AL JAZEERA, VOICE OF ARABIA
By Tewfic Hakem
First Run/Icarus Films, 2003
Tawfic Hakem’s documentary in Arabic and French with English subtitles, produced with European funding, is a brilliant documentary on Al Jazeera, the most famous Arab news channel.
Shot in the aftermath of the U.S./British intervention in Afghanistan, Hakem examines the Al Jazeera network. Founded in 1996 as the first Arab non-stop news network, Al Jazeera helped put the emirate of Qatar on the map. Although financed by the government of Qatar (on an annual budget of 13 million dollars), the network is openly critical of Arab governments and their Western allies. The station has become perhaps the sole non-governmental voice of opposition in the Arab world to carry some influence. What gives the channel weight is its incredible popularity. As one of the Al Jazeera journalists explains, “We are the most popular political party in the Arab world. And it’s due to the audience’s support that we can continue to exist.”
Al Jazeera employs about 70 correspondents who represent “the myth of a unified Arab world. Muslims and Christians have found the freedom they could not find working in their native countries.” This mission sheds light on the significance of the name Al Jazeera: the station is an island of freedom in a sea of oppression. (The name means “island” or “peninsula” in Arabic.)
First recognized for its original treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Al Jazeera gained international notoriety with its coverage of the Afghan war. When the United States and British offensives began, Al Jazeera was the only network permitted by the Taliban to broadcast from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden also chose it as his media outlet, delivering video messages to the station’s headquarters in Doha. Because of this, the channel was castigated during the Afghan war for supporting the terrorists. In an interview with the network, Condoleezza Rice explained that she would not have accepted the invitation had she not held the station in high regard. Less than a month after her interview, the network’s offices in Kabul were bombed by the U.S. coalition.
Here lies one of the main issues of unrest when confronted by the Qatari channel: Is Al Jazeera supporting terrorists, since it accepts the Taliban’s invitation to broadcast from Kabul and airs all of bin Laden’s tapes; and if so, should it be banned? If we try to be objective, we would have to admit CNN, for example, would have done the same: had CNN been permitted to air from Kabul during the war it would have gone in without hesitation. Had it received bin Laden tapes, it would have aired them, without being accused of supporting terror.
In one of the most fascinating moments of the documentary, we witness an insider discussion following the arrival of a new bin Laden tape. Two journalists debate the pros and cons of airing the video immediately. On the one hand, showing the video now would only inflame a situation that is already explosive, argues a journalist. But one must show that the violence exists on both sides, argues the program director: there are Arabs who are being killed – in Palestine, in Afghanistan – and there are also Arabs blowing themselves up and killing people.
The documentary then goes on to highlight the channel’s main programs, all original in the Arab journalistic landscape. For instance, Hakem presents Yousri Fouda’s “ Top Secret” show as being a mini-revolution in the Arab journalistic milieu by tackling highly sensitive issues. As Fouda puts it, “Arab culture is not quite used to the concept of TV journalism. The key for us is to find a new approach between our Arabic culture, which is a poetic one, a linguistic one, and the dry scientific culture which is required in such investigations.”
Another program which deals with highly sensitive issues is Faisal al Khassem’s “The Opposite Direction,” Al Jazeera’s version of “Crossfire.” After showing a segment of the program in which an Algerian minister leaves the set, accusing Al Jazeera of being “a place of lies and folklore,” Hakem interviews al-Khassem himself. The Syrian journalist claims that the reason his show makes so much noise in the Arab world is because “our culture is not democratic, our culture is that of dictatorship... As Arabs, we do not know the meaning of dialogue, from our distant civilization to the present day, the motto of Arab culture has been learn and shut up!”
The network also presents a weekly religious show, hosted by a prominent Egyptian cleric, which deals with issues such as sexual intercourse. From this point on in the documentary, the viewer comes to understand that the sum of Al Jazeera’s programming has done a great deal in the opening up of the Arab society.
It is clear that Al Jazeera has sparked a revolution in the world of Arab media, and Hakem has brilliantly shown us how. Yet what Al Jazeera must now deal with is the growing presence of local competition: Al Arabiya, launched in February 2003 by a rich Saudi group, and Abu Dhabi TV, which began in 1996 but recently added a non-stop news channel. Watched each day by 50 million people, these three Arab news channels have emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Whether they can continue on the pioneering path opened by the Qatari news channel, however, remains to be seen.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 46.
Copyright © by Al Jadid (2004)