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October 13, 2004

Is Al-Jazeera the New Symbol of Arab Nationalism?

by Thalif Deen

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 al-Jazeera.

"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," says Noujaim.

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 their activities."

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, he added.

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 to Triki.

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 central Africa."

"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," Rabbani added.

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, Aruri said.

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)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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