CAIRO: When some of Al-Jazeera's commentators and talk show guests from Islamist and other Arab radical ranks criticized the Sharm al-Sheikh summit hosted by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak as a failure, or worse, as "a shameful betrayal of the Palestinians" and their Intifada al-Aqsa, the honeymoon that had begun last April (when Al-Jazeera signed up as Egypt's first customer pledged to use facilities and build studios in Egypt's new Media Free Zone) disappeared in a dust storm of vituperation.
Then when the emergency Arab summit failed to take sterner measures against Israel and the United States than expected, and again some of Al-Jazeera's commentators and talk show guests blamed this too on President Mubarak's Sharm al-Sheikh summit, the fury continued. That fury reached its height when Al-Jazeera crews in the West Bank and Gaza (who previously had been applauded in Egyptian media for their field unit's up-front and dangerously personal coverage of daily clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians) provided footage of angry Palestinians burning Egyptian flags to protest against Sharm and the Arab summit.
But it wasn't the individual commentators or individual guests (some of Al-Jazeera's guests have defended Egypt and the perspective of the other moderate Arab states who moved cautiously on this issue) who were condemned but the channel as a whole. It was a "fifth column operation," "in the pay of foreigners," a "disseminator of Zionist poison" (no doubt a reference to Al-Jazeera interviewing Israelis and having Israelis as guests on talk shows) and "in the service of Mosad" (Israeli intelligence).
Along with the attacks came a threat on October 26th from Minister of Information Safwat al-Sharif, angered by what he perceived as one-sided coverage of Egypt's role towards the Intifada al-Aqsa, to close down Al-Jazeera facilities in Cairo. But the minister reconsidered, no doubt because on second thought he realized how such a reaction would destroy the credibility of Egypt's Media Free Zone (with its promise of no political censorship) in the eyes of potential foreign clients, Arab or non-Arab. And Egyptian commentators at Al-Ahram (the largest and most influential of the semi-official Egyptian newspapers) who are committed to liberalization and some form of privatization of the media turned their pens against the campaign.
Salama Ahmed Salama, former managing editor of Al-Ahram and now a highly respected columnist, declared his opposition to the press frenzy. He was quoted in the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly as saying: "Al-Jazeera threw a stone in the stagnant waters of the official and traditional media, regardless of whether those who attack them like it or not." Salama acknowledged that some of the talk shows and commentators were biased against Egypt, but he insisted that "Egyptians are over-sensitive and don't like criticism." The problem is, according to Salama, that Egyptian media are not capable of responding to criticism with rational argument and can only respond with insults.
Indeed, the issue was pride, not policy, since Al-Jazeera (aside from the tempting tendency to sensationalism) has no policy, and its "anything goes" talk shows and interviews certainly do not reflect Qatari policy. Islamists denounce Arab cooperation with Israel on Al-Jazeera, while Qatar not only allowed Israel to operate a trade mission with Qatar but also welcomed Israeli representation in a regional economic cooperation conference that it hosted. Nor has Cairo's minister of information and the local and largely state-owned media launched any equivalent campaign against Al-Manar, the broadcasting arm of Hezbollah, which takes a formal channel position in support of Palestinian armed struggle and which is transmitted through the region by the Cairo-based Nilesat, in which Egypt TV is a major shareholder.
But in all the debate for and against Al-Jazeera—a debate that waxes and wanes depending on how Egypt is perceived as responding to the crisis by its radical critics—what has been lost in the discussion is the fact that the Arab world, and the role of media within that Arab world, is being transformed by independent television coverage of the Intifada al-Aqsa—largely by Al-Jazeera (because it is a 24-hour news and public affairs channel) but not exclusively. MBC and the private Lebanese stations, as well as APTN's tailored Arabic-language news agency service, have dramatically "changed the media landscape" according to the Palestinian journalist and media critic Daoud Kuttab. "Al-Jazeera has been for this Intifada what CNN was for the Gulf War."
Several Western journalists have taken note of this shift in the Arab media environment over the past few years that has occurred because of Arab satellite broadcasting in general and Al-Jazeera in particular, and it was John Kifner, writing for the New York Times Service (Intl Herald Tribune, Nov. 20, 2000) who quoted Kuttub's analogy to CNN and the Gulf War. Earlier Washington Post correspondent Howard Schneider had noted (November 7, 2000) how "the saturation coverage provided by Al-Jazeera and other Arabic-language channels, and even new Arabic Internet sites, helped create a regional movement out of what began as a local protest in Jerusalem."
Which suggests still another analogy, that the Infitada al-Aqsa is the Arab world's first television war, much as Vietnam was America's, and there is no predicting where that can or will lead. Last February, Daoud Kuttab, the same Palestinian journalist who was quoted by Kifner and who commutes between Jerusalem and Amman, reported in The Jordan Times on a conference held at Columbia University on "New Channels in the Middle East" in which both Israeli and Arab broadcasters participated. And he mentioned the surprise, if not shock, on the part of the Israelis to see examples of the new talk shows that have flourished on the independent satellite channels. Kuttab ended his report last February with these words, written at a time of relative optimism in Washington around the Washington-shepherded peace process (and they still hold true, both because of and despite recent events):
"There is no doubt that the opening of the Arab world is an irreversible process. How much this change will affect the Arab-Israeli conflict remains to be seen. Israelis attending the conference were surprised at the size and depth of change taking place in the Arab world. But will the Israeli public and government warm up to Arabs as a result of this, and will this improve the chances of a just peace in the region? These remain open questions."