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Failure to Launch?

Failure to Launch?

Aljazeera International faces significant hurdles in breaking into the English-language media.

By Christina Asquith

When reporters from the Arabic news channel Aljazeera International traveled on assignment to Crosby, N.D., recently, they did not receive a warm welcome from locals. Instead, someone called the sheriff, who then reported possible terrorist activity to the U.S. Border Patrol. Agents were dispatched to investigate whether the journalists “seemed like U.S. citizens.”

After a brief interrogation, the agents confirmed that they were American journalists working on a piece about migration out of the Great Plains. But reporters for Aljazeera International say such suspicious, hostile treatment has become routine, as the Muslim world’s largest and most controversial 24-hour news channel struggles to start an English-language channel in the United States.

Producers in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Aljazeera International have missed two launch dates since they first announced the channel in 2005. They now refuse to set a third date. Many say
the reasons boil down to racism and anti-Arab prejudice.

The channel has not been able to find a distributor or a cable/satellite provider. And various banks, insurance groups and accounting firms flatly refuse to take Aljazeera on as a client. American politicians often shy away from on-camera interviews for fear of bad publicity.

“There are misperceptions in the U.S.,” says former CNN anchor Riz Khan, now with Aljazeera International. “It’s a bit of a shame. But I think once people will see it, they’ll say, ‘Here’s a different point of view.’”

Journalism organizations have long called for diversity in the newsroom, and if  “diverse” means a different point of view, then Aljazeera International more than fits the bill. Its coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have included interviews with insurgents and images of dead U.S. soldiers. 

Aljazeera first became a household name in America after the network aired segments of Osama bin Laden’s videotaped messages after the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks, provoking outrage from Americans and the Bush administration. Supporters called it balanced reporting. But since then, Aljazeera has been seen by many as little more than a glorified megaphone for radical Islamic fundamentalists.

“Aljazeera intends to incite Arabs and Muslims around the world into an anti-American posture,” says Cliff Kincaid, whose group, Accuracy in Media, started a Web site to stop Aljazeera International. “Now they’re trying to reach Arabs and Muslims in the United States who don’t speak Arabic.”

A Strained Relationship 
Aljazeera is no stranger to controversy. Until recently, the network was lauded by the U.S. administration for its stinging criticisms of Arabic royal families and oil-rich dictators, and for its investigations into taboo subjects such as child brides and polygamy. To date, Aljazeera journalists have been kicked out of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other countries, typically for criticizing the ruling class. There is one exception, however: Aljazeera never criticizes its own country of Qatar or its founder and financial benefactor, the Qatari royal family.

The Bush administration’s relationship with Aljazeera soured after the network began to shift its attention towards U.S. foreign policy during Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led coalition’s offensive in Afghanistan. The Pentagon accused Aljazeera of using the tragic images of war to provoke anti-American violence throughout the region.

“Anyone, even an American living in the Middle East watching a network like Aljazeera day after day after day, would begin to believe that America was bad just based on the biased, one-sided coverage,” says Lt. Col. Todd Vician, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Relations further deteriorated after the U.S. military bombed Aljazeera’s office in Kabul in 2001 and in Baghdad in 2002, killing cameraman Tareq Ayyoub. The U.S. military says the strikes were unintended, an explanation few Aljazeera employees accept. 

“Journalists in the Arab world take it as an article of faith that the U.S. deliberately targets media,” says Joel Campagna of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Dr. Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East and professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, says that what the Bush administration considers anti-American is actually just the Arab point of view. He says American viewers would benefit from seeing additional coverage beyond Fox News and CNN, which report from an American perspective. 

 “I don’t think I’ve seen reporting on Aljazeera where the Americans have ever done anything right,” Cole says. “When they report on insurgency in Iraq, the insurgents are always the good guys and the U.S. soldiers are bad guys.

“In some instances, it could be true, and in other cases there are some pretty nasty guys in the insurgency. But Aljazeera’s line would be that the insurgents are poor people in Ramadi who want to lead normal, free lives, and they’re oppressed by the U.S. occupation,” Cole says.

The fact that most Americans think Aljazeera is aligned with the ideology of al-Qaida is evidence of the kind of misunderstanding born of exposure to only one side of the story, he adds. Cole says the young Muslim who associates with or wants to work for Aljazeera is usually a sophisticated upper-class Arab that is opposed to the terrorist organization’s ideology.

Aljazeera’s anti-American bias stems not from Islamic fundamentalism, Cole says, but from Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism. He also points to a long-held sense in the Arab community that their world is defined by the wars of independence they have fought during the past century against imperialistic powers such as England, France, the Netherlands and, perhaps, now America.
Taking A Point of View
Aljazeera began in 1996 as the brainchild of the wealthy emir of Qatar, and drew heavily from a BBC attempt to start an Arabic-language channel. That venture failed because viewers didn’t think it was authentically Arab.

June Cross, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University, compares Aljazeera International to the creation of Black Entertainment Television, founded in 1980 in part to provide more balanced coverage of Black America. Arabs won’t receive accurate, fair coverage until they integrate into powerful positions in the newsrooms as Blacks did, Cross says.

“What stories are assigned and the importance given to them, where you put your resources … an Arab-run media outlet can make a big difference in how Islam is covered and how the diaspora is covered,” she says.

Much like BBC and CNN, Aljazeera’s style is flashy and modern. News is read against colorful backdrops, and news readers cut to live video while text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. Currently, Aljazeera has more than 30 bureaus around the world.

Such in the way the first Gulf War launched CNN, the post-Sept. 11 conflicts have thrust Aljazeera into the international spotlight. Four books have been written on the Arab network in recent years, along with the documentary, “Control Room.”

“All the scholarly books reject the idea that Aljazeera is propaganda. It does have a point of view, and it reflects that point of view, just as the U.S. networks reflect their U.S. view,” says Dan Hallin, a media and war specialist and professor of communications at the University of California, San Diego.

When Aljazeera decided to launch an English-language channel, a fairly impressive roster of Western journalists signed on, including David Frost, a legendary BBC journalist, and Khan, the former CNN International anchor. Most of the employees of English-language Aljazeera International are, in fact, not Arab or Muslim but primarily British and American, and of various religious faiths.  

Employees have defended Aljazeera as a great example of news diversification. They say the network would bring an international perspective of the world to U.S. viewers and deepen their understanding of Arabs and Muslims at a time when global conflicts appear to be increasing the rift between East and West.

Dr. Ali Asani, professor of the practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture at Harvard University, also hopes they will deliver news, not sensationalism.

“There’s a ‘fetishizing’ of religion in the U.S. media’s coverage of Islam, as if it explained everything, and this strips people of their culture, their history, their humanity and any political or economic context,” he says.

Asani recalls an international story in which British historian David Irving was sentenced to prison for verbally “denying the holocaust,” a crime in 11 countries. In the Pakistani media, debate raged over whether such punishment contradicted the West’s commitment to freedom of speech. But the Western press largely ignored that kind of discussion.

“This is an example of bias in the media,” Asani says. “I saw a much more diverse press in Pakistan. Here, the media may say they are different, but they are all corporate-owned, and so the news becomes sanitized and diluted. In the end, you see that everyone reports stories in the exact same way.”

It is true that Aljazeera typically runs fewer commercials than competing networks, largely because Qatar’s deep pockets mean the network can survive without corporate sponsorship. Aljazeera is beholden primarily to the Qatari royal family, which owns no other media outlets.

A review of Aljazeera’s English-language Web site, <> includes internationally focused news stories similar to those found on CNN and the BBC, including “U.S. Senate Passes Stem Cells Bill” and “Sao Paolo Hit by Gang Attacks.”

“There’s a sense that the U.S. news hasn’t provided the diversity of coverage that people all around the world feel they deserve,” says Khan. “We’re keen to be a voice for communities around the world that feel disenfranchised or overlooked by international media. But we’re not just here to represent the Middle East. It is an international channel.”

The Washington, D.C., bureau will contribute four hours of programming a day, including “Q&A with Riz Khan,” special reports, and news at the top of the hour. Aljazeera International, which is currently building its headquarters in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C., and will share a newsroom with its Arab-language component, has not yet announced whether it will air on cable or be a pay-per-view satellite channel.

Even the Pentagon is giving Aljazeera International a chance: they have approved its request to attend press briefings. “We’re withholding judgment to see the channel first,” says Defense Department spokesman Vician.

At the University of Missouri’s journalism school, Roger Gafke, professor of electronic journalism, has traveled to Doha, Qatar, to run four workshops training Aljazeera journalists in accuracy. He says the perception of Aljazeera as “bin Laden’s network” is misplaced. For example, when editors received the bin Laden tapes, they only ran the newsworthy parts of them, and brought on experts to give context
and commentary. 

“We look at the news from one kind of focus. If you are on the other side of that focus, it’s called bias, but it’s just a different perspective. Neither is wrong,” he says.

Working with Aljazeera is important not only for Americans to have a better understanding of the Middle East, but for Arabs to have a better understanding of America. The network is a chance to do that. 

“It’s hard to find anyone in that part of the world that advocates for the U.S. We’re just not well liked,” Gafke says. “Yet the Arab-speaking part of the world is hugely important to us, and we ought to have stronger communication bridges. If I can do one piece of that, then it’s worthwhile.”

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