UNITED NATIONS - When the League of Arab States was created in 1945, it was
perceived as the ultimate symbol of Arab nationalism in a politically and militarily
demoralized Middle East.
But in recent years, the 22 members of the pan-Arab organization have been
struggling to find common cause, and their meetings have been characterized
mostly by political brawls and near-fisticuffs.
At one of its summits in March last year, the cameras stopped rolling to prevent
the recording of insults and name-calling by two Arab leaders.
"You see the Arab League get together, and certain members can't even
have a conversation," says Jehane Noujaim, the Lebanese-American filmmaker
who produced Control
Room, a widely acclaimed documentary on the Arab television network
"They're all standing on tables fighting with one another. Al-Jazeera
is one entity that everyone across the Arab world watches. They may be the only
remaining base of Arab nationalism that exists. Arabs are proud of that,"
Based in the Qatari capital of Doha and launched in November 1996, al-Jazeera
is not merely "an Arab phenomenon" but also a remarkably popular television
network that now rivals giants such as Cable News Network (CNN) and the British
Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), particularly in the Arab world.
But the eight-year-old network has failed to win plaudits from the administration
of U.S. President George W. Bush, which has denounced it as "inflammatory"
specifically for its aggressive reporting on civilian casualties in Iraq
and for being "a mouthpiece" for Iraqi insurgents and for the leader
of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, Osama bin Laden. The network denies the charges.
"We have very deep concerns about al-Jazeera's broadcasts because, again
and again, we find inaccurate, false, wrong reports that are, we think, designed
to be inflammatory," U.S. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher told
reporters in April.
In U.S.-occupied Iraq, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib says al-Jazeera has
been showing "a lot of crimes and criminals on TV, and they transfer a
bad picture about Iraq and about Iraqis and encourage criminals to increase
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a formal protest against the network
when he met Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabir al-Thani
in Washington last April.
And the New York Times reported that the Bush administration refused
to invite Qatar as an "observer" to the summit meeting of eight world
leaders (the G8) in the state of Georgia last June because the Qatari government
had failed to curb the "excesses" of al-Jazeera.
"For many years, top officials in Washington have bemoaned the lack of
a free press and other democratic freedoms in Arab countries," says Norman
Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute
for Public Accuracy.
Yet since 2001, the Bush administration has increasingly pressured the government
of Qatar to clamp down on al-Jazeera, he adds.
"In recent months the U.S. State Department has escalated its campaign
to persuade Qatar to turn the screws on al-Jazeera. This effort cuts the legs
out from under Washington's claims that it supports democratization in the Middle
East," Solomon told IPS.
In the case of al-Jazeera, on the contrary, the White House has made clear
that the U.S. government fervently desires outright censorship and repression,
The United States, which relocated its Central Command (CENTCOM) from Saudi
Arabia to Qatar early this year, has its biggest single Middle East military
base in Doha, about 15 miles from the offices of al-Jazeera.
Asked if the new political and military relationship between Qatar and Washington
would impinge on al-Jazeera, one of its London-based program presenters, Malek
Triki, says the network will continue to maintain its editorial independence.
He says that on certain controversial issues, al-Jazeera "has agreed to
disagree" with the Qatari government, which has not put any pressure on
the network despite U.S. demands.
Speaking at a seminar, "The Role of the Media in the Development of the
Arab World," held in the Finnish capital of Helsinki last month, Triki
said the Arab ruling elites who control the bulk of the region's economic and
political resources have imported a development model based on economic growth,
but have taken care to empty it of its progressive substance.
The participants in the seminar, which was co-sponsored by Inter Press Service
(IPS) and the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, included representatives
from the Dubai-based al-Arabiya television network, the U.S.-backed al-Hurra
network in Washington, D.C., and the School of Mass Communications in Cairo
University, the Arab world's largest university.
"Transposed to any Western context, nothing of what al-Jazeera has done
and is doing is out of the ordinary," Triki told the seminar. "Had
it been launched in a region used to freedom of speech and freedom of the press,
such as northern Europe or Canada, al-Jazeera would hardly have made any ripple;
it would have been just another TV channel."
"But in the autocratic, authoritarian, censorship-ridden, taboo-obsessed
Arab world, al-Jazeera was an innovation," he added.
Al-Jazeera has played "a leading role" in furthering the cause of
Arab political development and in liberalizing Arab political culture, according
Asked to explain the reasons for the network's phenomenal success in the Arab
world, Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle
East Report, says: "The success of al-Jazeera is, in my view, primarily
explained by a very simple reality: it has broken the monopoly of the state-owned,
government-controlled broadcasting organizations that dominated the Arab world
since the advent of mass communication technologies, by rejecting their formula
for providing news."
Conventional state broadcasters were designed not to provide news but rather
to legitimize their regimes and, more often than not, glorify their leaders,
he added. "Consequently, they lost their legitimacy and credibility
being correctly seen as third-rate propaganda outfits," Rabbani told IPS.
"Their headlines were never about what actually happened that day, but
rather about how the leader responded to them."
If you go back through the record, he said, you will find that the news was
not "Nelson Mandela released from prison" or "hundreds of thousands
dead in Rwanda" but rather "King/President X congratulates Mandela
on his release from prison" or "expresses alarm at the situation in
"Al-Jazeera is altogether different: it is based in Qatar and funded by the
Qatari royal family, but the number of times Qatari news led the bulletin can
be counted on one hand, and even then was usually for legitimate reasons,"
In other words, he said, the network's main success is that compared to state
broadcasters it provides news rather than regime propaganda. And by not emphasizing
the comings and goings of a single leadership, it garnered pan-Arab appeal.
Another factor has been al-Jazeera's willingness to confront controversial
issues and provide a diversity of viewpoints certainly more diversified
than is available on any of the leading U.S. broadcasters.
"I would also add that this formula has been put to good use by a host
of other Arab channels, such as al-Arabiya, Abu Dhabi and Lebanese Broadcasting
Corporation [LBC] to name just a few, so would not single out Jazeera in this
respect, though it certainly was the pioneer," Rabbani said.
Al-Jazeera is an enigma, says Naseer H. Aruri, chancellor professor (emeritus)
of the University of Massachusetts.
Owned by the Amir of Qatar, one of the most pro-western sheikdoms in the Arabian
Peninsula, it is hardly a bastion of Arab nationalism and steadfastness against
ongoing U.S. penetration, yet the network is an indispensable source of news
about the daily atrocities committed against Arab civilians by occupying armies
in Palestine and Iraq.
"The coverage of al-Jazeera has been a thorn in the side of the neoconservatives
who rule America today and whose distortion of political realities relating
to the U.S. debacle in Iraq, Afghanistan and the 'war on terror' eluded the
mainstream U.S. media, which acts more as a government appendage than an independent
source of news and analysis in a democratic society," Aruri told IPS.
The Bush administration, which claims to be exporting democracy to Arabs and
Muslims, has exerted strenuous pressure on al-Jazeera and the government of
Qatar to tone down its critical coverage, he added.
Moreover, the U.S. military has targeted buildings that housed the network's
stations in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing and wounding its employees.
"Since the U.S. Central Command has relocated from Saudi Arabia to Qatar,
and the U.S. is increasing its political and military links, al-Jazeera and
the Qatar government should expect increased U.S. pressure intended to silence
a voice which has become identified with indigenous opposition to foreign intrusion
and local surrogates," predicted Aruri.
Should the punishment succeed, the network will have a hard time finding an
alternative location, given the tendency of Arab leaders to comply with U.S.
ultimatums, outside international law. But it is doubtful that even such punishment
would suppress voices in the region that would like to see an end to foreign
occupations, and aspire to a dignified existence and a stable political order,
Rabbani pointed out that the Palestinian uprising and the Iraq crisis have
most certainly contributed to al-Jazeera's success for several reasons.
"An important reason is purely technological it was able to beam the conflict
straight into people's living rooms, much like CNN did with the 1991 Gulf War,
and do so in Arabic. It was there. And given that it does not operate under
the same constraints as the conventional state broadcasters it was able to reflect
the views of its viewers a key factor."
"In sum, I would tend to agree that it represents an important facet of
contemporary pan-Arabism," Rabbani added.
(Inter Press Service)