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Al Jazeera Update: More Datelines from Doha and a Code of Ethics

Al Jazeera's newsroom

In a fast-changing world, easy observations remain in consciousness long after they have become invalid. So it is with the conceit that Al Jazeera put Qatar on the map and not visa versa, or the variant that Al Jazeera is more important as a regional power than the State of Qatar. That may have been true eight years ago, but even then it was a theoretically dubious proposition since it was only Qatar or its newly installed Emir, HH Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani who had the vision among all Arab rulers of hosting and financing on Arab soil the first relatively free-wheeling, independently managed, Arab satellite television channel. Until then relatively independent pan-Arab satellite broadcasting carrying serious news bulletins had been confined to the United Kingdom, with MBC operating out of London and the BBC Arabic Television Service producing for Orbit, which in turn was based in Italy

All that has happened since follows in the wake of Sheikh Hamad's daring decision: the flowering of Abu Dhabi's news center under the leadership of Nart Bouran and his boss Ali Al Ahmed; MBC's move to Dubai and its extraordinary expansion to include a 24/7 news channel, Al Arabiya, and a serious documentary production and acquisition company, O3, as well as Channel Two's free-to-air competition as provider of Western entertainment to Showtime and Orbit's Pay TV offerings; and now the dramatic re-invention of the Dubai TV network (see Dubai: Watch This Space! in this issue).

Qatar is now in the midst of a vast development program that reflects a position acquired over the past decade as the world's second largest producer and exporter of natural gas, which has surpassed its comparatively modest but very profitable oil industry. Banks, luxury hotels, up-market residential districts, universities, schools, hospitals, and new ministry offices are springing up everywhere along the curving coastline. Qatar's vast acquisitions for an Islamic museum that will no doubt be the most impressive in the region when it opens have roiled London's art market for the past few years but will in time be richly mined for cultural documentaries by Al Jazeera

One is reminded of Jeddah and Riyadh in the mid-70s but with none of the chaos that characterized those boom towns at the time. Right now in Doha there are at least 200 major construction projects underway. Interestingly, the vast majority of construction projects involve American companies and the whole operation proceeds with far more order and openness in the process than anywhere else in the development of the region save possibly Dubai. Somehow, and its not easy to explain, this amazing transparency and Qatar's almost stealth-like movements from strength to strength are reflected in the complex mix of its subtle and effective politics, much of which plays off the presence of Al Jazeera.

So it was Al Jazeera's talk shows and sometimes its reporting which more than any particular pan-Arab politician stirred anti-Americanism in the region, while Qatar built a military base to host the very US/Coalition Central Command that directed the invasion of Iraq. Qatar is a haven for Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi's friendlier face of the Muslim Brotherhood (see Interview with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in this issue)--friendlier, that is, save for his past devotion to Hamas, with its penchant to sacralize terror and its rejectionist attitude towards the two-state solution. Yet Qatar has undertaken initiatives rivaled only by Jordan in seeking an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What's particularly relevant for Al Jazeera about all of these emerging signs of financial and political strength is that Qatar is increasingly generating resources--intellectual, cultural, and scientific--at a global level of competence that not only did not exist when Al Jazeera opened shop in 1996 but do not exist so significantly anywhere else in the Arab world, including Dubai.

First of the Doha Debates.

Over the past year, Qatar's various state institutions like the Gulf Studies Center and the Qatar Foreign Ministry have collaborated with such prominent think tanks and NGOs as the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations from the USA, Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) in the UK, France's International and Strategic Relations Institute and the Arab Press Club, Paris, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the UK, and the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Egypt, to bring many hundreds of outstanding figures, both academic and professional, in political thought, development theory, and the natural sciences to Qatar to participate in an almost endless stream of impressive open-forum conferences and symposiums that are also media events of substance for Al Jazeera's reporters and camera crews, which haunt the hotel lobbies for on-scene sound bites or to corral available delegates and bring them back to the station for studio interviews.

Only in Qatar could one find former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, and a leader of one of Pakistan's most militant fundamentalist parties sharing the same platform at one of these extraordinary conferences, one that also happened to have Bill Clinton as its keynote speaker.

The wide variety of discourse at these conferences, and the outstanding personalities participating and engaged in articulate but polite debate have broadened Al Jazeera's previously all too often almost claustrophobic reliance on talk show shouting matches between fundamentalists and secularist militants, be they liberal or Arab Nationalist.

Qatar's resource building interacts with Al Jazeera's own plans to expand into a satellite bouquet. The central pivot for this sort of resource building is the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, chaired and actively led by HH. Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser Al-Misnad, who established the foundation as a focus for the political and educational reform of Qatar and, by example, of perhaps the entire region, based on the principle frequently articulated by the Emir, Sheikh Hamad, that a country (and again presumably a region's) long-term, sustainable, development can only be ensured by releasing the potential of its people.

Over the past ten years, Qatar Foundation has established a new Education City on the outskirts of Doha that now houses branch campuses of leading American universities. The branch campuses include Cornell Medical College, an engineering school run by Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon's Qatar campus for business and computer science, the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts, and perhaps most incredibly of all as a resource for Al Jazeera correspondents and talk show hosts, the RAND Corporation's RAND-Qatar Policy Institute, which will provide world-class research and analysis not just for Qatar's government, private sector, and growing number of NGOs, but for the entire region extending to North Africa and South Asia. Sheikha Moza serves as co-chair of the Institute along with Michael Rich, executive vice president of the RAND Corporation. Still more American university-based branch colleges will be recruited in the near future and the entire Education City project is directed by Dr. Charles E. Young, who served as President of UCLA for twenty-nine years.

Education City also houses the studios of Al Jazeera's projected Children's Channel which will be part of the Al Jazeera bouquet of channels when it launches in June 2005. It is, however, a thoroughly autonomous Qatar Foundation operation that in the words of its managing director, Mahmoud Bouneb, owes its existence entirely to Sheikha Moza's personal initiative. "It never would have happened without her," says Bouneb, a veteran Tunisian journalist who has lived and worked as an Arab broadcaster in Europe and North America for the past thirty years.

Tim Sebastian and Alexandra Willis

From the perspective of television journalism the most immediately relevant and recent undertaking by the Qatar Foundation is The Doha Debates, moderated on a monthly basis by Tim Sebastian, whose BBC World program Hard Talk sets the standard for tough but civil intellectual confrontation. Sebastian's producer Alexandra (Ali) Willis has left London and the show for Qatar to produce The Doha Debates, which borrow from the Oxford Union format. The first debate held in mid-October was to the resolution that "This House believes Arab governments aren't interested in genuine reform."

What was significant from the point of view of the Qatar Foundation was that in addition to Sheikha Moza and a host of Qatari dignitaries and foreign diplomats attending the first debate, the audience was largely made up of students at Education City, both Qatari and of other Arab nationalities, who were encouraged by Tim Sebastian to ask hard questions and finally to vote on the issue, which, incidentally, they affirmed. For Sheika Moza, the primary aim of the Debates is to enhance the students' education in democracy and freedom of speech; to learn, in the words of a Qatar Foundation official, "that an ideological opponent's view can also have validity." For Ali Willis, who had spent two very intense weeks at the Qatar Foundation preparing for this event under Sheikha Moza's direction, this debate and the ones that follow on a monthly basis are "a real and actual demonstration of where Qatar the country is heading. They are a public expression of the type of country they are trying to build here."

In his opening remarks Sebastian suggested that the Qatar Debates echoed the free discourse of the earliest centuries of Islam starting at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and "the spirit of debate and inquiry that characterized his life… when men and women of all convictions would argue with him in an atmosphere of enlightenment, creativity, and mutual respect."

For Al Jazeera this can be proof that tough but civil and very relevant debate can take place on an Arab stage that transcends what has often been the more typical formula of one anti-American debating another anti-American. In support of the motion (which did not include any exemption or escape clause for Qatar) were Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, AUC professor and human rights activist, and Rime Allaf, a London-based broadcaster and associate fellow at Chatham House. Against the motion were Hussein Shobokshi, who heads the leading research and consultancy company in Saudi Arabia and as a board member of the Chamber of Commerce in the Hijaz has helped pioneer more open public discourse in Saudi Arabia, and Adel Darwish, a British journalist who has worked for both European and Arab media.

Ahmed Sheikh, senior editor of Al Jazeera

At the end of November, the Doha Debates tackled an equally if not more controversial topic: that "This House believes in the separation of mosque and state." Arguing the issue was an extraordinary panel: against the resolution were Dr. Mohamed Mahathir, Malaysia's long-serving former prime minister, and Laith Shubeilat, a Jordanian Islamist spokesman and former member of parliament; in support, the Egyptian author and intellectual Tariq Heggy and the Sudanese scholar and former Islamist journalist Dr. Abdul Wahab El Affendi, now the head of the Center for the Study of Democracy and Islam at Westminster University. Again there was an extraordinary subtlety in opinion that far more reflects the nuances of actual political thought than the past performances on Arab satellite talk shows. Mahathir is not an Islamist and the largest opposition party contesting Mahathir's party is Islamist. But while Mahathir headed a secular government, he also functioned as does his successor in a constitutional monarchy with an established church, which happens to be Islam, and whose head is the reigning Sultan (which is remarkably like the English model.) But at Mahathir's side was Shubeilat, a committed Islamist. Equally nuanced on the other side of the House, Tarek Heggy supported the separation of mosque and state but he is not a "fundamentalist secularist" like Ataturk or the militant secularists of the European Left and he has written most sympathetically about the personal piety of the Sufis. Sharing his position for the separation of state and mosque, a disillusioned post-Islamist who once championed Hassan Turabi. Quite amazing.

For Al Jazeera International, the long awaited English-language channel, the Doha Debates are an obvious resource, not just to be reported on, but to be broadcast in entirety live (since the Debates are in all English) when the channel finally launches in November 2005.

More immediately the panelists represented the possibilities for Arab satellite television when it is prepared to transcend talk shows that quickly degenerate into shrill shouting matches; a goal that Al Jazeera has adopted for itself in the self-critical months that have followed the Invasion of Iraq.

That sense of self-criticism and a readiness to more consciously embrace professionalism that now pervades the highest levels of Al Jazeera editorial management was reflected in this summer's first annual Al Jazeera World Forum. Journalists from around the world gathered at the Intercontinental Doha Hotel in mid-July to confront the issue of "Changing Media Perceptions: Professionalism and Cultural Diversity." Among the participants were Martin Bell, former UK broadcaster and politician; Al Hayat's Abdul Wahab Badrakhan; Al Jazeera anchor and journalist Mohamed Kraishan, and British Royal Navy spokesman Lt. Commander Steven Tatham, all of whom quite frankly discussed relations between media and governments, both Arab and Western, a somewhat ironic topic since a few weeks later Iraq's interim government ordered Al Jazeera's Baghdad office closed for a month for "inciting violence and hatred."

The Iraqi government was alluding to pictures of hostages and the statements of the hostage takers broadcast by Al Jazeera, an issue which figured in the first panel's discussion of the ethics involved in live telecasts of armed conflict which touched on the sensitive issue of how pictures of the dead and wounded are presented as well as the hostage tape issue (see also To Show or Not to Show? Graphic Images in TV Media by Paul Cochrane in this issue). Again, there was reasoned discussion and debate. Eric Wishart, Agence France Press editor-in-chief, posed the dilemma of where to draw the line. "Do we broadcast an entire beheading? Where does news end and morbid curiosity begin?" he asked. "You can't cover up events, and you can't be a tool for propaganda."

Participants reflected an impressively wide range of Arab editorial perspective, starting with Al Ahram's house Islamist Fahmi Howeidy, who repeated his often expressed accusation that international media is at least implicitly part of a post-9/11 American imperial conspiracy to destroy all Islamist movements, be they terrorist or not and impose an imperial project, and including the veteran Egyptian broadcaster Hamdi Kandil (now with Dubai TV), who has always been an outspoken Arab nationalist/socialist critic of Islamist as well as of American policies. In contrast, Abdul Wahab Badrakhan of Al Hayat reflects moderate and liberal Arab opinion.

Majorie Miller of the Los Angeles Times, responding to Howeidy, insisted that media in the Western world can never be perceived as monolithic. David Rhodes, from Fox News (and whose presence in Doha spoke to the extraordinary broadness of this gathering) replied to Howeidy's singling out international media in general and American media in particular. Rhodes observed that all media have their biases--a position remarkably similar to one taken by an Al Jazeera spokesman during the invasion of Iraq, and recorded in the documentary Control Room. However, according to Rhodes, it was their journalistic responsibility to subdue those biases on a daily basis, a critically important afterthought which the Al Jazeera spokesman significantly did not make.

Perhaps most importantly, this first Al Jazeera World Forum presented a perfect opportunity for Al Jazeera to showcase its new Code of Ethics, preceded by a brief introduction entitled "Vision and Mission." If professionalism is now the hot word in Arab satellite TV journalism since the Iraqi War, as became apparent during my last Gulf tour (see Gulf Media Mood: As Good As Ever in TBS 12), it is Al Jazeera which seems adamant in taking the lead in setting the pace for professionalism, just as they had set the pace in the past, one could suggest, for significant lapses in professionalism.

Both the "Vision and Mission" and the Code are impressive:

"Al Jazeera is an Arab media service with a global orientation. With its motto 'the opinion and the other opinion' it acts as a forum for plurality seeking the truth while observing the principles of professionalism within an institutional framework.

"While endeavouring to promote public awareness of issues of local and global concern, Al Jazeera aspires to be a bridge between peoples and cultures to support the right of the individual to acquire information and strengthen the values of tolerance, democracy and the respect of liberties and human rights."

The Code of Ethics reads:

"Being a globally oriented media service, Al Jazeera shall resolutely adopt the following code of ethics in pursuing the vision and mission it has set for itself:

"1- Adhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity giving no priority to commercial or political; considerations over professionalism.

"2- Endeavour to get to the truth and declare it in our dispatches, programmes and news bulletins unequivocally in a manner which leaves no doubt about its validity and accuracy.

"3- Treat our audiences with due respect and address every issue or story with due attention to present a clear, factual and accurate picture while giving full consideration to the feelings of victims of crime, war, persecution and disaster, their relatives, our viewers, and to individual privacies and public decorum.

"4- Welcome fair and honest media competition without allowing it to adversely affect our standards of performance and thereby 'having a scoop' would not become an end in itself.

"5- Present diverse points of view and opinions without bias and partiality.

"6- Recognize diversity in human societies with all their races, cultures, beliefs, values, and intrinsic individualities so as to present an unbiased and faithful reflection of their societies.

"7- Acknowledge a mistake when it occurs, promptly correct it and ensure it does not recur.

"8- Observe transparency in dealing with the news and its sources while adhering to internationally established practices concerning the rights of these sources.

"9- Distinguish between news material, opinion, and analysis to avoid the snares of speculation and propaganda.

"10- Stand by colleagues in the profession and give them support when required, particularly in the light of the acts of aggression and harassment to which journalists are subjected at times. Cooperate with Arab and international journalistic unions and associations to defend freedom of the press." Doha, 12th July 2004."

It is interesting to sit quietly in the office of Al Jazeera's chief editor Ahmed Sheikh while he and Majid Khadr, the head of assignments, review tapes of field reports featured on yesterday's news bulletins. According to Jihad Ballout, Al Jazeera's official spokesman, Ahmed Sheikh (an old-time BBC-er) was one of the instrumental figures, along with managing director Wadah Khanfar and senior producers, in putting together the Code, so it was interesting to see him struggling to implement it. On the screen, there is a report from Gaza and Ahmed is upset by the footage of bloody close-ups of the Palestinian dead taped in a Gaza hospital morgue, the sort of close-ups that were once standard operating proceedure at Al Jazeera, particularly when covering the invasion of Iraq.

Ahmed is adamant: "I don't want those bloody close-ups. And this story is just a death toll report. Why do we do a field report like that? We could do the report from here. That's all it is, a death toll story," he tells the Assignment Desk head. It's clear that Ahmed is concerned about balance.

But he is also a man very much committed to field reporting and most of his critical comments had to do with production values--a "piece to camera" ("on-camera closer" in the parlance of American TV news) that ran too long, narrative sentences in another story that were written too long. There follows an excellently shot and thoughtfully written piece on the dispute in Cairo over unifying the call to prayer by Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdul Ghani. Ahmed and I are impressed. Ahmed thinks Abdul Ghani's narrative would be improved if his sentences were shorter, but that's almost nit-picking. The story opens wisely with a strong picture at the adjacent Sultan Hassan and Rifa'i mosques, goes on to get both sides of the dispute and then like a jazz composition returns to the same location at the end. "Its breathing, as it moves along," says Ahmed, "by making good use of natural sound." Balanced, well-edited, and beautiful pictures, this report is an indicator of the strong stories that Al Jazeera is cultivating, stories that hold up without pictures of violent confrontation

I'm also impressed when I add up all the stories shot in the field that were reviewed that morning--a story from Cairo on the meat crisis, a woman in Eritrea who gave birth in difficult desert conditions to quintuplets, a report from Bosnia on the struggle over changing the name of a street in Sarejevo honoring Marshal Tito, the Gaza report, and the story from Cairo on the dispute over unifying the call to prayer as well as several other field reports they had already screened before I turned up and that I had missed.

I have the distinct feeling that Al Jazeera is more loyal to television journalism's cardinal craft of field reporting than the BBC, CNN, or the US networks, who all increasingly seem to be passing over the chance to do solid TV journalism. That means a reporter takes the time to actually check out a story, then go out into the field, shoot it, and then write up a script and voice it over for a final product that illuminates the images on screen, but that's being increasingly passed up in favor of the easier, quicker on-the-scene live appearances from the reporter, who usually can do little more than interpret an event already described by the anchor/presenter using wire copy for substance and asking his or her own reporter, by satellite, to respond with some instant and generally obvious analysis. Perhaps Al Jazeera's senior producer Samir Khader was right after all when he claimed, in Control Room, that no other channel in the world was doing as good a job reporting the news as Al Jazeera. If that wasn't necessarily the case one and a half years ago, it appears more and more to be the case now.

But to be able to do field reports, a channel has to be able to get its reporters in the field. That has become very difficult for Al Jazeera, considering the number of places in the Arab world where it cannot operate but must rely on agency footage. For Ahmed this is a serious problem: "We shouldn't go on like that. We must find a way without intrinsically compromising our editorial policy or integrity, but we must find a way to cover these countries and the sooner the better."

Jihad Ballout, media relations

Jihad Ballout, whose forte is media relations, is more upbeat. He insists, "We have shed our defense mechanism and you will see our relations improving in the region. Yes, we are bending over backwards to achieve a presence in places in the region where we don't have that presence, but we will never compromise our core editorial values. We are open for dialogue, we are reaching out and through back channels we have made major progress. We have reopened our bureau in Morocco and we are recovering our position in Algeria. And we have done this without crossing our own red line."

Back in Ahmed Sheikh's office screening tape, I find the field reports to be generally impressive, but Ahmed wants them to be better. The problem, he says, is that there is no long tradition in the Arab world for field reporting. That's true enough. Field reporting didn't exist in the region until thirteen years ago. "Now that we have produced a Code of Ethics, we are working on a style guide for reporters and producers to better familiarize themselves with the problems involved in field reporting.

"I asked a reporter the other day to do a story from Istanbul at the very moment an EU Council was meeting to decide whether Turkey's candidacy for EU membership would be moved forward. Now Turkey is a divided house in its sense of identity, on one hand with Europe and on the other hand of its Muslim world identity. The day he did this report there was a marathon race going on in Istanbul and the runners were to cross the bridge that connects Turkey in continental Europe and Turkey in Asia. Instead of using that shot with its powerful symbolism our reporter opened with a general view of Istanbul. That happened because too many of our reporters don't think visually yet .They don't see the story in visual terms because of the dominant literary tradition; we are trying to establish a visual tradition."

Part of that process has meant insisting on reporters producing a standard script--visuals on one side, narrative on the other. Ahmed says, "I've told my deputies that if a reporter doesn't use that format--which stimulates thinking visually given the driving role of the video portion of a standard script--then they should reject the story."

What about past problems, like Al Jazeera's tendency, in-studio, to romanticize Bin Ladin during the first days leading up to the Afghan invasion and in its aftermath with the fall of the Taliban? The answer or cure according to Ahmed Sheikh is more field reporting: "I reported from Kabul in 2000 when we opened our bureau there. I reported on the Taliban, on what had happened to the educational system, stories like that. I wish I could show you those reports to see if you consider that I was romanticizing the Taliban. I don't think so.

"Most important, we are putting things in order but in a slow, gradual, and fair manner. I think that firm but gradual and slow changes are critical, because when people comprehend why the changes are essential, then the changes will endure."

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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