Think Again: Al Jazeera
By Hugh Miles
It is vilified as a propaganda machine and Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece. In truth, though, Al Jazeera is as hated in the palaces of Riyadh as it is in the White House. But, as millions of loyal viewers already know, Al Jazeera promotes a level of free speech and dissent rarely seen in the Arab world. With plans to go global, it might just become your network of choice.
“Al Jazeera Supports Terrorism”
False, though the network makes little attempt to disassociate itself from those who do. This claim is one of the loudest arguments that Western critics have levied against the Arabic-language news channel since its inception 10 years ago, when the Doha, Qatar-based network pledged to present all viewpoints. Just as it describes in its motto, “The opinion and the other opinion,” Al Jazeera has lent airtime even to hated political figures and extremists, including prominent members of al Qaeda. It’s this willingness to present terrorists as legitimate political commentators that has prompted outspoken critics such as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to refer to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as “inaccurate and inexcusable.”
After all, when Al Jazeera offers its estimated 50 million viewers exclusive interviews of Osama bin Laden, it’s easy to confuse access with endorsement. And when a journalist who conducts those interviews is jailed for collaboration with al Qaeda, as Tayssir Alouni was in a Spanish court last year, the line between impartial observer and impassioned supporter is certainly blurred. In addition, al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group that reaches out to Al Jazeera. Besides the infamous bin Laden tapes—at least six of which the network has still never aired—Al Jazeera has also received tapes from insurgent groups in Iraq, renegade Afghan warlords, and the London suicide bombers.
But the network has never supported violence against the United States. Not once have its correspondents praised attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. The network has never captured an attack on the coalition “live,” and there’s no evidence Al Jazeera has known about any attack beforehand. Despite claims to the contrary, the network has never aired footage of a beheading. As for Alouni’s case, conclusive evidence has yet to be presented to the public. And there is nothing to suggest that the network’s funding is illegitimate. Allegations of supporting terrorism remain just that—allegations.
“Al Jazeera Is Anti-Semitic”
Wrong. Just as Al Jazeera has proven willing to present al Qaeda’s “perspective,” it has also devoted airtime to and welcomed another regional pariah—Israel. The network was the first Arab channel to allow Israelis to present their case in their own words, in Hebrew, English, or Arabic. This move was a major departure from past practices and truly shocked the Arab public. Until Al Jazeera arrived, most Arabs had never even heard an Israeli’s voice. Al Jazeera regularly airs clips of Israeli officials within news bulletins and conducts live interviews with six to 10 Israelis each month. The network covers Israeli affairs extensively and is widely watched in Israel. In fact, Al Jazeera gives more airtime to Israeli issues than any other channel outside Israel itself.
Although Israel has accused Al Jazeera of bias and anti-Semitism (and some of the network’s guests have certainly fit that bill), the network’s coverage has occasionally been of concrete benefit to the Israelis. When Israel invaded Jenin in the spring of 2002, Al Jazeera’s exclusive television reports from within the besieged city thoroughly dispelled rumors of a “massacre,” leading to a U.N. special investigating committee appointed by the secretary-general being unceremoniously disbanded.
Many Israelis even regard Al Jazeera as an important new force for change in the Arab world. Gideon Ezra, former deputy head of the Israeli General Security Service, once remarked that he wished “all Arab media were like Al-Jazeera.” Not all Arabs would agree. Although many Westerners think Al Jazeera has a pro-Arab bias, many Arabs believe exactly the opposite. It is widely held in the Arab world that Al Jazeera is financed and run by Mossad, MI5, or the CIA, so as to undermine Arab unity. Just as Bahrain banned Al Jazeera from reporting from inside the country because of a perceived Zionist bias in 2002, Al Jazeera’s bureaus in Arab countries have often been closed down, accused of besmirching the Palestinians or disseminating other kinds of imperialistic anti-Arab propaganda.
“Al Jazeera Is Spreading Political Freedom”
Wishful thinking. It’s true that Al Jazeera established the tradition of investigative reporting in the Arab world and rolled back the boundaries of debate within Arab families, breaking all kinds of taboos about what could be discussed on television. Improving upon the sycophantic Arab news channels that existed prior to 1996, Al Jazeera better informs the Arab public about their leadership and provides Arabs with a forum through which they can more easily ask of their rulers, “Why are we in this mess?”
In fact, Al Jazeera’s programs about Western politics have done more to inform Arabs about democracy than any nation or station. After 9/11, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau started two weekly talk shows to illuminate American democracy for a foreign audience: From Washington, in which the bureau chief interviewed U.S. politicians, including members of the Bush administration; and U.S. Presidential Race, which covered the U.S. elections in great depth, including most of the major primaries.
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