Few would have expected tiny Qatar to be at the forefront of what has been dubbed as nothing less than an Arab media revolution by many and dismissed as little more than a sophisticated propaganda tool by others.
Some 40 million viewers in the Middle East and beyond point their satellite dishes at Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera daily, which, since its inception in 1996 with a $140 million government grant, has won the respect of media-sceptical Arab audiences with its independent editorial line and constant breaking of the media taboos that the official and semi-official Arab press skirt.
The controversial satellite news channel, which covered the forgotten Afghan civil war throughout much of the 1990s, became an international household name with its unrivalled, on-the-ground coverage of the US military campaign in Afghanistan, and its airing of exclusive interviews with Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
In its short life, the popular channel has managed to disgruntle, at one time or another, almost every single Arab leader, and officials in Tel Aviv and Washington, all of whom have exerted pressure on the Qatari government to rein in the errant news channel.
Operating in a region unaccustomed to the scrutiny of a harsh media spotlight, it is unsurprising that Al Jazeera has been fighting more than your regular ratings war, leading to questions being raised about its future.
“Al Jazeera is the beginning of an unstoppable process in the Arab World that will bring about more freedoms,” Ahmad Kamel, Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Brussels, asserts confidently, while admitting the network is under a lot of pressure from foreign governments.
Kamel, a soft-spoken Syrian-born Palestinian in his late thirties, maintains that Al Jazeera draws its strength from its huge popularity amongst an Arab public itching to break loose from the constraints of the official media.
“There is a freedom vacuum in the Arab World… The Arab official press is not even worth talking about,” the straight-talking Kamel reflects. “Basically, it's not journalism. It is merely full of defences and justifications for everything the ruler does.”
“The viewer is still convinced that Al Jazeera is a free station because it is independent and is not a weapon in the hands of this regime against other regimes,” Kamel adds. He points out that miffed Arab audiences were, however, not always so welcoming of the channel and suspected its motivations and allegiances.
“We've applied the principle of freedom of expression across the board: to Israelis, to bin Laden, to the Americans, to Castro, to Iran,” Kamel says, underscoring the station's declared mission of presenting ‘opinions and counter-opinions'.
“This is something Arab audiences had difficulty accepting at first. With time, they learnt to accept this and that when we give bin Laden the chance to speak, it doesn't mean we agree with what he says.”
Kamel believes that the freedom Al Jazeera has compares favourably to its Western counterparts and the independent Arab press in Europe.
“I think Al Jazeera is perhaps freer than the Western press because it transcends national boundaries and is not tied down by (narrow) national considerations,” the proud Al Jazeera veteran, who penned the network's first ever report, says, noting that the station has journalists from over 20 countries working for it.
“The American media, for example, is free but it remains American and is committed to the nation's interests. And we saw it clearly demonstrated after the recent crisis that national and security interests supersede anything else, even questions of censorship.”
“There is a sense of Arabism [at Al Jazeera],” he concedes. “But it is a broad-based sense of a [common] civilisational allegiance, rather than narrow and clear-cut national interests.”
A question of independence
However, some fellow Arab journalists have not been so kind in their assessments of Al Jazeera, suggesting that the station is a propaganda machine – albeit a glossy and sophisticated one – in the hands of the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa II, to give him more regional clout than his tiny country of less than a million inhabitants deserves.
“(Sheikh Hamad) might be trying to give his country some importance. He might even be using Al Jazeera as a weapon,” Kamel suggests doubtfully. “Few had heard of Qatar before and now the entire world is talking about it. But, even if he sees Al Jazeera as a weapon, he is using it very intelligently,” Kamel says, noting that he's never heard of instances of government interference with editorial policy or content.
Other critics maintain that Al Jazeera pulls its punches when it comes to internal Qatari issues and practices self-censorship so as not to upset its host country.
“There is no political censorship at Al Jazeera,” Kamel insists. He notes that there are stringent standards of factual accuracy on Al Jazeera's news programmes that he fell foul of once while covering the NATO bombings in Kosovo.
“Qatar is an extremely tiny place that has few problems or (national) interests. Nevertheless, Al Jazeera has run critical coverage of Qatari affairs,” Kamels says, noting that even the Emir of Qatar and high level government officials are not immune to criticism on Al Jazeera, which has included coverage of political intrigues and controversial government policies.
Ironically, Washington, a one-time admirer of Al Jazeera's staunch independence from state interference, has twice joined the queue of dictators demanding state control – once under the current Bush administration and once under Bill Clinton's. US Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Qatari Emir in October to get Al Jazeera to “tone down its rhetoric”.
“The US is upset that we have been broadcasting Bin Laden tapes,” says Kamel, suggesting that the America administration may be pining for the convenience of dealing with dictatorships, whose support can be counted on with a simple phone call, during its campaign to whip up international support for its ‘war on terror'.
A polite rebuttal from Qatar and flak from the international press has since led the United States to back-pedal, with several high-ranking US officials granting Al Jazeera interviews. There are even plans afoot for a US-backed channel to rival Al Jazeera's reach in the Muslim World.
Al Jazeera is currently embroiled in a battle with CNN over the US network's airing of a spiked October interview with Osama bin Laden that Al Jazeera says was acquired illegally. CNN maintains that, under its agreement with Al Jazeera, it has the right to air any footage owned by the Arab network.
Kamel says that the interview, which Al Jazeera had requested in order to field its own questions and those of CNN, was ditched because it was conducted under duress.
“Our correspondent was taken blind-folded to a secret location… He was forced to ask certain questions. In fact, he was merely allowed to read out questions they brought to him and not ask his own,” Kamel notes.
CNN anchors have also suggested that Al Jazeera suppressed the tape because bin Laden allegedly incriminated himself for the September 11 attacks on it.
“It's not of concern to Al Jazeera whether he confessed or didn't to the attacks, that's his problem,” Kamel counters dismissively. “For professional reasons, the station decided not to broadcast the tape.”
Fame may have brought controversy and headaches to Al Jazeera and its reporters, but it also has its advantages. The station's liberal environment has charged the imaginations of many of its reporters and fuelled their drive to achieve and succeed.
“I am very happy with my work. My host country gives me freedom and the station lets me work freely,” Kamel reflects.
“Al Jazeera is my baby. Everyone who works at Al Jazeera feels like that. The channel promotes such dedication,” says Kamel, who first joined Al Jazeera, through an affiliate, to help finance his PhD at Ghent. He later abandoned his academic career after he caught the journalism bug.
The need to exploit the window of freedom provided by Al Jazeera, as Kamel calls it, has motivated the seasoned correspondent to shoulder, with the help of three other reporters, the heavy workload his bureau's vast territory involves without a break for the past four years.
“We're happy. We're achieving something positive. We care about Al Jazeera and that makes us persevere,” Kamel says, denying suggestions that he is a workaholic.
And their efforts are beginning to pay off. Al Jazeera's newfound fame in the West, and the desire of officials to reach the Arab and Muslim audiences that Al Jazeera addresses, is also beginning to make his job easier and more rewarding.
“The situation has changed a lot now that Al Jazeera has become famous. Now people are asking us to come in and interview them,” he observes. “For three years, I'd been requesting interviews with the secretary-general of NATO and was never granted one. After September 11, they called me,” he cites as an example.
Kamel, a lover of travel and culture, has visited some 70 countries through his work. He expresses his admiration for Swedish and Dutch liberalism and his dashed image of Japanese culture after seeing how much it tried to emulate the West at the expense of its own culture.
The well-heeled correspondent pines to visit just one more country. He wishes to be allowed entry into Israel, which does not grant visas to Palestinian refugees, just once to visit relatives there and fulfil his dead father's wish to see his old family home, which has, surprisingly, been standing abandoned since 1948.
He is also regretful that the demands of his job have meant that he has not been able to return to Syria to see family and friends in the last few years. However, his adopted homeland is always close at hand in the form of his wife, also a Syrian-born Palestinian who worked at Al Jazeera.
The cosmopolitan Arab also enjoys the multicultural environment of Brussels, but has, by his own admission, found it hard to make friends with Belgians, whose treasuring of their privacy he has found difficult to overcome. “As Arabs, we're used to making friends in a matter of hours. When you go to Syria, you can make friends before your plane even touches down.”
Kamel, who has spent over a decade in Belgium, is optimistic that the Arab media will follow Al Jazeera's lead and continue to break new ground. While he is happy to continue to contribute to that through Al Jazeera, he confesses to his ultimate dream.
“I hope to start up my own channel,” Kamel says, which he and a group of fellow Europe-based Arab journalists are dreaming of, to add their voices to the growing chorus calling for the next step to be taken down the road to democratisation in the Middle East.
Sampling Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera can be picked up by satellite dish all round the world. For those who would like a taste of the Arab news channel, they can visit www.aljazeera.net. Page impressions have soared from 700,000 per day before September 11, to an average of 3 million per day since the US bombing of Afghanistan began. Surprisingly perhaps, more than 40% of its visitors are from the US. Unfortunately, the website is exclusively in Arabic.
If your Arabic is a little rusty, there is an independent site that translates Arabic web pages, including Al Jazeera, which can be found at www.ajeeb.com. The translations provided by the site can be a little awkward in parts, but is generally understandable.
To use the translator software provided by the site, you have to complete the free registration process first. Make sure you read the end user agreement carefully.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the 14 March 2002 issue of The Bulletin.