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The Courting of Al-Jazeera

While Washington asked the emir of Qatar to "rein in" Al-Jazeera, American networks were headed to Doha in search of a deal.

It's nearly midnight in Doha, and we are in a cafe on a pier jutting out over the shoreline of the Persian Gulf. The cafe is empty and the night air quiet—except for the insistent ring of mobile telephones. Al-Jazeera Managing Director Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali takes a call from an American TV network executive. The airstrikes are well underway, and the Qatar-based satellite news channel, by now well known to TV audiences and Washington decision-makers alike, is the only TV presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Washington, in early October, asked Qatar to rein in the satellite channel, claiming it fans anti-American sentiment. American broadcasters, though, want Al-Jazeera to make them a deal.

Top to bottom: In the Al-Jazeera newsroom; Chief Editor Ibrahim Helal with CNN's Octavia Nasr; Executive Secretary Hayfa Shawkat fields calls from around the globe


Across the table from Mr. Al-Ali is Octavia Nasr, CNN senior international editor. She's on a mobile too, with an Arabic-language satellite channel which is wooing her in the same way that Western networks have been courting Al-Jazeera over the last several weeks. But a deal has been made between the giants of English-language and Arabic-language TV news, and both sides say they would be hard-pressed to find another partner that could serve them better.

TBS first spoke with Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali in Cairo in June 2000—an interview that, given the number of requests we ourselves received for information about Al-Jazeera, apparently ranks fairly high on the search engines. After our senior editors had received, between them, several dozen requests for radio and TV interviews from media organizations around the world, it became clear that a trip to Doha was in order.

Al-Jazeera started drawing attention early in the current crisis thanks to its exclusive position inside Afghanistan. The channel, which celebrates five years on air this November, established bureaus in Kabul and Kandahar two years ago. "When we started the channel we first concentrated on opening offices in Arab countries and Islamic countries," Mr. Al-Ali told TBS. "We got permission from the Taliban—and at the same time permission was granted to us, it was also granted to CNN, Reuters, and APTN—to open offices in Kabul and Kandahar. The others didn't move in, but for us it was important, because it's an Islamic country."

This means that since the beginning of the current conflict Al-Jazeera has been able to air frequent packaged reports and live shots from their Kabul-based reporter Tayseer Allouni and, via videophone, from Youssef Al-Shouly in Kandahar. But they had no permanent office in Northern Afghanistan; they had previously been sending in reporters from other cities to cover that territory. After the Sept. 9 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood—by two Algerians posing as journalists, with a bomb hidden in their camera—it's all but impossible to get an Arab reporter into the area. But CNN, like other Western organizations, got crews and correspondents into the north immediately. It became obvious to both Arab and Western organizations that if any one of them wanted to round out the picture for their viewers, some cooperation was going to be necessary.

Although this is a perfect example of how two organizations can be of mutual assistance, agreements between Al-Jazeera and CNN are not just a result of, nor limited to, crisis coverage. "We've had a history of cooperation with CNN," Mr. Al-Ali says. "Three or four months ago we had a meeting with them to agree on cooperation, so that in areas where they are strong we would join in, and in the places that we're strong they'd have our support. It became formal around two and a half months ago, and more so after Sept. 11. It's a long-term agreement, not just for this crisis."

Al-Jazeera became a CNN World Report contributor a year ago, and over the summer officials from the two organizations met both in Washington and in Doha to cement a relationship. "After Sept. 11," Nasr says, "we realized we need a CNN presence in the Al-Jazeera newsroom to figure out how we can cooperate." Nasr, a Lebanese American equally fluent in English and Arabic, was in Doha by the 14th.

"Other executives probably learned about Al-Jazeera only after that first tape from Osama bin Laden, and suddenly thought, I'd better go to Doha and try to make a deal. [CNN Chief News Executive and Newsgathering President] Eason Jordan saw that way ahead of everyone else. When we started talking, no one had any clue what was to come. I arrived when no one was here, it was very quiet at Al-Jazeera, and it was a good time to meet with people and it was the right time to start planning. CNN has been through crises many, many times, and we know that when war starts or strikes begin it becomes chaotic. Inside the newsroom it's chaotic, so imagine coordinating between two chaotic newsrooms." The two organizations made deals for footage and resource sharing—CNN getting, originally, six-hour exclusive rights to Al-Jazeera's footage and rights to break in to Al-Jazeera newscasts, plus access to key locations like Kabul through the Al-Jazeera correspondent there; Al-Jazeera having access to Northern Afghanistan through a CNN correspondent, getting help with crews and equipment in Quetta and elsewhere, and receiving CNN's syndicated newsfeed, Newsource.

Al-Jazeera's exclusive position inside Afghanistan, and its lengthy 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden, which it rebroadcast with English subtitles not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, were already drawing the world's attention. But then the station received a fax from Al-Qaeda, believed to be signed by bin Laden, and with the beginning of the American airstrikes, a videotape of bin Laden was sent to the channel.

Suddenly offers from news executives around the world started pouring in, as did the requests for information. Journalists from news organizations around the world have crowded Al-Jazeera's newsroom, director's office, e-mail inboxes and telephone lines with requests for interviews, requests for resource sharing, questions about the controversial fax and videotape, some wanting to make deals and others wanting to cover Al-Jazeera as it covers the news. NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, French TV, Germany's ARD TV, the Economist, Time, the Christian Science Monitor, ITN, the Daily Mail, Japan's Nippon TV and Ashay TV, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, NTV Moscow, Brussels TV and Italy's Rai TV—the list of visitors and callers goes on and on. Al Jazeera Net Chief Editor Abdulaziz Almahmoud reports that their website's monthly hit count rose from pre-September-11 levels of around one million to over seven million.

When the bin Laden videotape aired, many of organizations didn't want to wait six hours for the CNN embargo on Al-Jazeera footage to run out—so, despite Al-Jazeera's threats of legal action, they took the footage anyway. CNN then decided to relax the embargo portion of the deal to allow Al-Jazeera to make money on their material. Al-Ali reportedly commented, regarding a broadcaster who had pirated Al-Jazeera footage and then approached the channel for a deal, that "of course there's a deal. We're sending them a bill." 

It wasn't just their fellow broadcasters who were keeping a close eye on Al-Jazeera; Washington had been paying attention too. Secretary of State Colin Powell met Oct. 3 with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and asked him to "restrain" Al-Jazeera, citing specifically the channel's rebroadcast of the 1998 bin Laden interview and charging that it invited anti-American guests, who point to U.S. foreign policy as being behind the Sept. 11 attacks, to appear on its talk shows. While Powell himself was interviewed—as was Tony Blair in London—most officials in Washington made it a policy not to talk to Al-Jazeera. "I was begging them," Washington bureau chief Hafez Al-Mirazi told the Washington Post.

But the West "is trying to shoot the messenger," says Yosri Fouda, investigative correspondent and deputy executive director of Al-Jazeera's London bureau. "If bin Laden is going to send a tape, who will he send it to? To CNN, who he probably considers a representative of 'the enemy'? No. To an Arab government channel? No, because there's just as much animosity there. We're relaying valuable information that the West doesn't have, and we'll do that as long as everything is verified and as long as time and space are given for different viewpoints."

Organizations like Journalists sans Frontieres and the Committee to Protect Journalists lodged complaints about the statements coming out of Washington. "Arab government attempts to influence Al-Jazeera have garnered widespread attention over the years. We are disheartened to see U.S. officials adopting similar tactics," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. By mid-month those tactics had changed, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice had both given exclusive interviews to Al-Jazeera. A public relations campaign led by the newly appointed undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, ad executive Charlotte Beers, is considering buying airtime on the channel in an attempt to win over Arab and Muslim opinion.

The controversy over how Al-Jazeera covered the news was itself news. Fouda appeared in a live debate on the BBC about Al-Jazeera and its coverage; simultaneously, CNN had its own discussion of the same topic as part of its special program "International Correspondents" (on which Fouda had appeared a week earlier). The CNN host marveled that here he had an Arab and an Israeli—Al-Quds editor-in-chief Abdul Bari Atwan and Haaretz correspondent Sharon Sadeh—agreeing that Al-Jazeera should be free to make its own news judgments.

Even more significant than these invitations to take part in other's debates is the fact that Al-Jazeera—well known for its live, call-in political talk shows—turned the spotlight of analysis on itself. On Oct. 15 Al-Jazeera's Sami Haddad in London hosted an episode of the debate show "More Than One Opinion" devoted to discussion of media coverage of the current crisis and its role in shaping public opinion, with political writer and journalist Sami Zubian, Leslie McLoughlin of the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, and journalist and American affairs specialist Reda Hilal. The debate turned to Al-Jazeera and its role in covering the crisis; the guests, as have others, criticized the channel for its lack of critical reporting on its home state of Qatar and, more immediately relevant, for using phrasings such as "what the US calls terrorism" in its coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite the flurry of attention Al-Jazeera is now receiving from the West, this is far from the first time the channel has made headlines or drawn critics. Al-Jazeera was in Baghdad covering the 1998 US-led Desert Fox operation; then, as now, Arab viewers turned to them for information and foreign channels turned to them for material. During the last Israeli elections, Al-Jazeera interviewed Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres—the first time an Arab news channel has interviewed Israeli leaders—and drew tremendous fire from across the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani told TBS that "Al-Jazeera was accused in the beginning of being a channel financed by Iraq or by Saddam Hussein when we covered events in Iraq. When we reported on the Israeli elections and when we ran interviews with Barak and Peres, Al-Jazeera was immediately accused of being financed by the Mossad. When we reported on events or issues within the United States from our office in Washington we were accused of being financed by the CIA. We're now hearing remarks from the American administration on our coverage of recent events, and I think we're evenhanded in our reporting on these events."

The accusations are a concern, says chief editor Ibrahim Helal. "We have to be fully aware of what we're doing when we're under this type of accusation. Even a normal, small technical mistake that could happen anywhere can be misunderstood. You feel under close monitoring. But I think the conflicting accusations are good. We brought the tapes of our interviews with Barak and others out of the library to show them to visiting journalists, and point out to them that we were accused at the time of being an Israeli channel. How can we be accused of supporting Israeli and bin Laden at the same time?"

And, says Mr. Al-Ali, the fact that Al-Jazeera has aired video sent from Al-Qaeda as Washington protested and the American networks, following a meeting with Condoleeza Rice, chose not to run the tapes, doesn't mean the channel takes the matter lightly. "We do worry about this. We don't just take any tape that comes to our offices or to the station and put it on air. Before that we have a meeting to discuss how we should treat the news, and not be subject to the propaganda from a party or organization or group, Osama bin Laden or others. When we aired the tape of Osama bin Laden spokesman Suliman Abu Geith, directly after that we brought Edward Walker, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, for his comments, and after that a Muslim cleric to talk from an Islamic perspective about Osama bin Laden's statements, to raise points such as that Islam doesn't allow you to kill innocent people, that bin Laden will condemn American bombings but at the same time give orders to kill innocent Americans. To air the statements without any comments, without any opposing statements or viewpoints or analysis, that's when it's propaganda."

In the control room. On the screens, anchorwoman Muntaha Al-Ramahi, a report from Kabul, and Abdallah Abdallah stands by.

And, as anchorwoman Muntaha Al-Ramahi, who joined Al-Jazeera from Jordan TV, points out, "during the Iraqi crisis in 1998 and Intifada, we were established as the number-one Arabic channel in the world. Now, with this crisis, because this crisis is global, Al-Jazeera is starting to be of importance everywhere in the world." If Desert Fox and the Intifada established Al-Jazeera regionally, this current crisis has established it as a global broadcaster. Which in many ways it already was: the channel, prior to Sept. 11, already reached Arabic-speaking audiences in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia, in addition to the Middle East; but now non-Arabic-speakers, via translation or second-hand coverage, follow what Al-Jazeera is reporting. The channel had already established 35 bureaus and offices around the world; many of them have become actively involved in crisis coverage—New York, Washington, Cairo, London, Moscow, Islamabad, Kabul and Kandahar—either in field reporting, live broadcasts, hosting talk shows, or recruiting officials and experts for on-air appearances. Al-Jazeera had long been praised by the West for breaking new ground in Middle East media and reporting what many Arab governments don't want it to report. Now its exclusives—and the criticism it has drawn—are on a global scale.
In September 2000, when the Al-Aqsa Intifada exploded, viewers across the Arab world were as glued to Al-Jazeera as Americans were to CNN during the 1991 Gulf War. Al-Jazeera's controversial interviews, its commitment to getting both sides of a story—even if sometimes one of those sides is anathema to its audience—and its coverage in Iraq and of the Intifada confirmed and strengthened the channel's reputation as the pan-Arab broadcaster.

In fact, Al-Jazeera has had a vision of itself as a global broadcaster since its beginnings—and the great irony of the U.S. displeasure with the way Al-Jazeera reports the news is that since its inception the channel has viewed itself as a global broadcaster deeply rooted in the Western tradition of broadcast journalism. Al-Jazeera was by coincidence—or golden opportunity—set up about the same time that the Orbit-funded BBC Arabic TV service was closed down, and Al-Jazeera brought around seventeen ex-BBC staff to Doha to help build the channel.

"We built Al-Jazeera up on the Western experience we had," says Helal, of his own move from London to Qatar. "From day one most of our editorial staff were from this BBC environment—assignment editors, interview producers, newsgathering editors, even picture editors. We got tremendous experience, of course, working here at Al-Jazeera and adapting a new style, but even after five years if we're in doubt in a certain situation, we convene and ask ourselves, if we were in London now what would we do?"

"I'm really amazed that these criticisms have come up," says Omar Bec, who was recruited from the BBC to head Al-Jazeera's newsgathering desk. "If they watch us closely they'll know that anything President Bush says, or if there's a Pentagon or State Department briefing, we go live on it. We interviewed Tony Blair in London, which we provided to Sky and BBC. The other day I was interviewed by French TV, which asked about the accusations that we're a mouthpiece for the Taliban. I asked them, if you were on the ground and you had this tape, would you air it or not? Of course we would, they said."

The channel that has been accused of being anti-American has more than once been accused of not being "Arab" enough, having received hundreds of official complaints from Arab governments, being temporarily shut down in more than one Arab country for causing offense, and drawing fire for their interviews with Israeli leaders. But channel officials say that they're filling a niche in coverage, both because they broadcast in Arabic and because they pay particular attention to what's important in the Arab world. According to Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, "the difference between CNN International and Al-Jazeera is that CNN looks first to international news, then maybe to Asian, Middle Eastern specific issues. We look first to Arab and Islamic issues in detail, and after that to international questions."

"Al-Jazeera has often been called 'the CNN of the Middle East,'" Octavia Nasr points out. "When you do news 24 hours and there's a story as big as this story now or as the Gulf War, people turn to you. This is why CNN and Al-Jazeera are natural partners. We both do news 24 hours. We have talk shows, news shows, we're very similar in our operation."

Producer Dima Khatib, whose pre-Al-Jazeera experience includes regional and international newspapers and radio, says, "Our work doesn't stop in the newsroom or in Qatar or even in the Arab world. We have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, knowing the bulletin may be watched by tens of millions of people around the world, that channels might be spotting us for news or pictures."

This means decisions about what gets covered, and how, are vital. Interview producer Ahmed Al-Shouly, who came to Al-Jazeera from BBC Arabic TV and worked before that with Reuters, says in a situation of such worldwide importance the channel "reviews everything once, twice, three times, we talk about what we should do, talk about what guests to invite for discussion." Virtually all of the channel's talk shows since Sept. 11 and as of late October have been devoted to some aspect of the attacks or their aftermath, from one angle or another. A new weekly program, "First War of the Century," has been added to the lineup, hosted alternately from Doha or Washington or other bureaus.

Says Al-Ali, "We want those who are supporting the Americans 100 percent, and Arab or Islamic experts who don't want to support the US all the way. It's a debate." On the Oct. 19 episode of "More Than One Opinion, " the panel was composed of Ahmed Shah Ahmadzi, former deputy prime minister in now-shadowy government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Bashir Nafi', lecturer in Islamic history, both in London; in Washington, Georgetown University professor of international relations and Middle East expert Michael Hudson; and in Doha, Enayatallah Khalil, the Rabbani government's ambassador to Khartoum. Ten days earlier, the show "Opposite Direction" put former Taliban information minister Mohammed Yassir against Northern Alliance charge d'affaires in Kuwait Nasir Ahmed Noor. On Sept. 21 "More Than One Opinion" brought together former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Mack, Kuwaiti journalist Ali Jabir Al-Sabah, Univ. of Alexandria Professor of Political Science Zakariya Hussein, and Islamic cleric Omar Mahmood.

"Before the American attack," says Ibrahim Helal, "we had Rabbani live by phone several times, during the news bulletin, and he was also on the "First War of the Century" program. We had Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Dr. Abdallah Abdallah three times by phone, and had Abdel Rashid Dostam on the phone on the same day it was rumored all over the world that he was killed. A year ago we sent Mohammed Safi—who before coming to Al-Jazeera was a correspondent for Abu Dhabi TV in Pakistan, and had good connections with the Northern Alliance—into Northern Afghanistan. He got exclusive interviews with everybody—including more than half an hour with Masood, which was unprecedented for an Arab journalist."

But Al-Jazeera was still in search of a live presence in Northern Afghanistan. On the afternoon of Oct. 14, Octavia Nasr gets word from CNN crews in the north that Dr. Abdallah Abdallah may be available that evening for an interview. She begins coordinating between staff in Doha and staff in Atlanta, arranging satellite bookings, and planning the timings of interviews for both CNN and Al-Jazeera.

By 6 o'clock the interview has been confirmed, and Dr. Abdallah is standing by, just in time for the evening newscast. 6:30 pm, Sunday Oct. 14, at Al-Jazeera's Doha headquarters, the evening news bulletin begins. Ibrahim Hilal and Dima Khatib are in the control room. Octavia Nasr is just outside with two telephones in her hand, one to Atlanta and the other to a crew on the ground in Jebel Siraj, part of Northern-Alliance-controlled Afghanistan. Muntaha Al-Ramahi is on air in the studio. The show begins with a report from Tayseer Allouni in Kabul. At 6:35, via Al-Jazeera's Doha-based translator, Al-Ramahi begins a live interview with Dr. Abdallah. The graphic at the top right of the screen reads, in Arabic, "Al-Jazeera Exclusive"; at the top left, the same thing in English.

Abdallah tells Al-Jazeera viewers that although the US campaigns began only recently, the Northern Alliance has been fighting the Taliban for years. "What is needed is for the Taliban to give up their agenda for supporting terrorism, for the sake of the people of Afghanistan, because the people are suffering under the Taliban and terrorist organizations. There are thousands of foreign terrorists present in Afghanistan who have been fighting against our people and have terrorized the whole nation." At 6:43, Al-Ramahi thanks Dr. Abdallah and the eight-minute interview has ended. At 7:20 pm, using the same ground crew and same equipment, Dr. Abdallah Abdallah is interviewed live by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, forty-five minutes after the start of the Al-Jazeera interview.

"You can see everybody giving high fives right now," says Octavia Nasr. "This is really what Al-Jazeera needs right now—Northern Afghanistan. And we did it in a big way, because it's not just a correspondent giving a report, it's Abdallah Abdallah, live on Al-Jazeera, being interviewed from Doha, coordinated through CNN. It's a perfect example of what these two organizations can do together. Part of the beauty of the deal is that no one watching Al-Jazeera right now knows how it happened."

The cooperation that continues over the coming days and weeks is sometimes more obvious—CNN viewers are by now well familiar with "Al-Jazeera Exclusive" logos popping up on their screens, in Arabic and English. At a dinner in Amman, Jordan, conversation turns to marveling at the sight earlier that day of CNN correspondent Matthew Chance in Northern Afghanistan, talking via simultaneous translation with the Al-Jazeera anchor.

But sometimes, as Nasr says, the mutually beneficial arrangements between two major global broadcasters go virtually unnoticed. The day we left Doha, the TBS staff picked up a copy of the Oct. 14 Sunday Telegraph and found, as in many other newspapers these days, a lengthy article on Al-Jazeera, headlined "Pressure mounts on TV station over bin Laden." There's no mention of CNN in the article. But in the accompanying photograph of the Doha newsroom, bustling with computers and TV screens and several dozen Al-Jazeera staff members, a woman sits working at her desk. Had we not just been in that room we would never have recognized, as most Telegraph readers surely didn't, Octavia Nasr. 


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