CAIRO — An independent Arab channel that has been bringing news to the Middle East for five years is now trying to bring a different perspective to Western viewers.
With its special access to Afghanistan, the Arabic language Satellite News Channel Al-Jazeera based in Qatar, has been edging out the BBC and CNN in its distinctive coverage of the Sept. 11 attack and its aftermath.
“Al-Jazeera is one of the main players in the Islamic world as the only news channel to have a bureau both in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says Yosri Fouda, Al-Jazeera investigative correspondent and London bureau chief. “Presently the Taliban leaders regard us as the only independent window message through to the world.
“You could say we are lucky, if you want to use that word, since the Taliban leaders are sending us faxes about their position since they do not trust Western media. A fax sent to us a few days ago by Osama bin Laden made headlines; the CIA came to us to compare his signature. We have also sold an interview that we made with bin Laden three years ago to channels all over the world at $35,000 for each copy.”
BSkyB recently pacted with Al-Jazeera to broadcast in the U.K. beginning Oct. 1. According to Fouda, “This is a positive, but controversial, move as people will have to get used to paying to watch us and so will be initially restrictive for the audience.”
Al-Jazeera started as the first Arabic independent news channel in a region where the airwaves were dominated by government outlets. This is attributed to the TV channel’s chairman, Hamid bin Thamer al-Thani, a member of the ruling family of the small oil-rich kingdom of Qatar and a professional journalist, graduating from Qatar University, with a degree in communications.
“Jazeera has forced Arab national TV to get real in its new coverage for the first time and has broken through as a major player in global news,” comments professor Abdallah Schleifer, director of Cairo’s American University Adham Center for Broadcasting, where many of its graduates work for Al-Jazeera.
“In its aggressive pursuit of news, Al-Jazeera has achieved a goal of international standards and a wake-up call, often disturbing in its vital independence, to all the news channels in the Gulf region.”
Al-Jazeera has 35 bureaus, including two in the U.S. — in Washington, D.C., and New York. A major buyer of programming at TV markets, it has much global grounding attributable to its dynamic managing director, Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali. A veteran of Qatar Television since 1974, he managed its first English channel in 1979 and launched Sharjah TV in the United Arab Emirates.
“We started Al-Jazeera in November 1996 with a six-hour transmission and built it up to 24 hours by Feb. 1, 1998,” Al-Ali says. “The idea was to build a staff coming from Arab countries to appeal to both the Arab world and an expatriate Arab audience used to Western media.
“Al-Jazeera affects a much larger audience, because it’s in Arabic. For the first year, people watched us but were very cautious. After that, our audience has grown, and so have we.
“Previously the TV business in the Arab world concentrated mostly on entertainment. What was missing were talkshows and news.”
This approach, common in the West but new to the Middle East, has brought Al-Jazeera a string of international awards such as the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam for “increasing freedom of the press in the developing world” and a prize by the National Council for Media in Lebanon for coverage of the Israeli pullout in that country.
Still Al-Jazeera’s uncensored coverage of the region has angered enough Arab TV stations to keep it out of the Arab States Broadcasting Union. Despite criticism from Egyptian TV (which finds itself competing with the popularity of Al-Jazeera), it was the first station to sign up in Cairo’s Media City, and its Cairo bureau has been active in the coverage of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We broadcast six hours before ABC and CNN the interview with the father of the accused Egyptian hijacker Mohamed Atta, and we were the first to interview the Arab League leaders and people on the street for their reactions,” notes Al-Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdul Ghani.
Plans to broaden audience appeal include starting business and documentary channels in both Arabic and English.
“The difference between Al-Jazeera and the Western media is that we concentrate on Arab news and Arab issues. CNN and BBC may cover news here, but through their own angle,” Al-Ali says. “Ultimately, we come from an Arab perspective rather than a global perspective.”