Al-Jazeera: The Thousand and One Bin Ladens

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After the disasters of September 11, much of the world made its first acquaintance with the Arabic satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera. While US forces headed toward Afghanistan, that country’s government expelled all foreign journalists except Al-Jazeera’s. The station has since held the monopoly in broadcasting the American bombardment. In addition, it alone receives the video cassettes of Osama Bin Laden, which it passes on, with his permission, to other networks. Among these was the cassette from 1998, in which he announced his jihad against America, as well as one that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Though new to most of the world, Al-Jazeera is now in its fifth year. It had a peculiar beginning. In 1996, the station was just getting started (in the city of Doha in the Gulf principality of Qatar). The owner, a member of the royal family, was looking around for staff. In April of that year, the BBC closed its Arab wing, dismissing forty editors and journalists. Al-Jazeera snapped them up. Thus it got, ready made, a sophisticated team, trained in the most advanced techniques.

Since then Al-Jazeera has become the favorite of Arab audiences and the nightmare of Arab regimes. The station played a central role in fanning the flames of the current Intifada. It also broadcast, day after day, the demonstrations taking place on the streets of the Arab world. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has threatened to shut down its local office. The existence of an open network is an anomaly indeed in a region ruled by dictators with zero tolerance for free expression.

Why does the royal family allow such an anti-establishment phenomenon? The answer may be found in the network’s broad appeal. By letting this popular station carry on, the family enters into a kind of compact with the appreciative masses, thus gaining a reputation for openness and bolstering its authority. The case is similar to those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, except that in the latter two, the bolstering alliances are with Islamist groups.

Yet is Al-Jazeera really so open? In one sense, yes. Those who know how to fish in its waters can catch, now and then, a species they will not find elsewhere. But my general conclusion is not encouraging, and let me state it at the outset: In the realm of media, this station is as weird as was the attack on the WTC in the realm of international politics.

What has made Al-Jazeera the favorite of Osama Bin Laden? Not by chance did the network win the monopoly on coverage in Afghanistan. It inflated the Bin Laden legend even before the attacks of September 11. On July 10, 2001, for example, a very popular program, “In the Opposite Direction,” devoted much of its time to his personality. The host, Faisal al-Kassem, presented Bin Laden to his audience as “a slender man who has managed to sow fear in the hearts of Americans.” After building him up as a new Saladin, al-Kassem asked the viewers: “Are we in need of a thousand Bin Ladens?”

Al-Jazeera also broadcast a report that Jews were tipped off in advance not to go to their jobs in the World Trade Center on September 11. The New York Times (Editorial, October 10) and many others noted this particular piece of insanity. The French News Agency has invited Al-Jazeera‘s editors to provide a “clarification”.

How Washington Handles the Al-Jazeera Phenomenon

The US has accustomed the world to wars with cameras attached. So it was in Iraq and Kosovo. With Afghanistan it is different. America finds itself unable to film there. Its news companies, which cannot function in a media vacuum, have begun therefore to purchase footage from Al-Jazeera. Thus, to the station’s fame in the Arab world we may now add the West’s dependence on it.

The Bush Administration finds this state of affairs intolerable. A former Army intelligence analyst writes in The Washington Post (October 14):

America is losing the battle of ideas within countries harboring terrorists, placing our national security at risk. The image of America is badly distorted in these countries and a new information offensive, employing what might be called “weapons of mass communication,” is essential if there are to be any permanent victories in the effort to uproot terrorism and prevent further attacks hereé.

In the days after the U.S. military began its raids in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman abu Ghaith appeared in a menacing video on al-Jazeera, an Arab television network, in which he said, “Those youths who did what they did and destroyed America with their airplanes, they’ve done a good deed.” Yet no statement of comparable length from President Bush or senior American officials was aired on al-Jazeera in response. (Robert Stewart, “We Can’t Win If We’re Not Heard”)

Washington decided to put pressure on both Qatar and the American media. Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, was appointed to handle the Al-Jazeera problem. She arranged a conference call with the five major American TV news organizations and persuaded them to limit their use of Bin Laden’s videos. These tapes, she argued, “enabled Mr. bin Laden to vent propaganda intended to incite hatred and potentially kill more Americans.” She also voiced a suspicion that he might be transmitting coded messages to his fellow terrorists. It was “the first time in memory that the networks had agreed to a joint arrangement to limit their prospective news coverage.” (Bill Carter and Felicity Barringer in The New York Times, October 11.)

US Secretary of State Colin Powell put the pressure on Qatar. In early October he conveyed to its Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, his concern about Al-Jazeera‘s inflammatory rhetoric. Powell asked him to rein in the station. The editor of the Times, however, disagrees with this approach. “The correct response to Al-Jazeera, however, is not to ask Qatar to censor it. The Islamic world has far too much censorship already. Instead, Washington should shower Al-Jazeera with offers of interviews with American officials or respected Muslims who can counter the anti-American propaganda.” (“Censorship in Pashto and Arabic,” The New York Times, October 10)

The Bush Administration got the message. Rice herself adopted the recommendations of the Times. On October 15 she gave Al-Jazeera a 16-minute interview, assuring Arab viewers that the American campaign “is not a war against Islam.” (Mike Allen in The Washington Post, October 16)

Powell also gave the station an interview. “White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said if Bush were asked to speak on al-Jazeera, he would ‘consider that.'” (Robert Stewart, The Washington Post, Oct. 14)

The turnabout in Washington’s approach to Al-Jazeera has been met by another: Bin Laden, working through an intermediary, asked Al-Jazeera to request that CNN send him questions.

“CNN has asked Osama bin Laden whether he or his followers have weapons of mass destruction and whether they plan to use them, the network said last night. The question is one of six written queries CNN has submitted at the invitation of Mr. bin Laden’s group, Al Qaeda. It expects he will answer in his next videotaped statement.” (The New York Times, October 17.)

Arab Criticism of Al-Jazeera

Al-Jazeera is riding a wave of enthusiasm among the Arab masses, but some cast doubt on its credibility. Its fare includes a program called “More Than One View” (Aktar min Rai), whose topic on October 16 was “Media in Wartime”. For our purposes, we shall focus on the words of one participant, Rada Hilal, who covers the US for the Egyptian daily, al-Ahram. He criticized Al-Jazeera, saying it produces propaganda, not journalism. When the network dubs the attack on the WTC “so-called terrorism,” one may doubt, he says, its reliability. Hilal went on to accuse the station of playing a double game: the Emir of Qatar arrives in America to convey the royal family’s condolences, while Al-Jazeera, which belongs to that family, enflames the masses against America.

Sami Khadad, the show host, countered by saying this was proof of the station’s independence. Hilal answered: Al-Jazeera is independent until the talk comes around to criticism of the regime, which stores on its territory vast quantities of American weapons. He continued: “The station is playing with fire when it turns Bin Laden into a holy representative of Islam. It must not become Bin Laden’s mouthpiece. It acts as though it is trying to stir up the masses, whereas it ought to explain the situation and raise the level of discourse.”

Al-Jazeera usually publishes the transcript of “More Than One View” on the Internet. The transcript of this particular broadcast has never appeared.

Al-Jazeera and the World Trade Organization

The next meeting of the WTO is scheduled for Doha, Qatar, home of Al-Jazeera, November 13-17. (Convening it here, it was thought, would keep away anti-globalizers.) Now there is worry, however, about holding a global conference in a “war zone”. Various delegations, especially the American, have hinted how prudent it would be to change the venue. Singapore has indicated its readiness to host a scaled-down version. But the WTO makes decisions by consensus, i.e., unanimity, and the UN Ambassador from Qatar pointed out that moving the conference would be yielding to terrorism. What’s more, it would be “a grave insult against Arabs and Muslims, lumping them together with terrorists.” (Reuters, October 20.) George W. Bush then announced that the conference would after all take place at Doha. The Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot (October 23) reported that an Israeli delegation would participate. The Qatari Foreign Secretary responded, “It’s the hosts, not us, who invite the participants. In any case, it doesn’t disturb us to receive the Israelis.”

Bubble of the Arab world

The Jazeera phenomenon is odd and dangerous. In the case of other media monopolies, some kind of power stands behind them é political, economic or institutional. Al-Jazeera, however, is owned by a corrupt principality whose authority derives from religion, American bases, and now the station itself as a means of endearing the masses. The network uses radical, populist rhetoric. Since the Arab world has hardly any middle class, it seeks its rating among the poverty-stricken. For decades these heard nothing but censored news. Political discussion was confined to what the regimes would allow. On the other hand, when exposed to international networks like CNN and the BBC, they saw that during wartime (against Iraq and Yugoslavia, for example) these western stations served the propaganda needs of their governments. Lack of confidence in western media moved many in the Arab audience to the other extreme: they uncritically accepted the reports and analyses put out by Al-Jazeera. The station knows how thirsty the Arab masses are to hear a position supporting them against the West. Like a fake Robin Hood, it uses the power of image and word to stir them up, but behind the frenzy lies no power base.

As an example we take the station’s role in the present Intifada. This erupted when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reached a dead end. It resulted from accumulated rage and frustration, which Al-Jazeera brought to a head by its coverage. The PA jumped aboard once the wagon was rolling. The result has been a kind of hybrid: an oppressed people and its dictatorial regime, fighting an occupying power under a banner of fake unity. Where can this combination lead? Given the present imbalance of forces, it is hard to imagine the Palestinians achieving national liberation. That leaves only two possibilities: either the masses will finally give up in weariness and discouragement, letting the dictator usher them into a second edition of Oslo, or the battle will be settled by Israel again going in and conquering the Territories. Did the directors of Al-Jazeera consider what would happen after the spilling of the blood that they find so photogenic? A truly progressive network would have fostered, rather, a deeper discussion of the Palestinian issue in the context of the Arab world’s problems. Instead, all they have to offer is “a thousand Bin Ladens.”

Bin Laden has understood very well how to use the network. He examined its influence on the Intifada. He saw how a single satellite beam could bring millions into the streets, and he said to himself: Why shouldn’t millions go to the streets for my cause too?

Bin Laden did not understand, however, that street demonstrations do not suffice when no responsible and realistic leadership stands behind them. The program he proposes, a caliphate like that of the first Islamic century, may inspire a few fanatics, but it doesn’t speak to the needs of the hungry masses. Before the attacks of September, he would have done well to remember that the Taliban took Afghanistan not by means of Al-Jazeera, rather with Pakistani arms, Saudi money, and the tacit consent of Uncle Sam.

A few oil barons bought a media toy and don’t know how to use it. When CNN agrees to put an American spin on the news, behind it stand, for better or worse, the Marines. Who stands behind Al-Jazeera? A corrupt principality, a leaf in the wind. And here is the danger: Al-Jazeera whips up in its viewers a feeling of power that is out of proportion to any real alignment of forces.

Samya Nasser is the manager of the Baqa center in Majd al Krum.

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