Aug 07 2004


Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Media Activism

No one is indifferent to Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based Arab satellite television station. You can sense the blood of U.S. officials boil when they discuss it. To be sure, in the context of the dream of all Arabs being united and independent of foreign control, Al Jazeera is undeniably partial to Arab aspirations. But that does not make its news reporting untruthful.

In fact, Al Jazeera, which Secretary of State Colin Powell calls ”horrible” and ”slanted,” is a pivotal vehicle for reform and change, which genuinely democratic Arab activists and the international community alike have been calling for. So incensed has America been, however, that it created its own Arabic-language mouthpiece in the form of satellite station Al Hurra.

Arabs don’t trust it because Al Hurra has demonstrated its lapdog status by never broadcasting images of prisoners being abused inside Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. In this respect, at least, Al Hurra fits perfectly within the tame tradition of Arab state broadcasters.

But instead of bashing or seeking to undermine Al Jazeera, politicians should encourage this bastion of free expression, recognizing that Arabs will need to endure a messy process on the way to democracy. Along that tortuous route, the world’s major powers are bound to be offended, probably quite regularly.

Television in the Arab world for years has been the mouthpiece used by rulers to propagate their official opinions and nothing else. Elite military units usually protect radio and TV stations, because they often have been the first targets in military coups.

Given this history, and the storm of calls for reform in the Arab world, it is a tragic irony that America and the West have paid so little attention to the terrestrial Arab monopoly TV channels. Indeed, U.S. criticism of Al Jazeera sounds more like special pleading because of America’s inept bumbling in Iraq than a genuine desire for free, open, and critical Arab media.

If democracy means giving people a free choice, then there is no doubt that the choice of most Arabs is for a TV broadcaster that reflects their aspirations. In this sense, Al Jazeera is clearly biased, because it is run by Arab patriots and reflects Arab sentiment. But this is no more a crime than the fact that America’s media reflect U.S. aspirations, and in times of war behave like cheerleaders for U.S. forces. The key issue here is whether Al Jazeera as well as American TV stations are truthful.

Al Jazeera is certainly professional. Its leading journalists are Western-trained, many having worked for years at the BBC. In fact, Al Jazeera was founded only after the BBC closed its Arabic-language station under Saudi pressure. Al Jazeera’s motto, ”Opinion and opposing opinion,” has galvanized Arab viewers, because clashing opinions are rarely heard on Arab TV stations.

Of course, when covering the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Al Jazeera has not been objective. How could it be? But it did not make up facts; it merely reflected majority Arab opinion. On such fundamental issues of Arab consensus, it is simply illogical to expect an Arab broadcaster to be even-handed.

Moreover, Al Jazeera has not been dumb to complaints about it. In July, Al Jazeera became the first Arab TV station to create a professional code of ethics. As for Al Jazeera’s journalistic performance, the station should be judged by respected professional journalists, not by U.S. or other officials with a policy ax to grind.

If American, British and other Western officials are serious about reform in the Arab world, they must support reform-minded Arab individuals and organizations, even if those organizations make them uncomfortable at times. If that becomes the West’s standard, Al Jazeera will rightly be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

No responses yet

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.