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A dialogue with Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali Managing Director, Al-Jazeera

TBS Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer initially spoke with Al-Ali in Cairo about the development, philosophy, and new plans of the region's hottest, most controversial channel. With recent developments that have clouded relations between Al-Jazeera and Egypt, Schleifer and Al-Ali renewed the dialogue

 

S. Abdallah Schleifer: Al-Jazeera has an approach to the news that until ten years ago was completely absent from the Arab world. Where did this come from?

Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali: I came to recognize something about the TV business in the Arab world: we concentrate mostly upon entertainment, quiz shows, drama, movies. But I think there is an important field that has been missing, talk shows and news. No one has developed the news, because the reputation of the media in the Middle East is that the news is censored and controlled by the government. All media business in the Middle East is controlled by the government. The leaders of Qatar wanted to change that; they want to have a satellite channel with the aim of no longer hiding any information.

Schleifer: What inspired them to think that way?

Al-Ali: Partly it has to do with developing technology. You could once control the information-before there was Internet, before there was satellite. People got much of their information from government sources, except when they traveled outside--then you'd find very different news. But it was very difficult even to bring newspapers in from outside because of censorship. When the satellite channels started, it was no longer possible to hide the sources of information from the viewing audience. This is the atmosphere in which Al-Jazeera started.

Schleifer: We began this dialogue last June; it was very obvious then that the Egyptian government was very happy to have you here in Cairo and specifically in the Media Free Zone. The chairman of Al-Jazeera's board had come to Cairo and signed up to undertake production from the zone, making Al-Jazeera the first station to sign up with the zone (since Orbit's deal predated the formation of the Media Free Zone). But with the Intifadah Al-Aqsa, Al-Jazeera very much fell back out of favor with Egypt's semi-official media, and you were denounced in the press in no uncertain terms for both coverage and talk show commentary considered here to be anti-Egyptian. Have these press attacks affected Al-Jazeera's status and mode of operation in Cairo, and has it effected your original plans?

Al-Ali: I can only say that it is not the first time Al-Jazeera has been subjected to such an attack, and it might very well not be the last. We do believe that such clashes will continue as long as there exists these differences between the free media and the official media.

But I can confirm that Al-Jazeera will remain solid in its path, and I do believe it will maintain excellent relations with audiences all over the world through tackling the news truthfully and freely. I do believe we will start our work in Media City; it is not so easy now to close the media bureaus in light of the great revolution of communications. Threats by Egyptian personalities should not be taken too seriously.

Schleifer: But one of the criticisms that emerged in the Egyptian media campaign against Al-Jazeera at the start of the Intifada is that there is a lack of balance in your talk shows. Far more critics of Egypt, especially Islamist critics, express their views when compared to the number of talk show guests who defend the moderate Arab states in general and Egypt in particular. Now it's a fact that most journalists everywhere, when free to express themselves, always tend to be on the left; is it possible that the hosts or producers of these talk shows are putting on talk shows that lack balance?

Al-Ali: The principal aim of Al-Jazeera is of course to be highly balanced in its talk shows and other programs. Yet, to be very practical, we can't be surprised if in a 24-hour continuous transmission of news bulletins and programs a slip might occur here or there. This happens in any worldwide TV network due to the volume of work, and the networks always feel very sorry. But as the saying goes, perfection is the unattainable dream of man. Sometimes a guest might change his mind and not appear for the program at the very last minute. It happened that one of the guests was arrested by his country's authorities for doing nothing, only so he would not be able to show up for Al-Jazeera's program. Others were denied travel by their countries' authorities, or had their telephone lines disconnected. We've had the lines in our studios disconnected in some countries while on air. We do face such difficulties, but we stick to our stance and try to be balanced and fair as much as possible.

Schleifer: What personal experience do you bring to Al-Jazeera?

Al-Ali: I worked with Qatar Television starting in 1974; I started as assistant director, then director. In 1979 we launched the English channel, which I also worked on. After that, also in 1979, I became general program controller. I worked on the launch of Sharjah TV in the UAE for two years, then came back to Qatar to be assistant director then managing director of Qatar Television. Plus, I've had training and done professional work in Japan, Germany, England, and America. I then had the chance to become a member of the board when Al-Jazeera was started, then I became managing director.

We have a big challenge. It's not just a question of presenting news and information; we have to bring the Arab audience back to trusting the Arab media, especially the news. You should bring them the truth, not false information, or they won't watch. That's what we started. We treat them as an intelligent audience, rather than the conventional idea that they'll take whatever you give them.

Schleifer: People think Arab audiences were passive in that sense you allude to--taking whatever was given them-before the rise of satellites. They don't realize the Arab audience was listening to Radio Monte Carlo, or the BBC, or even VOA long before satellite television appeared, because they didn't trust their own news.

Al-Ali: Even when it comes to local news, especially in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria--people don't want to rely on their domestic media for the local news. They get it from Israel, because they trust them more; they're a more reliable source. Or from the BBC, or Radio Monte Carlo.

Schleifer: That must demoralize people--if however patriotic you are, you believe you can't trust your own media and have to listen to the enemy.

Al-Ali: But this affects a small percentage. Like I said earlier, you once could block sources; the BBC has been blocked by many countries. But you can't block satellite channels, fax, or Internet. If something is on a Western channel, it has a limited effect. But Al-Jazeera affects a much larger audience, because it's in Arabic.

The challenge now is how to bring the audience back into watching their own channels. We treat them as intelligent, we give them the true story. For the first year, people watched us but were very cautious. They wondered how long we could carry on, who's behind us, what our aim was. After that, our audience has grown, and we've grown. We started in November 1996 with a six-hour transmission, and built up to 24 hours by February 1, 1999.

Schleifer: There are two places I can see an effect you were responding to: first, with the Gulf War, everyone was watching CNN. It was rebroadcast—the Saudis would tape CNN, censor it a little (but not significantly) and then rebroadcast it; or, like here in Egypt, it was direct retransmission. This had a tremendous effect on people. It made them hunger for more, for independent television journalism rather than just the government line. The other influence, I believe, is BBC. In Qatar, the UAE, with a strong British presence, people were watching and listening to the BBC. And the BBC Arabic television service on Orbit was a catalyst; people were seeing BBC in Arabic.

Al-Ali: But it was encrypted, so you had to pay—which means a limited audience.

Schleifer: Can you evaluate the effect of CNN and BBC in terms of Al-Jazeera? Did people who had seen them support you?

Al-Ali: Of course we came with our own ideas and our own perspective. But with regard to these two channels, the background came from the BBC more than CNN; we are closer to the ideas and the rhythm of the reports of the BBC. Al-Jazeera, from the idea up to the launch, was built on a staff coming from Arab countries. Maybe they have had experience working with Western media—they're ex-BBC, ex-US media—but all are Arabs. So they take the professional experience from the BBC, but their background as Arabs means we can adopt this experience and apply it to the Arab world. We know the mentality of the Arabs—but we also want the expatriate Arab audience, who are used to Western media.

It's also a question of the content of the news. You often get here someone reading an item about leaders arriving in the country, sitting together at a meeting—it's not news, they only do it to give them TV time. The video is of leaders sitting together, talking together, and everything is fine, there's no news. But behind the scenes everything is not fine. They never put that on the screen. People saw something dramatically different in CNN's coverage of the Gulf War. At that time everyone was watching CNN; no one was watching any entertainment then, just the news. There were so many stories in the war; human interest and war stories even took the place of entertainment.

Schleifer: If you compare the Al-Jazeera news to the BBC Arabic news—they had very few Arab correspondents. Most of them were translators, and their reports suffered from a certain coldness, because so much of it was British material that they just translated into Arabic.

Al-Ali: They did that with about 85 percent of the news. Al-Jazeera produces all our own news, from the idea of the story up to the end.

Schleifer: The BBC Arabic service got into trouble with Orbit and the people who financed it because time after time they would go for commentary on important news from Saudi Arabia to Mr. Masari, a very militant spokesman for the militant Saudi opposition, rather to someone who was detached like a scholar or a London Middle East think-tank specialist. They went to Masari even when they needed a commentary on the Saudi budget. He was in the studio and went on the air with his commentary as soon as the king had finished presenting the "state of the budget" speech, which the BBC Arabic TV service took from Saudi TV. But it was the Panorama story about executions in the Kingdom, treated as a sensationalist expose without any comparative study (like respective crime rates) or context, which broke the camel's back. But let me also put it this way: have you ever interviewed anyone from the Qatar opposition?

Al-Ali: In the beginning, we tried to interview some of them but we didn't succeed. The main problem now is that we don't have any opposition after the attempted coup. Sometimes we hear imaginary names, but they're not on the ground. Anyone is welcome on Al-Jazeera if they'd like to come forward. Sometimes the news pushes you to bring in the opposition; for example, in London there is a lot of Bahraini opposition. And we know relations between Qatar and Bahrain aren't perfect, but that doesn't mean that we're going to put on the Bahraini opposition just because there's a problem between Qatar and Bahrain. When it is necessary, when there's news, we do, but not all the time.

Schleifer: What are you doing in your day-in day-out field reporting? What are the steps you've taken in your commitment to field reporting?

Al-Ali: There are two very important things we do: the news and the talk show. These attract the Arab audience. Our aim is to bring these in, and field reporting has become a big part of our news. To start extensive field reporting from scratch is really a big project. In the beginning, we started with only one reporting program, but the number has grown. In contrast, talk shows are easy and relatively inexpensive to produce—you're in the studio, and within a few weeks or a week you can put a two-hour program together. To produce a documentary or in-depth report takes a lot more time and investment. So it was difficult in the beginning. But the number of reporting and documentary shows we're doing has more than doubled.

Schleifer: Don't you have more correspondents in the field now than you used to?

Al-Ali: Of course. In the beginning we were cooperating with news agencies like APTN to help us with reporting. Some reporters were doing rewrites from our bureaus rather than being out in the field. But now we have our own offices, our own equipment, and our own reporters who go out into the field. And of course we have plans to open offices in other Arab countries. At first we had three offices; now we have 24 all over the Arab world, Europe, and in Washington DC. These are linked directly by satellite, so we can get field reports up as soon as possible. With the revolution on the communication technology side it's getting easier and easier, and cheaper.

The future challenge is transferring from the satellite business to the Internet business. Within five or six months, I think, we'll start to really move step by step towards this, bringing the equipment to feed through the Internet. And it'll make it much easier on the reporter—it's usual now in Egypt, for example, that to feed a story they need to go to Video Cairo Sat to send via satellite, and it can be time-consuming or overbooked. With the Internet, as soon as he finishes a report, he can send it directly. The mission of news and current affairs will be better served.

Also, it's not just a matter of budget or time available to make more field production--it's also finding people with the experience and training to do them. It was a question of creating a culture of TV journalism. The journalists in the Arab world have to be trained by experienced TV correspondents to be good reporters. And the other challenge is between the reporter and the government. There are many Arab countries that don't even allow local journalists to shoot in public without permission.

Schleifer: This question goes back a bit in time, to when you started up. How did you get up to speed so fast? It was less than six months.

Al-Ali: First, it's because we are totally independent. To go through the government channels would take a long time, there is a lot of paperwork and regulations. The chairman of the board just took action, so it was very easy; we didn't have to wait for so many people to make decisions. We have facility of administration.

Schleifer: The chairman of Al-Jazeera's board is from the ruling family, Hamid Bin Thamer El-Thani.

Al-Ali: Yes—and he's a journalist also.

Schleifer: What makes him so different than other members of ruling families?

Al-Ali: He's got good experience in the media. He's a graduate in communications from Qatar University, he's got 14 years of experience in the field. He thinks as a journalist, and that helps us a lot, he knows what we want exactly.

Schleifer: You've had your share of awards for a station that's only been broadcasting a few years. Could you tell us about each one?

Al-Ali: The first were when we took part in the Egyptian TV festival in 1998. Our experience there, though, was that it wasn't fair enough. There are categories for different types of programs—drama, music, etc.—and we joined in two categories: reporting and talk shows. They said to me, one first prize is enough for you; we know you have good programs, but one is enough. This year we're taking part in the festival marketplace, but not in the competition.

We also won a first-place award from the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam, for increasing freedom of the press in the developing world. We won an award from the Ibn Rushd Center in Berlin, which is run by the Arab community in Europe. They're supporting independent media, and selected Al-Jazeera. These two awards are very important for us, and push us to do more.

Part of the importance of the Adham Center award is that it's coming from here in the Arab world. [Editor's note: Mr. Al-Ali was appointed an Associate, or honorary faculty member, of the Adham Center for Television Journalism, publisher of TBS, at the American University in Cairo on June 12, 2000, by AUC Provost Dr. Tim Sullivan.] Prince Claus and Ibn Rushd are from outside, and they call us, pursue us; but here in the region we have to chase people down. The Adham Center recognition is also significant because we have several graduates that have joined Al-Jazeera: [investigative correspondent and London bureau chief] Yosri Fouda and [business correspondent] Lamees El Hadidi.

Just this spring we received the award, along with CNN, for best coverage of the Israeli pullout of southern Lebanon by the National Council for Media in Lebanon.

Schleifer: It's significant, a breakthrough, that it comes from Lebanon, which has the longest tradition in the region of a semi-independent press.

A short while ago the chairman of your board was here to make a deal, making Al-Jazeera the first station to sign up to do production in Cairo's Media Free Zone. And now you're here receiving an award from the Adham Center. Do these events foretell more active involvement of Al-Jazeera in Cairo? What are your plans?

Al-Ali: We've been expanding in Cairo, with more freedom to operate here in the country. It used to be blocked out; if you wanted to film you needed permission, you needed to write letters, you were denied permission. Until our recent problems they'd been making it easier, not censoring the programs, and it's easier to move about. The cost of media production is also dropping, especially if we build our own facilities here and link directly to the home office in Doha. Which makes things much easier—you don't need to have a satellite booking.

Schleifer: Will you build studios here?

Al-Ali: We'll rent from the 6th of October City. We'll be using them for talk shows, for discussion shows, and to produce a program from there. Cairo is one of the most important cities in the Arab world, both because of the large population and because it's central to many different fields like politics and economics. Our plan for the future is to present part of the news from Cairo, in addition to Beirut, London, and so on. Globalizing has the additional advantage of making use of different peak times; the peak time for viewers in the Gulf is different than for viewers in Europe or Africa or America. As I said, it'll reduce our costs—as you know we are independent editorially; within five years we'll be private financially as well. So we're thinking more and more of how we can make money to cover operational costs.

Schleifer: Having these regional broadcasts will facilitate getting regional advertising, because you can target markets.

Al-Ali: That's correct. There are two areas to consider: how you can gain freedom of reporting and news, and at the same time, how you can get advertising.

Schleifer: You've got an extraordinary number of viewers, but you don't have the advertising that your share of audience justifies and could support. I'm sure advertisers were nervous at first, because they were afraid you were going to make enemies. Which in a certain sense you did. Is that changing? Are you getting more advertising?

Al-Ali: This is our strategy; we need to change the mentality of the businessman here in the region. Usually when you have a large audience, all the advertising companies come to you. Here, all the advertising businesses are impacted by political considerations; they think about the political side rather than business side. I think this will change, just like the freedom of the press has changed on the editorial side. The commercial side will change too.

Schleifer: The fact that the Egyptian government has been so happy to have you here in the Media Free Zone should send a positive message.

Al-Ali: And that message is that they have a good free zone area, and that's why we're here. In the beginning when we launched we had problems with the governments, but now we are getting invitations from the Arab governments to open offices there. We should soon have independent offices in Yemen, the Sudan, Kuwait. Even the reaction of government television--news is now becoming more important, talk shows are becoming more important. Many Arab TV stations are copying our programs, our style, our graphics style. They're putting us under pressure too, to upgrade our services. We're under a bit of competition, and we don't want to just stay put but to continue moving forward.

Schleifer: In many Arab countries there are huge numbers of English-speaking expatriates—especially in Dubai and Cairo. These people are interested in the Arab world, but most have a very limited understanding of Arabic. Have you considered doing the reverse of what BBC did? They took their English service and turned it around into Arabic. Have you considered, given the demographics and given the fact that you have the material and resources, doing an English-language channel?

Al-Ali: 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. We come from an Arab perspective rather than a global perspective. We want to concentrate on Arabic services. We will certainly expand channels—a documentaries channel, for example. The technology will enable us to serve an English-speaking audience, though—it's easy to add subtitles, or add an audio channel in English. And the technology will reduce the costs of these services. We certainly are interested in the audience you mentioned, English-speakers living in the Arab world.

Speaking of channel expansion, I think things will change very much in the next three or four years. As you know, Arabsat is now free-to-air with the C-band transponders. If the consumer has those channels, that's enough—why should he buy a digital decoder? When the C-band channels run out, it'll be a good business. Then the Arab audience will have the decoders—and you can't survive with one channel. You need a network, a package of channels, and your own decoder on the universal system with a smart card. We need to be ready. We're studying future prospects very carefully.

Schleifer: You've been kept out of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ABSU) because according to ASBU you didn't respect their code of honor, which means not broadcasting material critical of any Arab head of state. Of course given the media wars between Arab states in the past, one could say that keeping only Al-Jazeera out was rather selective. Any development on that?

Al-Ali: We tried to join in the beginning. We would be an addition to them as much as they could be a support to us. We are not losing anything by not being part, though; there's no advantage for us. They are the ones losing by keeping us out. Nothing really practical comes out; it's more of a professional club. Our work with Western television is just as important. We have good contacts with them, they contact us and ask about our coverage of the Arab and Islamic world, because they know we are very strong. They ask us to help, and we do. 

About Abdallah Schleifer

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S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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