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Al Jazeera: Once More into the Fray

DOHA -- There is no getting away from it. Al Jazeera continues to dominate the discourse, despite significantly improved competition (reflected in growing market share) from Al Arabiya and a step back over the past year from its past tendency to overly emotionalize, Fox TV-style, when framing the news.

The Al Jazeera newsroom.

Nowhere was that more apparent than at the Fifth Doha Forum on Democracy and Free Trade at the end of March 2005, hosted by HH Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, which brought together an amazingly diverse group: the "upper crust elite of world experts and intellectuals" to quote the rather exuberant Qatari brochure. The Forum did indeed include members of the US Congress, along with federal commissioners, present and former State Department and Commerce Department officials, Arab League secretary general Amr Mousa, former NATO commander Wesley Clarke, Palestinian information minister Nabil Shaath, ministers of trade and industry from Europe and Latin America, the directors of various think tanks and academic centers from New York, Washington DC, Paris, Strasbourg, and Cairo, Qatar's minister for foreign affairs, a French minister of state, and a former foreign minister, as well as present and former French parliamentarians, the widow of the late French president François Mitterand, and the managing director of Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, all gathered to talk about the role of media in creating a democratic climate.

All of Khanfar's fellow panelists, two of whom were from the American political establishment, acknowledged that Al Jazeera, at the end of the day, was making just such a contribution. Khanfar in turn insisted that Al Jazeera was not anti-American and that in its earliest years it had won praise in Washington for introducing free debate and a pan-Arab vehicle for dissenters, before its unwelcome coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. Khanfar blames Al Jazeera's banishment from Iraq upon American pressure on the Iraqi Interim Government. Khanfar's comments dominated press coverage of the panel.

But for Al Jazeera, more than the opportunity to air recriminations on that issue may result from this Forum. A high-ranking Iraqi Interim Government official and member of the Sistani-blessed governing parliamentary alliance was also in Doha for the Forum and meeting with the Al Jazeera board of directors to talk about the ban on Al Jazeera and hopefully to resolve a problem which has further hurt Al Jazeera's ability to cover competitively the biggest story in the region, while at the same time damaging the Iraqi government's democratic credentials.

At the same time, a two-hour media workshop was convened on the sidelines of the Forum, chaired by Ghayth Armanazi of UK-based think tank Arab International Media, that included among its seven panelists: Mouafac Harb, Alhurra's vice president and news director; Hafez al-Mirazi, Al Jazeera's Washington DC bureau chief (and host of Al Jazeera's most balanced and informative talk show From Washington); Hugh Miles, author of the recently published book Al Jazeera (see Miles's What the World Thinks of Al Jazeera in this issue; and Hans Wechel, director of the US State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative.

Miles' presentation on Al Jazeera was largely a corrective to the prevailing US administration's (and supportive American media's) post-2001 take on Al Jazeera. Miles noted that along with a total of five hours total viewing time of Usama bin Laden tapes, Al Jazeera had transmitted 500 hours of President Bush's press conferences, formal speeches and off-the-cuff statements, and whatever the personal opinions of Al Jazeera staff towards the war or towards Bush, the channel had certainly provided as much if not more coverage of President Bush's perspective on Iraq and the Arab world than American broadcasters.

The concerns that shaped Miles' paper shaped the discussion among the panelists, as well as among those of us participating more as members of a workshop than as an audience. Harb noted ruefully that despite the workshop's broad title, "The Role of Media in Issues of Economy, Women and Freedom," the discourse was dominated by what Harb acknowledged to be "the inevitable issue of Al Jazeera." Precisely because this was a workshop and not a highly publicized and politically high-profile panel, discussion was far more critical and yet also far more collegial -- much the sort of talk one might find around the table at the Frontline Club in London on a good night. Responding to the assertion that Al Jazeera's coverage in the earliest hours of the Iraq War did little to puncture the illusion and hysteria in the Arab streets with their undertones of similar illusion and hysteria on the eve of the June 1967 war, Hafez al-Mirazi declared that if serious studies and polls are undertaken and established that the Arab masses were surprised and shocked at the rapid collapse of the Baathist regime, then "we had failed in our mission to inform the Arab viewers."

Hugh Miles had compared the sort of injudicious attack against Al Jazeera that appeared in the American press only a year or two ago with more recent and reasoned comments. This trend of reappraisal seems to parallel the mutual reassessments that were so apparent at the Doha Forum, and one that I personally experienced only a few weeks later when I addressed the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the first, and very influential, foreign policy think tank in America, considered a bastion of the "Realist" school of American foreign policy, dating back to the early Cold War years, when it was an intellectual home for hawks. My topic was, "Arab Satellite Television and Its Impact upon the Prospect for Democracy in the Arab World." As the Doha Forum and many other venues on the DC-Philadelphia-New York-Boston circuit demonstrate, this issue is a major part of this year's hot topic: democracy in the Arab World. I've spoken before at the FPRI and often on vaguely similar and sensitive regional issues topics. Given my central thesis that competitive Arab satellite television (and in particular, Al Jazeera) often in spite of itself, or as an unintended side effect, was a major force for the adoption of the democratic process, I was struck this time around by the close, careful, open-minded, and even sympathetic attention of my audience.

That audience will no doubt be greatly magnified towards the end of the year with the launch of Al Jazeera International, an English-language version of Al Jazeera. Led by Nigel Parsons, former director of APTN and a veteran British television journalist, Al Jazeera International (AJI) has already secured prime offices in Washington, London and Kuala Lampur. Work is moving steadily forward for its own headquarters within the Al Jazeera/Qatar Broadcasting television compound. (See Jon Alterman's article The Challenge for Al Jazeera International in this issue.)

All of the AJI senior management is in place, including such seasoned veterans of international broadcasting as Steve Clark, the director of news who revitalized MBC's content in the years prior to the move to Dubai. Before joining the team at Al Jazeera, Clark was working as Executive producer at Sky News, where he launched the channel's current affairs operation. Paul Gibbs will be AJI's director of programming. His career includes overseeing programming for BBC TV (Business) and the Discovery Channel in Europe. Morgan Almeida is director of creative design. At CNN International, he was responsible for the creative direction of their global, on-air redesign strategy. He also has worked for BBC TV, and served as creative director for Bell Atlantic's interactive project "TeleTV." Parson and his senior management's credentials, along with AJI's managing editor, the highly professional BBC- trained Omar Bec, who was plucked from Al Jazeera's newsroom, suggest that AJI will be a serious global contender.

According to Parsons, "we are well down the line on the branding work, as well as awarding contracts for systems integration, which usually means integrating news product management, writing and editing positions, satellite inputs, studios, live positions, and video libraries for a seamless flow of news reports and all other program content, right to the point of transmission." By early April ALI's staff was 35; Parsons says that by launch time it will be over 300.

Obviously, AJI's strength will be based on intense familiarity and access to news, features, and documentaries from the Arab world, but AJI sees itself much more as a global broadcaster than a regionally based one, appealing only to English-speaking Arab audiences in the region or abroad. Instead, Parsons sees AJI as an irresistible alternative channel -- the channel of second choice -- for anyone following breaking stories from the Middle East, after getting the first take on the story elsewhere. When we talked, he was planning a trip to China that reflects the channel's globalist identity.

"We see China as a huge story over the next ten years, and it's important we have a strong presence there. We also want to broadcast there. We see China as an important future market. In fact, we have opened discussions on distribution in China, and throughout the world, including the US."

Parsons characterizes the American market as "extremely important" for AJI. He and his top management team have already made one visit to the US and are planning more.

"The USA is still the most powerful country in the world and we are anxious to cover stories about America," Parsons says. "It isn't just that Americans are badly informed about the rest of the world; the rest of the world is very badly informed about America. The US government has failed abysmally to put their message across and they acknowledge their failure and they are not going to do it through Alhurra.

"We are anxious to tell both sides of the story and we think it's important our audience hear the American side of the story, and the administration should see us as a conduit for reaching out to the world. We will be message bearers, and we hope we aren't prejudged and ostracized by the administration. AJI wants to be judged strictly on its own work and its own merits."

AJI has already begun commissioning documentaries and Parsons says that the talk shows and human interest features it intends to produce, along with the driving force of competitive field reporting, will have an impact in the industry.

"We will be provocative in the sense that we want to provoke thought, but as an alternative voice we will be young, fresh, and cutting edge, but also extremely balanced. And we will do a lot of news analysis," Parsons says. "For instance no one has explained to me what really happened in Kyrgyzstan."

Al Jazeera International is not the only new channel scheduled for launch. Months before then, Al Jazeera's new children's channel will be on the air. The veteran Tunisian broadcaster Mahmoud Bouneb -- with years of professional experience in Europe and North America -- is on his way to implement an extraordinary vision for children's programming, a vision he shares with the driving force behind this channel, HH Sheikha Mouza bint Nasir al-Misnid, wife of the Emir of Qatar and the patron and visionary leader of so much of the amazing educational and cultural infrastructure that has risen from the sands of Doha.

That's why Al Jazeera's children's channel is not located in the main Al Jazeera television compound like AJI, and the new Al Jazeera documentary and sports channels, the latter two of which already are broadcasting. It has its own nearly finished state-of-the-art studios in a broadcasting complex located at the heart of Education City, within minutes walking time from the Sheikha's base at the Qatar Foundation.

Mahmoud Bouneb

"We are here," says Bouneb, "because this project belongs to its initiator, Her Highness Sheikha Mouza. The idea to open this channel is hers. It goes back some two years and without her support and involvement this project couldn't have been achieved. And for an educational channel it is better to be within an educational environment, as part of the Education City. But we will be working with all schools in Qatar, both Qatari and foreign schools, and we are dealing with schools outside of Qatar, wherever we will have our bureaus, in Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Rabat, and Paris. Paris is there for the Arab communities in France and the rest of Europe." (TBS notes that 50 percent of the total Arab population of Europe lives in France.) These bureaus will be producing, promoting and reporting."

But why bureaus, and what is a children's channel doing with reporters? I tell Bouneb that this sounds fantastic, but what are they reporting on? Bouneb smiles at me with a professional pride that borders on friendly condescension.

"They will report about kids, about schools, about issues that concern children, like child labor and child abuse. Not to report from a news or political point of view, but to give children background, information on problems that concern them, as children. Issues of daily life, like mobile phones, electronic games, TV addiction, fast food addiction, the obesity epidemic, the anorexic syndrome, drugs, drinking, verbal violence, racism. Not as news, but as problems, as issues concerning children and concerning family. So our reporting and programming will have to be strong on in-depth coverage, background, and explanation, with an ability to focus and simplify a story."

Bouneb already has a staff of 120 drawn from 30 nationalities. All or nearly all of the Arab states are represented but he also has bilingual staff from Australia, the US, Belgium, and France. The channel will encourage Qataris. They will be given training and a chance to improve their broadcasting skills, but Bouneb insists the channel will not have a double standard. "They are in it," he says, "like everybody else."

Bouneb sums it all up: "The idea of this channel is to be realistic, to be positive, to be daring! By that I mean we want to be realistic to help children grasp the reality of their social and educational problems. We will debate those issues, those problems -- kids, families, and school teachers. We will not have any taboos but we will try to respect traditional values while dealing with all the problems Arab children everywhere face at home, in school, in the streets, and watching TV."

Still another new channel surfaced quite unexpectedly in the middle of April: Al Jazeera Mubashir (Al Jazeera Direct), an Arab equivalent of C-Span that will provide start-to-finish coverage of conferences and significant public events. The impulse for this coverage was the availability in Doha on April 17 of the first Al Jazeera Documentary Film Production Festival. Documentaries were screened in part or as a whole, while well-known Arab film makers and critics were present and available for coverage that far exceeded the limited capacity of an all-news channel. It is not yet certain whether Al Jazeera Mubashir will extend its live coverage beyond the confines of Doha. If it is to have sustainable programming, it will inevitably have to go that route.

All of this new channel activity is not to suggest that Al Jazeera itself is simply resting on its laurels. I spoke with Wadah Khanfar during a break at the Doha Forum and reminded him how this time last year he had predicted in an article of his own in TBS (see The Future of Al Jazeera, TBS 12) that Al Jazeera would place an even greater stress on field reporting. Had that come to pass?

Khanfar said that Al Jazeera had significantly extended its network for field coverage over the past year to many other areas beyond that of the Arab world and the global capitals to include Asia and Africa. Al Jazeera bureaus have been launched in Japan, Hong Kong, and Kazakhstan. The Al Jazeera presence in India has also been expanded.

Khanfar was planning to visit China within days of our talk to officially launch the bureau there and to meet with broadcasters and officials. "They have been very welcoming and we are looking forward to signing a memorandum of understanding with CCT that might include exchange opportunities for training as well as for images and product, like documentaries," he says. "It's all under study. An East African bureau has been established in Kenya and we have relaunched our bureau in South Africa. In Sudan our bureau is up and running (TBS: it had been closed down for more than a year by the Sudanese authorities shortly after the start of the Darfur rebellion and counter-insurgency) and we are covering Darfur as well as stories on the Nuba Mountains and the Eastern Province, the home of the Beja people, where there has been tension and armed struggle.

"In Latin America, we have a team right now in Brazil doing a documentary and we are exploring the possibility of having a bureau in Brazil in addition to the bureau we will be opening in Caracas, Venezuela, in July.

Khanfar also put great stress on what he described as "institutionalized editorial policy," by forming an editorial board and giving that board powers to become the highest decision making editorial body in the channel. This development is no doubt a response to the frequent criticism that many of Al Jazeera's in-house, non-news programs have indulged personal political perspectives and that it is this that has been the problem with the Al Jazeera product, rather than the existence of some sort of ideological line, as posited by some circles in Washington but denied by all Al Jazeera staff, right, left, or center, secularist or Islamist.

"Editorial decisions are no longer arbitrary," says Khanfar. "There is a team that makes decisions: the chief editor Ahmed Sheikh, his deputy Ayman Jabala, Said Shouli, head of programs, Jamil Azza, who is chief anchor, and another veteran anchor, Muhammad Krishan. We also have Jaafar Abbas, who is the head of the Quality Assurance Division. We created this division to monitor Al Jazeera and to report back to me and the editorial board about any shortcomings. And if a reporter or producer departs from our Code of Conduct -- particularly that paragraph that says we must differentiate between what is news and what is analysis -- if he mixes his personal opinion with his reporting, he will be held accountable."

Jihad Ballout

So the stress on professionalism that was so discernable a year ago continues at Al Jazeera and is matched only by the recurrent reports circulating everywhere except at Al Jazeera that the station, with its growing bouquet of channels, is up for sale. The origin of this rumor was a New York Times story originating from the US, shortly after the new year, and most likely based on an off-the-cuff remark by a Qatari diplomat to the effect that the prospect of outside investors buying out Al Jazeera might just relieve pressure on the Emir from the never-ending criticism of the Qatari authorities for not reining in Al Jazeera.

This reconstruction, based on talks with Qatari officials and journalists, appears at first to conflict with a vow by the ruler himself that Qatar will never abandon control of Al Jazeera to outside investors.

The answer may lie in the word "control." Back in 2003, Al Jazeera's Board of Directors voted to explore an initial public stock offering (IPO), and the firm Ernest Young was commissioned, according to Jihad Ali Ballout, Al Jazeera's official spokesman, to conduct a feasibility study of an IPO that would not in any way compromise Al Jazeera's editorial independence. The final draft of that study is expected in Doha at any time. What this data suggests is that the Qatari public body that owns Al Jazeera could sell off significant minority shares through an IPO without in any way losing control. Indeed, after all that Qatar and its Emir have endured for the sake of Al Jazeera, it is impossible to imagine Qatar ever letting it all go.

About Abdallah Schleifer

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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