Steve Gold
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Our worst enemy?

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A second look at Al-Jazeera finds the network less baiting

The morning of Yasser Arafat’s funeral last November, Don Imus, host of Imus in the Morning said, “They’re [Palestinians] eating dirt and that fat pig wife [Suha Arafat] of his is living in Paris.” His guest, sports anchor Sid Rosenberg, added, “They’re all brainwashed, though. That’s what it is. And they’re stupid to begin with, but they’re brainwashed now. Stinking animals. They ought to drop the bomb right there, kill ’em all right now.”

There were complaints, of course, and an MSNBC statement explained that the views expressed were not those of the network.

Despite the racist comments, you can still watch MSNBC in Canada. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based, 24-hour news channel, has received similar complaints and issued similar statements, but under a ruling made by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in August 2004, it will only be legally available in Canada if a distributor hires full-time staff to monitor the channel’s content, and alter or delete offensive material before it airs.

The decision to place an additional monitoring burden on Al-Jazeera’s potential Canadian distributor reveals a misunderstanding of the network’s origins and content: it was originally staffed by ex-BBC News journalists, and while it’s managed to turn Middle Eastern television on its head in under a decade, its news sense remains decidedly Western. If it bleeds, it leads.

In 1996, BBC News Service shut down its Arabic-language news channel after 20 months of operation. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa Al-Thani, bought up the equipment and many of the staff; he’s been funding al-Jazeera (which means “the island”) at the rate of about $100 million a year since. The emir graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England, in 1978, and overthrew his more autocratic father, who was in Switzerland at the time, in a nonviolent coup in 1995. He’s since moved the country closer to democracy. He replaced Qatar’s Ministry of Information with the General Association for Qatari Radio and Television. Al-Jazeera is modeled after the BBC: it’s publicly funded, but enjoys editorial freedom. The network now employs about 350 journalists, and 50 foreign correspondents in 31 countries – all of it run out of a small Middle Eastern monarchy with a population of 745,000 people.

Al-Jazeera first came to the attention of many Canadians in October 2001, when the network aired a video of Osama bin Laden taking responsibility for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the previous month. Since then, al-Jazeera has sometimes been called “Osama TV,” and been seen as a mouthpiece for terrorists, despite programs like More Than One Opinion, which discusses science, culture, and economics, and The Opposite Direction, a talk show that has discredited theories of Zionist conspiracy. Al-Jazeera bureaus have been forced out of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Authority, and Jordan – an attitude of intolerance mirrored by the United States in its calls for censorship, even as members of the first George W. Bush Administration, like former National Security Advisor and current Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, appeared on al-Jazeera to explain the U.S. government’s position. The network has advocates on both sides – in the Middle Easterners who gather to watch it in public caf?s, and Westerners who believe the inclusion of its perspective is necessary.

Jerry Khouri, policy advisor at Queen’s Park, can speak to both these viewpoints. “Do we want Rogers deciding what’s appropriate?” He says the argument made in favour of al-Jazeera’s availability in Canada was faulty. “You cannot reduce yourself to a nice little island, excuse the pun, and say, ‘We want to watch al-Jazeera because it reflects us.'” He argues that al-Jazeera should be brought to Canada because its coverage will provide greater diversity from which all Canadians will benefit.

Khouri is not alone in finding fault with the CRTC’s decision. Amir Hassanpour, associate professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, says the CRTC should have let existing media watchdogs report on al-Jazeera’s content, instead of placing a burden on distributors that none would be willing to bear. However, he believes instances of racism are ultimately the network’s responsibility: “Al-Jazeera should be more cautious and not allow it as a matter of policy – not because there will be protests, but because it’s racist.”

While both al-Jazeera and MSNBC have aired racist comments, the former’s business practices have paralleled those of Western networks even more closely. When the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, CNN and al-Jazeera struck a deal whereby CNN had exclusive rights to al-Jazeera footage six hours after the initial broadcast; in exchange, CNN sent satellite uplink equipment to the country for the use of both networks. However, other networks took no notice of the agreement and used al-Jazeera footage within CNN’s exclusive period, invoking “fair use.” While the deal ended in January 2002, it proved that al-Jazeera can function quite nicely within the Western media framework.

Further, Mohammed el-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar, authors of al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism, argue that al-Jazeera is still comparable to CNN. When the former uses the word “martyr,” they say, it better captures the Arab perspective on certain world conflicts. They wonder, is it any different from CNN describing assassinations as “targeted killings”?

And while al-Jazeera may have opened the way for the news channels sprouting up around it, those start-ups, such as Al Arabiya, may soon surpass the original Arab 24-hour news channel. “Slowly we’re seeing other satellite stations scooping al-Jazeera,” says Khouri. He continues, “What I find so fascinating is al-Jazeera is not even changing its perspective. They’re doing the same thing over and over. They’re not learning. They’re watching Al Arabiya, with all its flaws, grow its viewership.”

Khouri believes the novelty of al-Jazeera is fading. “Over time you’re going to be seeing a lot of Arab journalists criticizing al-Jazeera more and more.”

Hassanpour, however, says that while the network deserves some credit for bringing Western-style news to the Middle East, talk shows like The Opposite Direction aren’t quite as groundbreaking as some believe. “Debates existed long before media or television,” he says.

Hassanpour says the Middle East has a long history of press freedom the West hasn’t recognized, and in some cases has tried to suppress. When I visited his office this winter, he set a cardboard box on his desk and piled up feminist magazines published by the University of Tehran, literary journals, and newspapers devoted to the discussion of democracy. He collects them privately because they can’t be found in local libraries. “The state hasn’t been able to silence Middle Eastern journalists.” When the stack was complete he looked up and said, “There’s nothing they don’t discuss.”

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