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The Impact of Arab TV News: Two Perspectives :: Yosri Fouda

Al-Jazeera, the all-news channel broadcast from Qatar, has been the hottest, most popular satellite channel in the region for the past two years. But it has its critics; even its Ramallah bureau from where it has provided some of the most dramatic coverage of Intifada Al Aqsa was shut down for 48 hours as a demonstration of the Palestinian Authority's heavy hand.Yosri Fouda, Al-Jazeera's award-winning investigative reporter ("Top Secret"), defends Al-Jazeera, and TBS Senior Editor Abdallah Schleifer tempers his praise with strong reservations.

Al-Jazeera: Here We Stand; We Can Do No Otherwise

Apart from other things, the sudden death of Syria's president Hafez Al-Asad last June meant that my boss and I were stuck in Cairo after the postponing of Egypt's Media Day, to which we had been invited. It was a chance for me to discover another side to the Qatari managing director of Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel, Mohammad Jasim Al-Ali.

In the evening he took me (the Egyptian) on a tour in the alleys of his much beloved Old Cairo. Later we caught up with our Baghdad bureau chief, a veteran of Egypt's much-cultured sixties. As we were all enjoying shisha in El-Gerioun Cafe someone approached us and introduced himself as a columnist with Al-Ahram. As far as he was concerned, it was all praise for Al-Jazeera for "all the freedom and professionalism it created in the Arab world," and especially for the making of "that documentary on Egypt's prisoners of war of 1956 and 1967." It was, in his own words, "a cinematic vision of a thorough investigation and a heartfelt expression of the plight of the forgotten."

A few months later, though, for reasons beyond my comprehension, I found myself reading in Al-Ahram by that same columnist what amounts to my being a traitor for having made that documentary. "The generals of Al-Jazeera have declared war. Look at him [me]! He is using an old woman and having her say, I have lost three sons in the war, what can I do?"

Out of the deep darkness of the sixties in Egypt emerges a text of an exceptional phone call made by the former head of Egypt's General (that is civil) Intelligence Service, Salah Nasr, who was at the time under house arrest, to the editor of Al-Ahram, Mohammad Hassanain Haikal, who is widely known as Gamal Abdel Nasser's media brain. Here is a translation of what is on the tape:

MH: Hello? 
SN: Yes, ahlan wa-sahlan, I tried to get through to you in the morning. Did they tell you? 
MH: Yes, they did. How are you and how's your health? 
SN: Alhamdulillah, but I am a bit upset with you. 
MH: Just let me tell you something. I know you might be upset with me. 
SN: I know you are a free man. Just listen to me, to a man who is talking to you from prison. 
MH: No, no, no. I'd like to tell you something before you go on. Please account for the difference between the writing and the making of a news item. You are a man who spent a long time in power. 
SN: Of course I know [the difference]. 
MH: That's it. I have nothing more to add. 
SN: I am interested in the truth, you see, and I know you are a free man whose only interest is the truth. I am now imprisoned and unable to talk or defend myself. Why would they not just let me talk? Is what was published true or was it just "newspaper [fantasy] talk"? 
MH: I'll tell you something. I was glad when they told me you tried to get through. I thought I would put it in your hands that there is a difference between the case of someone editing a news item and someone dictating a news item. Irrespective of what the truth might be. Journalistically speaking, we are not, this is not of our doing. 
SN: Khalaas, what can I say if it is not of your doing? Do I at least have the right to reply, or do I not? 
MH: I'll tell you something, if you choose to reply I will be prepared to publish, but should it be censored I will of course let you know.

This is a most important phone call in the study of the relationship between Arab politics and the reality of Arab journalism. On the one hand, we have the most prominent Arab journalist during the sixties, and perhaps until now, begging us in the image of the most famous intelligence man to please understand "the difference between getting a story and making a story." This of course is in the context of trying to detach himself from the messy power conflict after what he creatively described as "al-naksa," the 5th of June catastrophe.

In other words, the editor of the widely distributed Al-Ahram is actually providing us with proof of the widespread suspicion that you could be "less than honest," and sometimes immoral, and still be a "respectable" journalist and a big writer.

And on the other hand, we understand the utmost attention given by Nasser to a set of mass media almost totally incorporated into the ruling regime to the point that the reality of what we were meant to believe to be "the fourth authority" is in actual terms nothing more than a dummy. This reality has defined for "journalists" how to think of themselves, the government, and the people and how to think of the inter-cutting lines between these parties. In such a paradigm the ruler becomes the chairman of the "journalistic" institution, the intelligence man the editor, and the "journalist" the shadow.

A few weeks prior to this phone call, Ahmed Said of Sout Al-Arab, the Voice of the Arabs, was famously shouting on his pan-Arab radio that "we have rounded them up in the central area of Sinai." He knew he was lying, but this is not important. A helpless group of about one hundred miserable non-armed Egyptian soldiers, having listened in to the only means of communication with home, decided to change their path of withdrawal from the southern to the central area. You can guess the rest: half of them were killed and the other half were captured by the Israelis. When I interviewed one of those former POWs he simply blamed the "journalist."

Although today's citizen is a little luckier than yesterday's who never knew what a satellite dish is, never saw his "big journalists" criticize the official line, and hardly had access to BBC shortwave service, there remains the fact that half the Arabs, to start with, are illiterate. There also remains the fact that our predominantly oral culture is still incapable of lending its beautiful treasures to a predominantly pragmatic businesslike age. And there remains the fact that the number of those of us who might be willing to give up their existing benefits for not-so-guaranteed wishes is far less than those of us who are capable of doing it. These facts are sadly considered positive by an authority whose top priority is to stay in power at any cost.

In such a context falls Al-Jazeera Channel as "the rebel." Some like to see this rebellion framed in a "worldwide conspiracy" determined to undermine the legitimacy of the "free" Arab regimes for a deeper American-Israeli infiltration, some like to see in it another conspiracy to promote the lifting of Iraqi sanctions, and some like to see in it a platform for the "unfaithful" Islamists. Irrespective of where they come from, they all have at least one thing in common: a reluctance to face new realities. At one level they are driven by either ignorance or ill intention, and on another level they just could not accept the fact that "the country of goats," Qatar, can actually produce such a professional success.

In my opinion, this success does not restrict itself to the small screen of Al-Jazeera. Surprisingly, it manifests itself probably more obviously on other people's screens. MBC, for instance, had to abolish some of what is internally understood as red lines since the advent of the newcomer. A whole new set of programs which look like typical "inventions" of Al-Jazeera has been introduced to most, if not all, Arab satellite channels. Another rather comical influence of Al-Jazeera reminds you of that of the popular Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez: hated by rivals but copied by many of them. As it was officially stated, Abu Dhabi TV suddenly appeared from nowhere to "counter challenge Al-Jazeera's effect, as did Arab News Network (ANN) in a bandwagon fashion.

Nevertheless, some of the many who only copied Abdel Halim's hairstyle later learned a thing or two and were able to develop their own character. Similarly, it can only be positive for the rest of the Arab channels to follow suit, even if they do so from a negatively charged position with an aim to undermine Al-Jazeera more than to surpass it. What brings optimism to my door, though, is the fact that the Arab citizen has all of a sudden paused to think again and the fact that the experience of freedom is in a sense like the experience of death: you cannot cross to it and come back again.

It is clear that Al-Jazeera has become, more than just a mass medium, a political and cultural phenomenon in the Arab world, but it would be such a mistake if its decision makers and program makers fell into the trap of looking at it in this way. They know more than anyone else that the crucial card which made, and still makes, it the center of attention--i.e. the unprecedented freedom--is but a grant from upstairs. This grant can simply be claimed back at any moment for whatever reason, and this is the fact that should not be driven aside by false conquests. Editorial freedom is a massive plus, no thanks to program makers, and investing it in a professional manner is real journalism, thanks to some program makers.

The critical bridge has already been crossed over with a few kilos of salt. People are now living with the phenomenon--some enthusiastically, some reluctantly, some suspiciously, and some will just never accept it. Deep inside those, though, is a sense of "let it be. Maybe I will need it one day." Investigating the 1999 crash of EgyptAir flight 990 provided me with an excellent example. For three months after the horrible incident, Egypt TV's 20 or so channels did absolutely nothing while some American sources were using world media to spread rumors and premature conclusions everywhere. Only after I, through my program "Top Secret," managed to prove technically the impossibility of the suicide theory did Egyptian media shyly have the stomach to applaud Al-Jazeera.

Such is the "success" of Al-Jazeera that you get the feeling, in the course of your job, that it is already included, irrespective of where it stands professionally, on the VIP watch list of many interested parties. They see in it an honest (and free) source of information about Arab public opinion and attitudes. You do not even have to tune in, as you can simply log on to www.aljazeera.net. It is heaven for an intelligence officer who likes to analyze.

The 1998 Desert Fox operation and the 1999 Usama Bin Laden exclusive are but two examples of the scoops which, every now and then, turn the heads of the world towards a desert-based channel. It is all epitomized in a frame hung on one of the managing director's walls: the front page of the British newspaper, The Times, with a night shot of the bombardment of Baghdad. On the bottom right corner you clearly see the familiar CNN logo, but with some effort you discover underneath it a not-so-familiar-to-the-ordinary-western-eye kind of logo: Al-Jazeera's. Thanks to Doha, the whole world knew about it.

In the year 2000 "Top Secret" registered another scoop when, with the help of a well-known British scientist, I managed to link the use of some 30 tons of depleted uranium during the Gulf War to the spread of cancer and birth defects in southern Iraq. The investigation was complete four months before Europe even began to wonder about the mysterious death of six Kosovo-based NATO soldiers. When I sent him the master tape my boss initially got cold feet. Having found it hard to believe, he brought together a few aides and opened a conference line between them in Doha and me in London.

Al-Jazeera has a unique administrative and organizational system which is hard, realistically, to find in another organization or in a textbook. It is a mixture of the tribal with the urban, the Eastern with the Western, the leftist with the rightist, and the religious with the secular. This, according to the eyes of the beholder, is either genius or total failure. But although things are working out quite impressively, I do not attribute much of Al-Jazeera's success to what takes place within what Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, having visited the Doha newsroom, described as "the match box" as much as I attribute it to outside factors. It is my conviction that Al-Jazeera's enemy number one is the fact that there is not another Al-Jazeera in Arabic. That is why Arab citizens are excited about the fact that they, for a change, do not get from an Arab channel THE opinion, but "More Than One Opinion"; they are not taken in one direction, but also in the "Opposite Direction"; they do not get from the truth only what they are meant to know, but they get truth "Without Frontiers"; they do not see only what reinforces the status quo, but they are also taken to what could be a "Hot Spot"; and they are not taken for a ride in an oral culture of disinformation, but rather allowed access to what's officially categorized as "Top Secret."

About Yosri Fouda

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