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From AJR,   March & april 2011  issue

The Al Jazeera Effect   

The Qatar-based channel’s extensive coverage of the Arab Spring underscores its emerging role as a major player. But controversy continues to swirl about its coverage. Posted: Thurs, April 21, 2011


By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

The telephone rang at precisely the appointed time. After exchanging pleasantries, the caller told me the sun was setting in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar where he was working. The conversation turned quickly to the obvious: Al Jazeera's aggressive coverage of turmoil in the Middle East, propelling the network to new prominence in the media world.

Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera's English-language channel, talked enthusiastically about the power of his network's eyewitness reporting. "We're absolutely committed to that now and into our future, not just in the Middle East but worldwide," said Anstey, who was staring at television screens as he talked, watching Al Jazeera's correspondents report live on airstrikes in Libya.

While other news organizations scrambled to book flights, Al Jazeera's crews were in the thick of the Arab world uprising, transmitting live footage of frenzied protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. ABC's Sam Donaldson delivered an on-air "thank you for what you are doing" to Al Jazeera for its coverage; media experts mused about "the Al Jazeera effect" on the revolution and whether it could have happened without it.

Overnight, Al Jazeera became the darling of the media world, leaving stalwarts like BBC and CNN in the dust. From its Doha headquarters, Anstey uttered words that would make America's cash-strapped news managers extremely jealous: "We are healthily funded at the moment and will continue to be healthily funded," he said as coolly as "please pass the salt."

Since Al Jazeera's inception in November 1996, the emir of Qatar, one of the world's richest royals, has generously bankrolled the news operation. The company won't say how much the monarch kicks in, but Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, told Time magazine in February that it was "hundreds of millions of dollars annually." The investment has paid off in reporter power and prestige.

On March 2, Al Jazeera received a gold plated endorsement from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to argue for more funding on the grounds the U. S. was losing the "information war."

"Al Jazeera has been the leader in that they are literally changing people's minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective," Clinton told lawmakers. "In fact, viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news." U.S. media, she added, were not keeping up.

Clinton's praise was a stamp of approval that even the emir's billions couldn't buy. "We are increasingly seen as the channel of reference, whether that be in the White House or the State Department," an ebullient Anstey said in our interview.

Since its creation, Al Jazeera has had a polarizing effect, particularly among Westerners. Clinton's "like or hate it" remark was on target. The network, hailed as champion of press freedom in the Arab world, was seizing the moment to woo Americans, even though it is largely unavailable on television in this country and must be accessed via the Internet. A January 31 article in The Nation praised Al Jazeera for providing "the most comprehensive coverage of any network in any language hands down" during the Mideast crisis.

Not everyone was applauding.

For years, critics have assailed what they see as anti-Semitic, anti-American bias in the channel's news content. In the wake of 9/11, Al Jazeera broadcast statements by Osama bin Laden and reported from within the ranks of the Taliban, earning a reputation as a mouthpiece for terrorists. In October 2001, a New York Times editorial took Al Jazeera to task for reporting Jews had been informed in advance not to go to work at the World Trade Center the day of the attacks. The Bush administration was openly hostile to the news organization.

Missteps over the years have fueled concern about the network's agenda.

An often-repeated example involves an on-air birthday party organized by Al Jazeera's Beirut bureau chief for a Lebanese militant convicted of killing four Israelis, including a four-year-old girl. Al Jazeera greeted Samir Kuntar, released in a July 2008 prisoner swap, as a hero. Fox News Channel's Britt Hume reported at the time, "As Kuntar cut into his cake, the network set off fireworks." Al Jazeera later apologized to Israel for the "unethical" coverage, but the damage had been done.

The vast schism that surrounds Al Jazeera is stunning.

Former "Nightline" correspondent David Marash joined the English-language channel as Washington, D.C. anchor when it started in 2006, then quit two years later over what he saw as anti-American bias in the news and too much control from Doha. His departure made headlines.

Today, Marash unabashedly praises Al Jazeera as "the best news channel on earth." Better than CNN and BBC? "By a country mile," he says without hesitation. "Al Jazeera has become the model all around the world. Video reporting from the field sets them apart and makes them the best."

On February 14, he appeared on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" to challenge conservative host Bill O'Reilly's lambasting of Al Jazeera. "They certainly aren't anti-Semitic, but they are anti-Netanyahu and anti-Lieberman and anti-Israeli, right," Marash said. "Even in Israel, the opinion is that Al Jazeera gives them a fairly decent journalistic shake."

Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Arab militants, doesn't buy that rationale. He states adamantly that Al Jazeera is "one of the most dangerous organizations in the world today." He has written columns for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other publications expressing concern about the network's influence.

"We are talking here about an organization which is committed to weakening the West, and they are doing it under the cloak of ordinary journalism" says Pearl, a professor of computer science and statistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I have been watching them for years, and I have seen a shift in position dramatically to side with extreme elements of the Arab world."

Controversy has long been part of Al Jazeera's DNA. The network "has always thrived on diversity and clashing viewpoints, on generating controversy and airing heated debates about touchy subjects, and on covering the news from an Arab nationalist standpoint," wrote Marc Lynch on his blog about Middle East affairs. Lynch directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

When Al Jazeera burst onto the highly controlled and censored Arab media landscape 15 years ago, the network boldly defined itself as "the free press." It marketed its product by inviting anybody to come on the air and say anything, often allowing perspectives that lacked factual basis to go unchallenged. There were extreme anti-American, anti-Israel voices in the mix, voices that resonated in Arab communities.

"They took press freedom to the extreme, almost to a fault, and that got them in trouble," says Erik Nisbet, an Ohio State University professor who studies Arab media and anti-Americanism.

He likened the situation on the Arab-language channel of Al Jazeera to an American channel giving airtime to the Ku Klux Klan. "They would report on them, but they are not going to do in-depth interviews or invite them to be on mainstream talk shows and let them say anything they want, but Al Jazeera does," Nisbet says.

Another example of going out on a limb: On June 25, 2009, the English-language channel ran a story on religion in the U.S. military, noting that "many Christians on the right describe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in similar terms as the Taliban and al QaedaŻas spiritual wars of the highest magnitude. Fundamentalists on both sides feed the fires of hatred and racism to support their world views."

The Taliban and al Qaeda have used murder, torture and terror to achieve their goals, which the video neglected to mention in its comparison to Christians on the right.

And the network also has its share of critics in its own backyard.

Al Jazeera has paid a heavy price for being the first station that transmitted real news across the Arab world, vexing rulers accustomed to controlling information. The channel has been closed down at times in virtually every country in the Middle East, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. And as revolts erupted across the region this winter, so did attacks against Al Jazeera.

On March 12, the Doha headquarters received word that an Al Jazeera journalist had been killed and another wounded in an ambush while covering Libya's bloody rebellion. Cameraman Ali Hassan Al Jaber, a Qatari national, was returning to the rebel-held city of Benghazi when gunmen opened fire on the car he was riding in.

A statement from the company noted that the "cowardly crime" was part of the Libyan regime's "malicious campaign targeting Al Jazeera and its staff." Earlier, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi singled out Al Jazeera in a speech as one of the channels "turning and twisting facts" about the revolt in his country.

The tragedy in Libya came on the heels of attacks on the network in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak's embattled government fought for control of the airwaves. On Twitter in late January, an Al Jazeera correspondent, Dan Nolan, wrote: "Aljazeera Cairo bureau has been shut down. Just visited by plain-clothes govt security, TV uplink is now closed." Officials pulled reporters' credentials and blocked the network's TV signal. Some staff were arrested and later released.

Al Jazeera turned to social networks to keep information flowing. A call went out to bloggers and citizen journalists to submit content. Some reporters filed audio reports, tweeting as often as they could. At one point, a network producer said in an audio report: "We are doing phone interviews. No Al Jazeera staff are going to be using their names anymore on television." Other Arab-language TV satellite broadcasters pitched in by airing Al Jazeera's content.

Nolan sent another message via Twitter: "Don't worry jazeera is used to being shut down by govt's. We'll find a way to get this out to you." Al Jazeera used Twitter get eyewitness accounts.

In a February article in Foreign Policy, British journalist Hugh Miles praised the journalists' heroic efforts and reported that protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square could be heard chanting, "Long live Al Jazeera!"

In his book, "Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West," Miles pointed out that the network angered its Middle East audience by allowing Israelis to appear on the air. That was "truly shocking for the Arab public," Miles wrote. "Many Arabs had never seen an Israeli speak before."

CPJ has documented the resistance the network has faced. In May 2010, for instance, the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain suspended Al Jazeera from reporting a day after it aired a program about poverty on the oil-rich island. Al Jazeera had been thrown out in 2002 for "deliberately seeking to harm Bahrain." That ban lasted five years.

At times, the reasons for shutting down Al Jazeera are highly convoluted. Only a Middle East scholar could make sense of why it was thrown out of the West Bank in July 2009. At the time, the Ministry of Information of the Palestinian Authority said the action was taken because of "Incitement and unbalanced reporting from the Palestinian territories." Al Jazeera had about 30 correspondents, camera operators, fixers and technicians operating in the West Bank, according to CPJ. The suspension was lifted a few days later.

Al Jazeera has been particularly hard hit during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of its reporters was killed in April 2003 when U.S.-led forces bombed the Baghdad bureau. News reports quoted Al Jazeera's chief editor, Ibrahim Hilal, saying the U.S. military had known the map coordinates and street number of the network's office. Military officials denied it was a deliberate act.

The Bush administration was outraged when the channel broadcast a statement by Osama bin Laden just two hours after the U.S-led coalition began military strikes against Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. Three weeks later, it aired another tape of bin Laden, dressed in camouflage and carrying an AK-47 assault rifle. The station routinely showed graphic images of civilian casualties and destruction at the hands of Americans. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Al Jazeera of spreading "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable" reports about U.S. actions in Iraq.

A lot has changed since then.

On February 7, the Los Angeles Times reported that the "Obama administration is courting the pan-Arab television network Al Jazeera in an attempt to improve a history of testy relations with one of the most influential news outlets in the Middle East." After a State Department policy review, more diplomats and administration officials will be appearing on the channel, the article said.

In March, Mediachannel.org's editor Danny Schechter blogged about his trip to the Doha headquarters to attend the 6th annual Al Jazeera Forum on the Arab world in transition. One panel focused on how the once legendary "CNN effect" had been overshadowed by the "Al Jazeera effect." Schechter bemoaned that Al Jazeera has been "denigrated by politicians and shunned by nervous cable networks" and is waging a fight for airtime in America.

While Al Jazeera has been widely viewed in the U.S. on the Internet during the Arab Spring, not a single major cable or satellite network in the country carries the English-language channel. It only can be viewed on TV in a handful of locations, including on some cable systems in Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. Riding the wave of favorable publicity, network officials have been lobbying Comcast, the largest U.S. cable operator, Time Warner Cable and other cable systems to add the channel.

Al Jazeera executives point to a 2,500 percent increase in traffic on their Web site during the uprising in Egypt and 10 million minutes of the live stream being viewed daily, 45 percent of that in the United States. Al Anstey believes the question is not if the channel will make its way onto American cable, but when. The cable and satellite operators aren't commenting on negotiations.

Al Jazeera has taken its campaign public. The company purchased full-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times plugging positive reviews the network has received and publishing a link to where Al Jazeera can be found online. A quote in the ad from Business Insider read: "Even the president of the United States is watching Al Jazeera."

It was part of a "Demand Al Jazeera in the USA" drive on the channel's Web site, where viewers punch in a zip code to find the cable and satellite providers in their areas. By late March, 50,000 people had sent messages, according to the staff.

Another campaign is underway, only this one has a vastly different slogan: "Tell Congress to Stop Al Jazeera!"

Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group in Washington, D.C., is seeking a congressional resolution that Al Jazeera English should not be granted access to the U.S. television market. On its Web site, viewers use a zip code to find which elected officials to contact. It also has a documentary titled "Terror Television: The Rise of Al-Jazeera and the Hate America Media," on sale for $2.95.

Clifford Kincaid, an AIM editor and columnist, writes often about what he sees as bias in the network's news coverage and kowtowing to its Qatari owners. In a March 6 posting titled "Masters of Al-Jazeera Imprison a Blogger," Kincaid cited an Amnesty International report calling for "urgent action" on the arrest of Sultan al-Khalaifi, founder of a human rights organization in Qatar. He has been held incommunicado since March 2, and "is at risk of torture or other ill treatment. The reasons for his detention are unknown," Amnesty International said.

The story Kincaid found on Al Jazeera ended with the line, "The Qatari government could not be contacted for comment." "How could they not get comment from the very regime that owns them? That just doesn't make any sense," he says.

Kincaid refers to Al Jazeera as a "government-funded propaganda channel" and questions the veracity of its reporting. "I think some are mistaking film footage of riots and demonstrations [in the Middle East] as evidence the channel is doing a good job," he says. "To me, it's comparable to an arsonist setting a house on fire then taking out a camera and filming the inferno. People need to take a closer look at their role in starting this bloody chaos."

Qatar, an oil-rich country of 1.8 million, does not get raves from human rights monitors. A 2010 Amnesty International report noted that women face discrimination and violence, migrant workers are exploited and abused, and there are sentences of flogging. The latest State Department human rights report said that Qatar's government "placed restrictions on civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press (including the Internet), assembly, association, and religion."

In leaked U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, Qatar was singled out as the "worst in the region" when it comes to cooperating with the U.S. government in tracking financing of terrorist groups.

Not everyone views Al Jazeera in black and white terms.

Award-winning Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar says he doesn't expect the network to give Israel a fair shake because, if it did, it would lose its Arab audience, and mainstream Arab politicians might boycott the network.

Some Israeli officials, he says, refuse to appear on Al Jazeera because of its reputation in the Jewish state. But when he has been interviewed on Al Jazeera, he has found its journalists to be professional and the questions fair. "I have criticized Arab leaders, and they have never said, 'OK, this doesn't fit. This is not what we are looking for.' My impression is, of course, that they emphasize suffering of Palestinians much more than suffering of Israelis. You don't expect them to be neutral," says the diplomatic affairs analyst and columnist for Haaretz, a Tel Aviv newspaper he describes as liberal.

Eldar points out that when America went to war in Iraq, coverage in the early stages was heavily slanted in favor of U.S. interests. The average Israeli views Al Jazeera as an American might view Fox News Channel, he says. "They both are highly partisan, and everybody knows it."

Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who is bilingual, watches both the English and the Arabic channels of Al Jazeera. He sees powerful distinctions in news content and style.

The English version is mellow and quieter in tone, in his view, with a more tempered approach to its reporting. Newscasts on the Arabic channel tend to be louder, with a more "hostile" feel. "They keep you on the edge, its reporters are pushing issues rather just reporting on them. They become more of an activist at times, very in your face. The English channel uses more neutral terminology; the Arab channel is much harsher," says Kuttab, who won the Committee to Protect Journalists Press Freedom award in 1996 for challenging censorship by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.

The majority of complaints about anti-Semitism predictably are drawn by material on the Arabic channel. A weekly show "Sharia and Life," hosted by controversial Egyptian cleric Yusuf Qaradawi, infuriates its many critics.

A February 2011 article in The Atlantic analyzed Qaradawi's writings and concluded he "argues clearly and consistently that hatred of Israel and Jews is Islamically sanctioned, and that the destruction of Israel is mandated by God." To Judea Pearl, Qaradawi's messages are clear. "They give religious license to the ideology of terror," he says.

Al Jazeera editors counter that the Arabic channel also features Muhammed Heikal, a leading writer and intellectual in the Arab world who served as an adviser to Egyptian presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, known for their moderate policies.

There is no doubt, says Ohio State's Nisbet, that anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of Al Jazeera's Arabic reporting. He views it as part of the Arab media discourse and points to this reality: When a seismic story breaks in the Arab world, Al Jazeera has the correspondents, contacts, sources, and historical and cultural context to provide quality coverage.

"It is a window on the world that American media cannot duplicate," the professor says.

The question of independence continues to dog the network. Just how much influence does Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani have on the news agenda? Al Anstey has said publicly, "We are categorically anti-nothing, and pro-nothing," but that does not put doubts to rest.

Middle East expert Lynch said during a March 22 interview on National Public Radio that being funded by the emir "can't help but affect their coverage." He added, "People feel there has been increasing use of Al Jazeera as a weapon in Qatari foreign policy in recent years compared to the past. It's very rare to see Al Jazeera critically covering something the Qatari regime supports."

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, takes a wait and see attitude about how Al Jazeera will respond should uprisings spread to Qatar and the emir's power is threatened. "If that does happen, they're obviously faced with a choice," he says. "If they don't cover it like they have covered others, they will lose credibility."

Al Jazeera's Washington, D.C., headquarters is housed on four floors of a downtown office building. The eye-catching gold Al Jazeera logo is nowhere to be seen in the lobby. The name "Al Jazeera" does not appear on the building directory. Minutes after a desk attendant called upstairs, communications specialist Sophia Qureshi was swiping a card to allow me to enter the inner sanctum.

Flatscreen TVs flashed Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, but, for the most part, it was a quiet place, with an institutional, no-nonsense feel as journalists labored in cubicles. Qureshi sat at a computer scrolling through the list of 50,000 who have sent e-mails to cable and satellite operators on Al Jazeera's behalf. "We are blind-copied on every message sent," she explains. Qureshi stresses that most had typical American names such as Taylor, Conley and Roth. "It's just not true that the only people interested in us are Muslims," she says. "We have the evidence."

Staffers Jeremy Young and Zeina Awad were headed to India the next day to report on the globalization of clinical research. Young covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for Al Jazeera; Awad has reported across the Middle East and Africa. They are typical of the relatively young yet highly experienced staff.

Both were exuberant over the accolades the network received for its coverage of the Arab Spring. "I really think Americans who are opposed to Al Jazeera just really aren't familiar with it and haven't seen it," says Young, a producer for "Fault Lines," a show which he says takes a serious look at U.S. social issues, foreign policy and corporate interests.

Awad, who had just spent 10 days covering Puerto Rico's economic crisis, sees an "Al Jazeera awakening" in the United States. "We actually are growing, hiring more people and opening more bureaus," Young says. Al Jazeera outdistances other international broadcasters with 65 bureaus and 400 journalists worldwide. In comparison, CNN is the American broadcaster with an editorial presence in the largest number of locales--33--according to AJR's most recent survey of foreign coverage. Al Jazeera broadcasts to 220 million households in 100 countries by its count.

Mark Orchard, editor of Al Jazeera English, isn't shy about touting his channel. It beats the competition, he says, "because we have a network bigger than anyone else has ever had by far, and we're lucky to have the resources to do that. Our trajectory is expansive and forward-looking, whereas some other networks unfortunately have seen decades of contraction in foreign news."

That reality is not lost on CPJ's Abdel Dayem, who was walking the streets of Tunis with a cell phone in his hand as he speculated about the network's future.

As America and Europe's media remain hamstrung by financial woes, he says, reporting gaps in foreign coverage are continuing to widen. Abdel Dayem predicts Al Jazeera will take over large chunks of that abandoned territory "not just in the Middle East but worldwide.

"There's no doubt about it," he says. "Al Jazeera is the big kid on the block right now."