Don’t Shoot the Messenger

In pre-revolutionary Iran, during the reign of the late Shah, the media had to abide by certain restrictions: any criticism of the monarch or his policies, or favorable coverage of anti-government factions, was frequently censored. Often, journalists lived in fear of the SAVAK, Iran’s secret service that had a reputation for imprisoning or otherwise harming anyone who voiced an anti-government opinion. The 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah and put an Islamic government in his place only worsened the situation. There are currently several journalists who are either in prison or who have been punished as a result of their anti-government sentiments.

The problem — that of curbing and monitoring the press — is almost always the case in the Middle East, not only in Iran. Many Arab media outlets are also government-funded and frequently kowtow to the hand that feeds them. The idea of a completely uncensored “free” press is foreign in this part of the world.

It is only with the arrival of Al Jazeera, the Arabic alternative to CNN, that things are finally changing. Established in 1996 in Qatar, Al Jazeera continues to receive funding from the Qatar government, but it has broken free of government control in many respects, and is not restricted by government-imposed editorial rules. The station garnered serious worldwide attention in 2001 with its airing of Osama Bin Laden videos, and has remained a source of both criticism and praise ever since. With an audience of 35-40 million, Al Jazeera has scored a coup by establishing itself as the Arab point of view that needs to be reckoned with. Al Jazeera is a credible, alternative version of CNN — offering world news, but with an obvious Arab inflection.

The significance of Al Jazeera is that it reports the ‘other side’ of the story, that is, the Arab version. Its victory is in offering an Arab perspective to the world that would otherwise only see Western-dominated news. Al Jazeera’s broadcasts frequently go against the Western grain; particularly vis-à-vis the wars in Afghanistan, and more importantly, Iraq, which the Arab press frequently refers to as an “invasion”, as opposed to the American version of the conflict, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. Iraqis may have been thrilled to be rid of Saddam Hussein, but they are just as happy to be rid of the American/coalition forces, a fact which is frequently understated in the American media.

In September 2001, after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the US Pentagon, Arabs and the Arab world at large catapulted onto the world’s radar screens. The Middle East was generalized as a troubled den of anti-Americanism populated by a slew of terrorists who would stop at nothing to lash out against the American government and its people. Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents soared drastically in the US and Europe, and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq only perpetuated the Western world’s anti-Middle East sentiments. The West’s misunderstanding of the Arab world can largely be blamed on a lack of an influential, broad-reaching Arab media. Hence, the significance of a network like Al Jazeera, which can offer Western viewers a window into Arab life and mentality.

Initially, after it aired Bin Laden’s messages, Al Jazeera was regarded as a “mouthpiece” for al Qaeda. The US feared that the al Qaeda leader was sending secret messages via his broadcasts. As the BBC reported (14 November, 2002): . . . “[Al Jazeera] has become famous for carrying exclusive messages from the al-Qaeda leader — earning a nickname as the Bin Laden channel.” In addition, Al Jazeera was accused of being anti-American and pro-fundamentalist.

But as Yosri Fouda, deputy executive director of Al Jazeera’s London bureau explained to the BBC, “Al Jazeera is a cultural, political, and social phenomenon — it’s teaching people things like civil society, human rights, and voting . . . ” In response to the Bin Laden tapes and the US administration’s efforts to curb the broadcasts, Fouda’s response was simply, “what news network wouldn’t have? This from a country [the US] entrusted with defending free speech.”

Point well taken. Had CNN or, say, ABC News received the tapes, there is no question that they would have been aired by those Western news sources. As is the case, since it has only referred to the Arabic channel for this purpose so far, it is unlikely that al-Qaeda will use the Western media to relay its messages. Al Jazeera should not be blamed for any connections to al Qaeda simply because it is on the receiving end of Bin Laden’s tapes.

However, many in the Western media have pounced on Al Jazeera for this very reason. Tayssir Alouni, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, scored an interview with Bin Laden soon after September 11th, 2001. Alouni described how he was blindfolded and escorted to Bin Laden’s hideaway for the interview. He is currently being held in custody in Spain for alleged links to al-Qaeda operatives.

Other Western criticisms appear to be that Al Jazeera is intent on showing gruesome footage from the Iraq and Afghan war, with special focus on depicting dead or wounded coalition soldiers and children maimed by bombings and attacks, and further, its views are frequently anti-Israeli. By the same token, Al Jazeera has also made a point of airing interviews with Israeli officials on its various talk shows, which has also angered many Arabs.

Criticism also comes from within the Middle East. Many Arab governments have denounced the network for its critical coverage of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other Arab nations that have frequently been labeled as “puppet regimes” or endured criticisms of their respective royal families (see “Al Jazeera TV Rubs Arab Govts the Wrong Way“, by N Janardhan Dubai,, 20 August 2002). The argument seems to be that, strangely enough, the network steers clear of reporting on the state of Qatar where it is based, but enjoys the privilege of criticizing other Arab nations. The aforementioned article claimed that Al Jazeera “which insists on its impartiality, refrains from covering controversial Qatari domestic politics.”

Iran also banned Al Jazeera from operating in April 2005, blaming the network for inflaming riots in Khuzestan, where a small population of Arab Iranians are based. Anti-government riots had erupted in and near the city of Ahvaz, after reports were leaked that the Iranian government planned to “move non-Arabs into the city.” (“Iran Bans Al Jazeera“, 18 April, 2005) The Iranian government then blamed Al Jazeera for adding additional fuel to the fire as a result of its coverage.

Many, however, have come to Al Jazeera’s defense. As reported on 26 October, 2001:

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 into its programs to openly criticize Arab regimes and to discuss such taboo issues as sex, polygamy, political corruption and Islamic fundamentalism. (“The CNN of the Arab World” by Tamara Straus)

Regarding the Arab perspective of the war against Iraq, an article in the Guardian (28 March, 2003), entitled “Al Jazeera tells the truth about war” by Faisal Bodi reported:

There is also a marked difference when reporting the anger the invasion has unleashed on the Muslim street. The view from here is that any vestige of goodwill towards the US has evaporated with this latest aggression, and that Britain has now joined the US and Israel as a target of this rage.

This so-called rage is what Al Jazeera reports best. Many in the Middle East are suspicious of the motives of the Iraq invasion, which were initially cited as WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) possession and Iraqi connections to al-Qaeda, which were both later proven as nonexistent. Though scores of Arabs are, indeed, pleased about the removal of Saddam, most are also eager for the hasty departure of American and coalition forces, as the anti-coalition insurgent violence has proven. In addition, Arabs want a quick remedy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and frequently express anger at the American media for its continuous pro-Israeli stance. Al Jazeera gives voice to these and other Arab concerns.

The network, which Donald Rumsfeld once dubbed as “a vehicle of anti-American propaganda”, is not so much anti-American as it is pro-Arab. And therein lies the rub. Al Jazeera is slowly but surely becoming a household name in many nations across the world, its moniker one of the most sought-after terms in many web engines. Its footage frequently appears on many Western networks such as CNN, and its strength lies in the fact that the channel airs the Arab version of the war, replete with heart-wrenching and gruesome images, from which many Western networks steer clear. It has also posed an argument: that the US government’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not so much reasons of “liberation” rather than blatant “invasion”.

This news organization has established itself as an important, revolutionary force, and the world has started to take notice. This is the era of Al Jazeera.