Al Jazeera Under the Gun  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2004

Al Jazeera Under the Gun   

Sanctions against the network send a "troubling message" for press freedom in the Middle East.

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     


When the Baghdad office of Al Jazeera was shut down this summer, it was a serious setback for press freedom in the Middle East. It also reignited controversy about the United States government's commitment to support independent news media in Iraq. Though it was the interim Iraqi government and not the U.S. that imposed the sanction, the move sparked new concerns about how U.S. officials are responding to challenges presented by the increasing influence of transnational news networks around the world.

Iraqi officials said they closed the office of the Arabic-language news network on August 7 for a month because Al Jazeera had incited violence and racial hatred. "I had to make a decision to protect the lives of innocent people," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said at the time. The government later extended the closure indefinitely.

Al Jazeera denied the charges. "What we are trying to do is provide a comprehensive picture of what's happening in as much of a balanced way as possible," spokesman Jihad Ballout told AJR in an interview. The network continued to cover events in Iraq. "Our audience actually expects us to show them blood, because they realize that war kills," Ballout says. "If we were not to show it, we would be accused by our viewers...of perhaps hiding the truth or trying to sanitize the war."

Al Jazeera News Editor in Chief Ahmed Al Sheikh said showing images of civilian casualties and hostages did not exacerbate or instigate those situations. Iraqi officials should "treat the causes that led to the spread of these events instead of attempting to silence Al Jazeera," he said on the network's Web site.

The closure was the latest in a series of sanctions against Al Jazeera. In January 2004, for example, the Iraqi Governing Council barred the network from covering official activities for a month.

Other Arabic-language news media also have been sanctioned, but the moves against Al Jazeera are especially telling because of its global influence. The network, based in Qatar, estimates it has more than 40 million viewers worldwide. It has Web sites in Arabic and English. Many staffers previously worked for the BBC, and the network has broken major stories carried by U.S. news organizations. Al Jazeera also has video-sharing arrangements with U.S. networks. The network hopes to have an English-language satellite news service by 2005.

The Bush administration declined to criticize the interim government's decision to shut down the network's Baghdad office. "I'm not comfortable giving you a judgment call on it," State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters on August 9. "We're all trying to work to get the balance right...between respecting a free and independent media and acting against insurgents and providing for security."

But international journalism organizations protested the closure. Reporters Without Borders expressed concern about the "persistent episodes of censorship in Iraq" and the Committee to Protect Journalists called the sanction a "serious blow to press freedom."

New York Times Baghdad Bureau Chief John F. Burns said in August on PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that the closure was another indication that the interim government "is not very keen on us giving too close..coverage to what's going on."

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, says it sends a "troubling message about our commitment and the commitment of the new leaders and the new government in Iraq to a truly democratic process." Debates about how the news media should cover violence have been going on for decades, he adds. During the 1980s, U.S. news media agonized over how to cover hostage-taking and plane hijackings, and those discussions continue today in American newsrooms.

But McMasters worries that Al Jazeera was sanctioned not because it was inciting violence, but because it was reporting violence. "Has the violence stopped by kicking Al Jazeera out of Baghdad?" he asks. "Has any of the insurgency stopped?"

Leila Hudson, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona, says the violence in Iraq has less to do with TV and much more to do with "the instability of everyday life."

Rohan Jayasekera, associate editor of the London-based Index on Censorship, says, "If you're going to judge the words and the language and the approach of Al Jazeera, then you also have to look at the way Fox News handles coverage of Iraq, and, particularly, opinion about the conflict." Al Jazeera has "fulfilled the role for the Arab community that Fox TV fulfills to the American community. They address a certain audience that is very nationalistic, very patriotic, and presents news in that fashion because that's the market," says Jayasekera, who has worked in Iraq.

Al Jazeera has been "very responsive to its critics," he adds. "It has toned down its coverage," including the "tidal wave of very graphic pictures."

Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, thinks "there are valid criticisms of Al Jazeera, about its own biases and..at times sensational news coverage." But the network's reports "reflect their audience the same way that U.S. TV news reflects its audience," he says.

If officials have objections about coverage, "the answer is not to censor a news outlet," he says, but to have "a serious dialogue with news organizations."

Tala Dowlatshahi, U.S. representative for Reporters Without Borders, agrees, saying disagreements should be aired in a neutral forum, and international human rights organizations should be brought in to investigate and mediate.

Sanctions against Al Jazeera sent "a very, very stern warning" to journalists in Iraq and throughout the region, says Lamis Andoni, a reporter from Jordan who has worked for Middle Eastern and American news media and teaches journalism at the University of California-Berkeley. When journalists in other Middle Eastern countries protest press restrictions, "Officials say, 'And so what? We were not doing much more than what the U.S. is doing in Iraq,'" Andoni says. The sanctions have provided Arab governments with "an excellent model for repression in the name of democracy."

The closure of Al Jazeera's Baghdad office came after months of intense criticism by U.S. officials. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in July that the network showed videotapes from terrorists "for the purpose of inflaming the world and appealing to the basest instincts in the region." Powell said he had "many, many discussions" about the "horrible" coverage with the Qatari government, which financially supports Al Jazeera. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld accused the network of lying the day before the Iraqi interim government closed the network's office.

Some media analysts believe that the Bush administration's attacks on Al Jazeera are happening partly because of a shift in the balance of power between governments and news media in the information age, when the Internet and regional television networks can send information and images across national borders.

In this new international information environment, Al Jazeera is "very self-consciously taking on this role of being a global network," Hudson says.

Two other factors have increased the network's influence, she says. The first is that many people in the Middle East consider U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to be occupation forces, and see Al Jazeera as the news outlet that offers "the most comprehensive coverage of what these people regard as an emerging American empire."

Additionally, because major U.S. networks have abandoned their watchdog role in international affairs, Hudson says, "That leaves the field wide open for Al Jazeera," which has emerged as "a global critical press."

In recent months, Al Jazeera has taken a leadership role in international journalism initiatives. In July, the network organized a forum for news organizations around the world to discuss global communication technology issues and conflicts such as the war in Iraq. At the end of the conference, Al Jazeera released a code of ethics reaffirming its commitment as "a globally oriented media service" to core journalistic values, including fairness, balance and independence.

Some journalists say Al Jazeera's increasing importance could help U.S. policymakers. On July 3, a month before the closure, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, "If the Bush administration is going to turn Iraq around and engage the Arab world effectively, then it must try harder to escape the echo chamber and understand the Arabs--and it could do worse than switching from the reassuring euphony of Fox to Al Jazeera."

American officials clearly didn't agree. On July 15, Powell told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace that Iraq's interim prime minister was discussing Al Jazeera's coverage with network executives. He said officials were concerned because the network was slanting the news and encouraging terrorism.

"I hope that all those responsible for what goes on in Al Jazeera are listening carefully and watching carefully," he said. "And I hope that we will see changes in the way in which Al Jazeera and other similar networks do their business."

Jacqueline E. Sharkey wrote about television coverage of the war in Iraq for in AJR's May 2003 issue.

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