulgence
of the Emir of Qatar into a global player on the international
Founded in 1996 the Qatar-based news network - which became a potent
media force in during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when its
ability to report events in the Middle Eastern domain from an Arab
perspective contrasted with the difficulties faced by other media
organisations - al-Jazeera was recently voted the fifth most
influential global brand (behind Apple and Google).
That status can only increase from next year when it launches an
English-speaking international version, with a raft of top ITN and BBC
executives behind the scenes, and Sir David Frost - who has
interviewed seven US presidents and six British prime ministers -
signed up as its big-name presenter. Its intention is to rival CNN and
BBC World as the globe's biggest broadcaster.
In some parts of the world that notion will be greeted with a mixture
of derisive mirth and horror. The station gained worldwide attention
after 11 September 2001 when it began broadcasting videos in which
Osama bin Laden and his sidekicks sought to justify the terrorist
attacks on the United States. Al-Jazeera has, ever since, been
routinely accused by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and
others of "consistently lying" and "working in concert with
terrorists". He has even accused it of taking women and children to
places where US bombs had fallen and pretending they were victims of
the US attack.
This has not entirely been to their disadvantage. "The more Rumsfeld
attacks us, the more popular we are with our viewers," the station's
communications director, the surreally named Jihad Ballout has said.
But then things have been complex at al-Jazeera from the outset. It
began in 1996. In April that year there were tear-stained faces at the
BBC as 250 journalists were toldthe BBC World Service's Arabic
television station was to shut. It had been a joint venture with a
Saudi company and a lack of common ground on editorial policy came to
a head when the Saudi government tried to censor a documentary on
executions under its brutal interpretations of sharia law.
But the Emir of Qatar - a man sitting on the third-largest proven
reserves of natural gas in the world - was waiting in the wings. He
had liked the short-lived BBC Arabic, and believing the long-term
interests of Islam were served better by truth than by censorship, he
stumped up $150m (now £90m) and founded al-Jazeera. Large numbers of
the BBC staff transferred from London to Qatar to run it.
There are 100 or so other Arabic TV stations available to those with
satellite dishes. But all are either state controlled or not trusted
by viewers. From the outset al-Jazeera was different. It ran stories
about the corruption of government officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia,
Syria and elsewhere. It aired debate of a kind rarely seen on Arab
television. It even interviewed Israeli officials - never seen on
other Arab networks. Its motto was: "We get both sides of the story."
But there are always those who do not want the other side to get an
airing. And not just totalitarian governments in the Middle East. When
US President George Bush launched his "war on terror" he pronounced
that you had to be either with him or against him. And though
al-Jazeera in total showed just five hours of bin Laden's speeches,
compared with 500 hours of the US President, it was clear al-Jazeera
was seen as being in the enemy camp.
During the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Jazeera was the only
station with a round-the-clock satellite link from Kabul to the
outside world - until, that is, two American "smart" bombs hit its
office. Something similar happened in 2003 in Iraq when the station's
office in Baghdad was attacked by US forces, killing reporter Tareq
Ayyoub, after the US had been given the office's precise co-ordinates.
During the war al-Jazeera riled the American and British coalition
further by broadcasting a 30-second film of the bodies of two dead
British soldiers in a "flagrant breach" of the Geneva convention.
Those who knew Arab culture pointed out that it did not share Western
taboos on pictures of the dead, with graphic footage of dead
Palestinians and Israelis alike commonplace on Arab TV screens. But
the outrage was undiminished.
The differences were not merely cultural but propagandistic.
Al-Jazeera had equipped ordinary people around Iraq with phones and
cameras as the invasion got under way, anticipating that
communications in Baghdad would deteriorate as the US forces closed
in. As a result the station was broadcasting pictures from hotspots
such as Fallujah, which openly contradicted the claims the US military
was putting out.
"The contradictions were much in evidence in Fallujah where the
Americans one day announced there was a truce that was beginning at 12
noon," said one al-Jazeera journalist. "Then we would transmit images
of American jet fighters bombing the city and breaking the truce."
Even so there was much debate in the station about how its reporters
should remain even-handed. At one point editors banned journalists
from describing American troops' presence as an "occupation" and those
attacking them as a "resistance" movement. And although throughout
last year al-Jazeera broadcast several video tapes of kidnapping
victims - with hostages often blindfolded, pleading for their release
and reading out their kidnappers' prepared statements - the station
assisted Western governments in attempts to secure the hostages'
release. And it always refused to show the beheadings posted by
terrorists on internet websites.
None of that impressed Washington. It put pressure on the Emir to sell
the station, which he still subsidises to the tune of$30m a year
(because almost all Arab governments boycott al-Jazeera's advertising
- a fact which one wag said was "about the only thing the Arab
information ministers can all agree on"). Ernst and Young were hired
to look into possible privatisation models earlier this year, but the
idea seems to have been shelved, possibly because al-Jazeera means the
little emirate now punches above its political weight.
But the political pressure on the station is unrelenting. Since the
start of 2002 one of its cameramen has been held at Guantanamo Bay.
The same year Bahrain banned al-Jazeera reporters - because the
station was "biased towards Israel and against Bahrain". Then two of
its financial journalists had their credentials to cover the New York
Stock Exchange revoked. In 2003 its reporter in Spain was arrested and
accused of being an al-Qa'ida agent. In 2004 the Algerian government
froze the activities of al-Jazeera's correspondent there and later in
the year the provisional Iraqi government shut down its offices in
Baghdad. Problems have been created for the station in Canada, Jordan,
Kuwait, Iran, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia where it has even been banned
from covering the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Its website has been
attacked by hackers, who redirected users to - a revealing combination
- US patriot or porn sites.
Despite all that - or perhaps because of it - subscriptions to
al-Jazeera doubled in a single week after the war on Iraq began. It
now has 50 million viewers and is in the middle of a major expansion.
In addition to its news network it has al-Jazeera Sports, the
al-Jazeera Children's Channel and al-Jazeera Live, which broadcasts
conferences in real time without editing or commentary. The
English-language service, al-Jazeera International, will launch in
March. It will broadcast from its Qatar headquarters and bureaux in
London, Kuala Lumpur and Washington DC. Unsurprisingly it has yet to
find a US cable outlet prepared to carry its broadcasts. But the
likelihood is that it will find a ready audience.
"The brief is emphatically not an English translation of the Arabic
channel," says Nigel Parsons, al-Jazeera International's managing
director, who was previously a senior executive with Associated Press
Television News and the BBC. "It will have international appeal and
fill a lot of gaps in existing output."
The English-language website drew a huge number of hits during the
July bombings in London. "One of the aims will be to try and bring
better understanding of each other's positions," Parsons said. "We'll
aim for balance ... It's not going to be anti-Western or
anti-American." Indeed some staff fear it could end up being too
Western and unpopular with English-speaking Muslims.
The gap in the market comes, Parsons believes, from the fact that CNN
has been dragged to the right by Rupert Murdoch's outrageously
partisan Fox News Channel. CNN's coverage of the Iraq war cost them a
lot of credibility. And the BBC's international coverage, particularly
of the developing world, he says, "are 40 per cent of what they were
when Michael Buerk first did the Ethiopian famine".
He has convinced many in the industry. Behind the big name of Sir
David Frost lie a raft of seasoned professionals. They include: John
Pullman, former editor of News At Ten; a Paul Gibbs, a former editor
of BBC Breakfast; Steve Clarke, an executive producer from Sky; and Al
Anstey, who has just quit as ITN's head of foreign news. On-camera
will be Susan Phillips, previously the London bureau chief of the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Mark Seddon, the former editor
of Tribune, who will be the New York and UN correspondent. Parsons has
had 4,000 applications for the 40 jobs in the Washington bureau from
staff at CNN, Fox, Sky, the BBC and Australian television.
Will the BBC Arabic service make a dent in al-Jazeera? Washington has
already launched its own rival, al-Hurra. It has made little impact.
So has the Saudi-backed al-Arabiya, though it has made inroads in Iraq
and Bahrain. "Al-Jazeera," sighs Mouafac Harb, the director of
al-Hurra, "has hijacked the role of the mosque as the primary source
of information and views. Al-Jazeera is the only political process in
the Middle East."
Even some Americans have been forced to agree. Kenton Keith, a former
US ambassador to Qatar, says: "For the long- range importance of press
freedom in the Middle East and the advantages that will ultimately
have for the West you have to be a supporter of al-Jazeera, even if
you have to hold your nose sometimes."
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