Home / Culture & Society / Washington vs. Al Jazeera: Competing Constructions of Middle East Realities

Washington vs. Al Jazeera: Competing Constructions of Middle East Realities


US government officials and supporters of the Bush Administration's policies in the Middle East have waged a sustained campaign against the Al Jazeera Arabic satellite channel. Al Jazeera has also been widely noticed, and criticized, in the (non-governmental) public debate on Middle East issues. It has become so notorious that it is satirized on light-night TV talk shows in the US. The paper describes the debate over "the Al Jazeera effect" and the Administration's campaign against it. The first part will analyze Al Jazeera's overall coverage of the Arab Middle East, with particular attention to its reporting on major conflicts like Palestine and Iraq, but also on its relatively "non-political" programming and the aesthetics or style of its presentations. The second part will describe American attitudes toward Al Jazeera and specific steps the US government has taken to curb or shape Al Jazeera's coverage. The third part describes the responses of Al Jazeera and its backers and supporters to these pressures. In part four, the paper goes on to posit that Al Jazeera's construction of Middle Eastern political realities fundamentally contradicts the Administration's. Al Jazeera frames US involvement in the region as a form of imperialism and domination; Washington's self-image is that of a benign world power without ulterior motives seeking to reform the region for its own good and America's. The final part is a critique of Washington's policies. The paper notes the contradiction between America's support for pluralism, debate, and freedom of expression and its pressures on a media outlet that it claims is undermining America's policies and reputation. It contends that the rapid spread of global information technologies, exemplified by satellite TV, are a powerful agent for enlarging the political arena in the Middle East, rendering more important than before the "hearts and minds" factor. It argues that the United States should welcome such developments rather than trying to "kill the messenger" who carries unpleasant news. Washington's counter-efforts to win hearts and minds through "public diplomacy" and propaganda are unlikely to succeed if Washington's policies continue to evoke deeply negative responses in Arab public opinion. America, it concludes, should remain true to its liberal principles and support rather than suppress "the free marketplace of ideas" in the Middle East.


This is a story about the collision of two forces that are each, in their respective and contradictory ways, reshaping the contemporary Arab world -- the new information technologies, especially satellite television, and America's project to secure the region, a quest being carried out with new energy and determination since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On one level, the agents of change share the goal of transforming the region. An Al Jazeera staff member interviewed in Doha in 2002 told me that he saw the channel as a "liberating force" in a stagnant and authoritarian Arab world, while on the American side the President himself has set a goal to bring freedom to this benighted region, by force if necessary, in order to terminate the threat of "Islamist terrorism" against the United States. But the "Al Jazeera effect," while opening up new political space, has created an opportunity for anti-American sentiments to be voiced and, perhaps, anti-American activities to be encouraged. And the "American effect," while supporting civil society and limited political participation, also has inadvertently stimulated nationalist as well as religious resistance to what is widely seen as the neo-imperialist agenda of a superpower, many of whose policies in the region are detested.

The drama is being played out across the Arab and Islamic world. It influences the domestic politics of every country in the region by shaking established structures and underlining sociopolitical contradictions. The twin transformations both weaken and strengthen authoritarian government. They energize societies, but at the same time heighten societal cleavages. They accentuate the global, but simultaneously stimulate the local. Most observers agree that fundamental changes are occurring, but they reach no consensus on the nature and direction of these changes.

Our story unfolds on a much smaller canvas. It takes place mostly in Washington, DC and it involves only hundreds of people, not millions. It is the story of the relationship between an agent of social change -- the Al Jazeera bureau -- and an agent of political-military change -- certain elements of the US government. The relationship has not been static, but it would be simplistic to describe it as one of "love-hate." In the beginning, less than a decade ago, it appeared to be "love at first sight." Washington and "the chattering classes" that influence American policy welcomed the advent of an Arab media venture based on a Western model (the BBC) that was prepared to challenge existing political orthodoxies in the region, even to the point of including Israeli spokesmen in its programming. For their part, the creators of Al Jazeera and their backers -- notably the ruling family of Qatar -- were seeking to open the minds (if not the hearts) of Arabs everywhere to a global community and sought to bring international standards to their profession. To them, American policies toward Israel and Palestine were a problem but America's liberal values and the remarkable societal accomplishments that derived from them were qualities to be emulated. Pundits and professors, Americans and Arabs alike, celebrated the advent of Arabic satellite TV.

But the honeymoon ended abruptly after 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan. When Al Jazeera aired a videotape from Usama bin Laden (the first of many to come), Washington was outraged, and with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the relationship soured even more. While deep animosities remain, both sides have sought to smooth them over, and there has been introspection on both sides about the nature of the problem. Serious issues persist, however. Can Al Jazeera ever come to appear as "fair and balanced" to the US government when its mission is to report candidly on American behavior in the Arab World, "warts and all"? Can Washington reconcile its principled commitment to a free press with its perceived security and other national interests? Many Americans nodded approval when Al Jazeera reported and commented critically about various Arab governments and criticized those governments when they sought to muzzle Al Jazeera. But when the channel showed the US in an unfavorable light, and when its commentators attacked America, the US government showed that it had little more tolerance than the thin-skinned Arab regimes.

The "Al Jazeera Effect"

The remarkable story of Al Jazeera needs no recitation here. Suffice it to say that since its founding in 1996 it has become a household word wherever Arabs gather in front of a television set. The channel estimates it has 35-40 million viewers in the Arab and Muslim world, four million in Europe, and 200,000 subscribers in the United States. Even in the US it is now famous -- or notorious -- well beyond the Arab community. When late-night comedians on American TV joke about Al Jazeera there can be little doubt that it has become mainstream. Journalists and academics alike have seized on the "Al Jazeera effect" as a phenomenon of huge importance. El-Nawawy and Iskandar's popular book, Al Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Journalism (see review in this issue), celebrates its accomplishments not just in terms of news coverage but in airing issues that bind 300 million Arabs to each other. The influential American columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that it was "not only the biggest media phenomenon to hit the Arab world since the advent of television, it also is the biggest political phenomenon" (Friedman 2001). The distinguished Arab columnist Rami Khouri, who is not uncritical of Al Jazeera, nevertheless states:

I have a pretty good view of a broad range of American television, and then I watch European television. Every single day, I flip through the channels to see what they are reporting. I concluded that if you wanted to see the most comprehensive coverage of the Iraq war, you should watch Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, no doubt about it whatsoever. I challenge anyone who has done an empirical study to go back and do a content analysis, to look at CNN or CBS or NBC, to look at European stations and at the Arab satellite stations. Far and away, the Arab satellite stations presented the most comprehensive coverage. They broadcast every single American official press conference with live simultaneous translation into Arabic, they aired the Iraqi government spokespersons, they put on Arab commentators and analysts from other Arab countries, they interviewed the American generals sitting at their control centers in Doha, and they interviewed the mothers whose children had just been killed by American bombs.

Policy analysts also were quick to recognize that Al Jazeera was, as Jon Alterman put it, "a hot story" (Alterman 1998: 22). But it was not just the ability to provide "breaking news" that was of interest; it was also that the station "intentionally seeks to be provocative in a region in which news reporting has often been the private fiefdom of government information ministries, and in which dissent has been tightly controlled." Indeed, for Arab regimes, it is the popular Al Jazeera talk shows that have been most intolerable, because of the often heated and intemperate utterances of the participants, who sometimes end up shouting at each other or walking off the set. Thus, the Al Jazeera effect was a combination of two elements: dramatic on-the-ground uncensored reporting, particularly in conflict situations such as Palestine/Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan; and the heated airing of the most taboo sociopolitical issues such as religion vs. secularism, men vs. women, and rulers vs. ruled that captured and captivated a large and growing Arab audience.

Academics took an even more expansive view. For example, I argued in 2002 that "as a potential 'fourth estate' in Arab political systems, the press has gained new power and dynamism through the internet and satellite television" (Hudson 2002: 14-15). I suggested that the information revolution, including the Al Jazeera effect, was loosening the grip of authoritarian regimes over their societies and "creating a new transnational public space for Arabs to converse, debate, and inform one another." I also noted that Islamists were proving particularly adept at harnessing the new information technologies for their purposes. In fairness, I must add that some social scientists specializing on the Middle East, including valued colleagues of mine, thought that such views were exaggerated, or at least premature. But I believe that they were, and still are, worth considering.

US Attitudes and Actions Toward Al Jazeera

It would be a mistake to assume that American attitudes toward Al Jazeera are or have been uniformly hostile. Initial assessments by influential opinion-makers were, as noted, quite positive. On its face, the phenomenon of transnational satellite television in the Arab world seemed to represent a liberal step forward. It was also noted approvingly that Al Jazeera was giving Israeli spokesmen a platform, and the channel's credibility in the US was probably strengthened by the criticism in some Arab quarters that it was an Israeli tool.

Some government agencies and officials weighed in on the positive side. The State Department's annual Human Rights Report for 2000 commended Al Jazeera for "operating freely." Kenton Keith, a former US ambassador to Qatar, told The Christian Science Monitor (2002) that Al Jazeera "no more than other news organizations, has a slant. Its slant happens to be one most Americans are not comfortable with. ... But the fact is that Al Jazeera has revolutionized media in the Middle East. ... For the long-range importance of press freedom in the Middle East and the advantages that will ultimately have for the West, you have to be a supporter of Al Jazeera, even if you have to hold your nose sometimes." Christopher Ross, a former US ambassador to Syria and an official in the State Department's public diplomacy program, had a kind word for Al Jazeera even as he was criticizing it for airing a Bin Laden tape: "You at Al Jazeera know that since Al Jazeera's inception, the US administration has been a great admirer of the channel" (El-Nawawy and Iskandar: 95). Al Jazeera even got favorable treatment on 60 Minutes, the widely viewed CBS-TV newsmagazine (2001).

But the events of 9/11, the US-led attack on Afghanistan, and the airing of the bin Laden tape certainly changed the mood. On October 3, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the visiting Ruler of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad, to rein in the channel because it was unbalanced, anti-American, and airing vitriolic and irresponsible statements (Dadge: 63). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld criticized Al Jazeera for repeatedly playing images of Afghan children injured by American bombs, asserting that this amounted to propaganda for the Taliban (Dadge: 66). The conservative, pro-Israeli wing of the American foreign policy establishment weighed in shortly thereafter with a slashing critique of Al Jazeera, written by Fouad Ajami in The New York Times Magazine. When American planes bombed Al Jazeera's offices in Kabul on November 13, 2001, Al Jazeera officials accused the US Air Force of a deliberate attack. The Pentagon firmly denied it. A year and a half later on April 8, 2003, when US planes bombed the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing one of its correspondents, Tarek Ayyub, and wounding a cameraman, suspicions about American intentions toward the channel were rekindled.

The Pentagon's pressure on Al Jazeera has continued to the present day. In the summer of 2003, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz attacked Al Jazeera for false reports and endangering US troops. According to Robert Fisk, writing in London's The Independent August 1:

Only a day after US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed that the Arabic Al Jazeera television channel was "inciting violence" and "endangering the lives of American troops" in Iraq, the station's Baghdad bureau chief has written a scathing reply to the American administration, complaining that in the past month the station's offices and staff in Iraq "have been subject to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation of news material, and multiple detentions and arrests, all carried out by US soldiers ...."

Another of Wolfowitz's claims involved the station's coverage of an incident in the Iraqi Shiite city of Najaf. "Al Jazeera ran a totally false report that American troops had gone and detained one of the key imams in this holy city of Najaf, Muqtad (sic) al-Sadr," he said. "It was a false report, but they were out broadcasting it instantly." Wadah Khanfar's detailed reply -- and his sense of frustration -- will be familiar to any Western newspaper editor. "Al Jazeera never stated at any time that Muqtada al-Sadr was detained," he wrote. "Our correspondent Yasser Abu Hilala, a top reporter with thirteen years experience covering the Middle East, stated he had received phone calls from Muqtada al-Sadr's secretary and two of his top deputies saying the imam's house was surrounded by US forces after he called for the formation of an Islamic Army. The phone calls were not only made to our offices but to all the offices of al-Sadr's followers in Baghdad resulting in a massive demonstration in front of the Republic Palace within 45 minutes which we reported, along with The New York Times, CNN and a host of others."

The Secretary of Defense has continued the attacks. According to The Associated Press, on November 26, 2003:

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top military adviser said Tuesday they had evidence the Arab television news organizations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya cooperated with Iraqi insurgents to witness and videotape attacks on American troops. Rumsfeld said the effort fit a pattern of psychological warfare used by remnants of the Baathist government, who want to create the impression that no amount of US firepower can end the insurgency. "They've called Al Jazeera to come and watch them do it [attack American troops], and Al Arabiya," he said at a Pentagon news conference. "Come and see us, watch us; here is what we're going to do." Pressed for details, Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that US forces in Iraq had collected more than just circumstantial evidence that one or both of the Arab news organizations might have cooperated with the attackers. "Yes, I've seen scraps of information over a sustained period of time," Rumsfeld said. "I'm not in a position to make a final judgment on it," but it needs to be examined in an 'orderly way'," he added.

In March 2004, a high-ranking US officer in Iraq, Gen. Mark Kimmitt, was quoted as follows: "My solution is to change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources" (Loewenstein 2004). In the same article, Secretary Rumsfeld is quoted as saying: "I can definitely say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable. We know what our forces do. They don't go around killing hundreds of civilians. That's just outrageous nonsense! It's disgraceful what that station is doing."

In April 2004, according to the Los Angeles Times, Secretary of State Colin Powell complained to the visiting Qatari foreign minister, Shaykh Hamad Jasim ibn Jabir Al Thani, that Al Jazeera's broadcasts had "intruded" on relations between the US and Qatar. Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the region.

And on August 6, 2004, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. According to the official account:

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations in Chicago August 6 that some of the reporting by Arab media such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya has damaged US initiatives in the Middle East. For example, he said, "They have persuaded an enormous fraction" of people that the United States is in Iraq as an occupying force, "which is a lie." Or, he added, they have persuaded people that US soldiers "are randomly killing innocent civilians, which is a lie. ... Rumsfeld said some of the Al Jazeera reporters in Baghdad have been in the past on the payroll of the regime of Saddam Hussein. By conveying false or misleading information now, he said, it "makes everything harder" for the United States and even for countries that are neighbors to Iraq.

How do Al Jazeera representatives in Washington view the situation? A staffer in the Washington bureau (interviewed on September 30, 2004) disputed the notion that the US government is carrying out a "sustained" battle against Al Jazeera. The worst "enemies" are in the Pentagon: Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Peter Rodman, and some others. At the National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice falls in that category, as does the official State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. The staffer observed that President Bush himself has been silent. In fact, the relationship "has its ups and downs." Secretary Rumsfeld and Dr. Rice have occasionally appeared on Al Jazeera, as have a number of other civilian and military officials. The staffer recalled that only a few days after Secretary of State Powell was reported to have called Al Jazeera's coverage "horrible" he was asking to do an interview on the channel. At the State Department in particular, there is a viewpoint that the US government should take advantage of Al Jazeera and other Arabic channels, with their huge Arab audiences, and seize every opportunity to appear. Some movers and shakers on the Washington political scene are friendlier than others. At the Democratic Party Convention in July 2004, the officials were quite nasty, tearing down the channel's banner from its location in the convention hall. But surprisingly the Republicans, at their convention, were very hospitable.

In its early years, Al Jazeera was praised by US liberals, mainly because of its readiness to present Israelis, but later the warmth diminished. For example, Norman Pattiz, the chief engineer of the US "public diplomacy" campaign to the Arab world (godfather of Radio Sawa and Alhurra satellite channel) was initially complimentary, but today he is hostile. He disputes the idea of those in the State Department and academia who argue that the US government should engage the Arab media "because it presupposes that the indigenous media is the solution, not the problem." Moreover, he writes that "Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya transcend traditional media roles. They function, in effect, as quasi-political movements, reflecting two of the defining characteristics of the Middle East today. One is the lack of political and press freedom. The other is Arab nationalism. Arab networks manifest both" (Shapiro 2005, 54).

The US government is very large and composed of multitudes of offices, communities, and factions, in addition to its formal separate divisions. In addition, the influential "political circles" outside government itself represent a diversity of backgrounds and points of view. These include the political parties, the media, the lobbies, the think tanks, and academia. While neoconservative and strongly pro-Israel think tanks echo the hostility toward Al Jazeera, the liberal and neutral organizations, if not necessarily positive, take a rather more pragmatic stance. In response to the unmistakable deterioration of the American image in the Arab and Muslim world, the US government went to work to create various boards and commissions to study the matter. The Congressional Research Service was tasked to produce a report on Al Jazeera. An Office of Global Communications was set up in the White House, which had a series of short-lived managers. The US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense were mobilized. A Strategic Communications Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC), jointly managed by the National Security Council and the State Department, was set up. In the State Department an Office of Policy Planning and Resources was created. And an important body called the Broadcasting Board of Governors was established to undertake an American response to the challenge of Al Jazeera and the other Arabic channels (see Feliz Sefsaf 2004).

The Congressional Research Service (CRS), an arm of the US Congress, produced a report on Al Jazeera in July 2003 which laid out, in neutral terms, the "opportunities" as well as the "challenges" presented by Al Jazeera to US foreign policy interests. Its conclusions are worth stating at some length:

Al Jazeera's ability to cover breaking news, to promote its slick, entertaining format, and to project subtly its pan-Arab, pan-Islamist approach to covering the news has sparked some US officials and analysts to suggest ways of promoting a response to its distinctive influence. Others have dismissed calls for policy responses. Some experts warn that any overt US action could be viewed as heavy handed in a region which has traditionally been sensitive to outside involvement in regional or local affairs. Al Jazeera claims that US steps intended to promote a more balanced media in the Arab world will backfire, because Arabs will consider it a propaganda effort of the US government. A range of possible actions has been proposed. In one category are actions that actively promote US policy. They include:

Create an alternative Arabic Language Television Network. In the emergency supplemental appropriations bill of April 16, 2003 (P.L. 108-11), Congress designated $30.5 million for the Middle East Television Network (METN). According to Norman Pattiz, the founder and chairman of Westwood One Radio Network and a member of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), "as most people in the region get their news and information from TV, we need to be on TV so we can explain America and its policies, its people, and its culture from our own lips rather than have it described by the indigenous media." The exact scope and style of METN has yet to be determined. The BBG already sponsors Radio Sawa, an Arabic radio station, which combines popular music with news headlines.

Tie foreign aid to media reform. Some analysts contend that this technique, which has worked for some human rights cases, might be applied to the media as well. Buy commercial air time on Arab networks. During the last two years, the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy has been implementing the "Shared Values Program," a $15 million effort to promote positive images of Muslim life in America. TV advertisements depicting American Muslims ran for 5 weeks in late 2003 in Pakistan, Kuwait, Malaysia, and on some pan-Arab channels, but not Al Jazeera. Although the overall campaign continues, the State Department stopped running the commercials after the governments of Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon refused to carry them on state-run television. Other policy experts have suggested more indirect ways of influencing the Arab media, including the following actions:

Have US officials engage the Arab media more actively. As previously mentioned, top United States cabinet officials have appeared on Al Jazeera television for interviews. Proponents of this strategy believe that more appearances by US officials, particularly those fluent in Arabic, would convey confidence in US foreign policy. Skeptics of this strategy believe that Al Jazeera and other channels could skew the pre- and post-interview analysis against the US position.

Favor the more moderate Arab satellite networks. With almost a dozen different Arab satellite channels, some analysts believe that US interests would be better served if US officials appeared on less sensationalist Arab networks in order to foster competitors to Al Jazeera. Some even suggest encouraging US companies to advertise on these types of stations.

Encourage more privatization of media. Under the auspices of the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), there have been plans to fund media reform programs in some Arab states. As MEPI is just starting to take shape, the initiative could fund media training for aspiring journalists, as well as programs that promote freedom of the press.

One argument, which is widely circulated in Arab intellectual circles, is that the best way to combat the coverage of channels such as Al Jazeera would be to focus US foreign policy on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Others argue that biased coverage will continue no matter what direction the United States takes its policy in the Middle East. With the United States heavily engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Al Jazeera will continue to play a role in reporting and interpreting US foreign policy to the Arab world.

In October 2003, the Advisory Group on the Arab and Muslim World, an offshoot of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, issued a report entitled "Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for US Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World." Chaired by former Ambassador Edward Djerejian and staffed with several Middle East experts, the report identified the problem the US faces:

As one of many examples, we watched a program on Al Arabiya satellite television titled "The Americanization of Islam," whose theme was that the United States had embarked on a sinister plot to change the 1,500-year-old religion. The true American position was nowhere represented. Our views were absent from the program, just as we are absent, despite the dedicated efforts of our public officials at home and abroad, from much of the intense daily discourse on US policy and values taking place throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

The Group recommended various structural reforms that would reconnect the US with the Arab and Muslim societies, reversing a decade-long tendency toward isolation and neglect of public affairs and cultural diplomacy. But its concluding statement is notable for its recognition of the underlying causes of the growing gap between the US and the people of the Arab and Muslim countries:

"Spin" and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer. Foreign policy counts. In our trips to Egypt, Syria, Turkey, France, Morocco, and Senegal, we were struck by the depth of opposition to many of our policies. Citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing, and they are genuinely distressed by the situation in Iraq. Sugar-coating and fast talking are no solutions, nor is absenting ourselves. America can achieve dramatic results with a consistent, strategic, well-managed, and properly funded approach to public diplomacy, one that credibly reflects US values, promotes the positive thrust of US policies, and takes seriously the needs and aspirations of Arabs and Muslims for peace, prosperity, and social justice.

This report indicates a deeper and wiser recognition on the part of some influential Americans that "killing the messenger" is no solution for the problem that the United States faces.

Al Jazeera's Response to American Attacks

Situated only some fifteen miles from the largest American base in the Middle East, Al Jazeera's management must be unusually sensitive to the mood of the US administration. The government of Qatar, a Middle East mini-state, lacks the ability to protect its prized if prickly asset from the wrath of the American military. Governments in the region -- including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestine Authority, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and the Iraqi interim government -- may fume, but they lack both the force and the influence that the US can bring to bear. And the American pressure has been incessant. Qatari diplomats in Washington say that their chief headache is Washington's (and especially the Pentagon's) unhappiness with Al Jazeera. The Qatar government appears to play a particularly audacious strategic game with its neighbors large and small. On the one hand it actively courts an American presence and caters to America's partiality to Israel; but on the other it sustains and, so far, protects its famous media outlet from the anger of Washington's neoconservatives.

On the local, tactical level, Al Jazeera has sought to mollify and engage its Washington community. The bureau chief, Hafez al-Mirazi does not miss an opportunity to insist that he is "begging" Administration officials to appear on the channel, and in fact several of them do so (see also Interview with Hafez al-Mirazi in TBS 13). He also has tapped into the think tank and academic community of Middle East specialists and commentators. Despite the hostile words from the top level officials, the channel has good working relations at the middle levels of the eecutive branch. It reports frequently from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. "We have a lot of friends in town," remarked an Al Jazeera staffer. Al-Mirazi also has testified before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. In an Aug. 2004 hearing on strengthening American public diplomacy in the region, he forcefully defended his channel's work and urged American officials who routinely make the rounds of the Sunday morning news talk shows in the US to appear on the Arabic channels as well. He criticized the idea of US government-run Arabic media outlets as inconsistent with American values about an independent press. And he endorsed the view of many American Middle East and foreign policy specialists that America's problem in the region is its policies, not its values. No amount of slick advertising could get around that fundamental reality (al-Mirazi 2004).

In an important sense, however, Al Jazeera's fate is beyond its control. Yet its management has hardly been oblivious to the storms the station has created. Saudi capital is underwriting an upstart but very professional competitor, Al Arabiya, to try and clip the wings of a channel whose very name is a backhanded insult to the dynasty. Top management changes at Al Jazeera itself may have been influenced by American pressure on the Qatari authorities, and some regular viewers have recently noted a toning down in coverage and presentation. Al Jazeera organized its first "World Forum" in Doha in July 2004, a conference devoted both to self-criticism and exogenous evaluation of the channel's product. Out of the meeting emerged a new Code of Ethics (see the appendix). In it, the channel pledges, among other things, to adhere to journalistic standards of balance and validity; to treat audiences with respect and decorum; to present diverse points of view, and to distinguish between news and opinion. So worthy and well-understood are these principles in the journalistic profession that one wonders why it was necessary to state them at all. Perhaps the answer is a felt need to respond to American (and Arab government) pressures.

For its part, the current management of Al Jazeera professes optimism about its future (see Khanfar 2004). Despite lackluster advertising revenues (mainly the result of Saudi pressure on would-be advertisers), the channel is expanding. Plans are well advanced for a sports channel and an English-language service. Its executives dismiss the "threat" of competition from Al Arabiya by insisting that their true competitors are global: BBC World and CNN International. While no outsider can fathom the relationships between the station and the Qatar authorities, it seems clear that it has been a huge political, strategic, and public relations asset to that small country. Qatar would be even smaller without it. It is no exaggeration to say that Al Jazeera has put Qatar on the global map in a way that even huge gas reserves could never do. A careful combination of journalistic professionalism and principled pragmatism may be Al Jazeera's best protection against its numerous ill-wishers. And in the last analysis, as its managers like to argue, successful competition for audience share may preserve the project.

Whose "Reality" is Real? Al Jazeera and Alternative Models

If many philosophers and social scientists deny the possibility of a single objective reality, ordinary people go about their lives acting as if there were one. Anthropologists and some political scientists argue that communities are "imagined" and realities are "constructed." The imagining, construction, or reconstruction of sociopolitical identities in today's volatile Arab world is a huge issue, both for Arabs and for outsiders who believe, rightly or wrongly, that this region is too important -- perhaps even dangerous -- to be ignored. Many structures, institutions, ideas, and processes affect identity construction and political legitimacy. The rapid implantation of new information technologies across the Arab region would seem to play a significant role in these formations. And the hegemonic presence of the United States also would seem to play an important part -- with perhaps unintended consequences.

Some Al Jazeera employees, as well as hostile critics and friendly commentators, contend that the channel is the driving force behind a renewed sense of Arab identity across the region. Some would argue that it is building a new Arab nationalism and a new will to resist foreign encroachment. For many Arabs, this development, if true, is good news (see, e.g., El-Nawawy and Iskandar). For many American officials, such as the BBG's Norman Pattiz, it is bad news because it impedes the construction of a new global reality that would be harmonious with American interests. There may be some truth to this proposition, but there are some caveats to bear in mind as well.

For one thing, few social scientists accept any longer the sweeping claims of 1960s modernization theory that new, liberal, "modern" identities and communities could be constructed by the new media and educational facilities, thus "shattering the glass" of "tradition." New media and information technologies today may play a role, but it may not be transformative, and it may take much longer than naïve modernization theorists once thought. Moreover, there are other factors at work as well. That said, one can still make a case that satellite television and the Internet are engendering a sense of commonality in a particularly powerful way. But the new media are not just Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya. Entertainment and cultural programming is far more popular in the Arab world than 24-hour news, just as is the case in the United States and other countries. Prof. Marwan Kraidy, who studies the effects of entertainment programming, argues that these programs are as important, maybe more so, in engendering a transnational sense of Arab community. This sense of community is in itself not "political" but it may stand as a cultural prerequisite for more ideological manifestations of Arabism.

For another thing, Al Jazeera employees themselves almost certainly are not of one mind about their "mission" and their effect on Arab society. The staffer in Doha, cited earlier, articulated an ideological agenda. But the staffer in Washington, also cited above, demurred at a characterization of Al Jazeera as framing a "nationalist-anti-imperialist" worldview. Remember, the staffer said, Al Jazeera achieved its initial influence and fame not by bashing the United States, but by providing a forum for criticizing authoritarian Arab governments. Its reputation was advanced by allowing Israelis air time on the channel -- hardly a narrow "nationalist" policy. Moreover, if the channel's current management is to be believed, Al Jazeera sees its future as a global media institution, not just a regional (or "nationalist") one. Any regular viewer of Al Jazeera, however, cannot fail to note the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Iraq situation in its coverage. Is that concentration evidence of a nationalist agenda? The news people deny it. They say "it is news" and this is what our viewers want to see and expect from us.

Official Washington appears to have quite a different understanding of "reality" in the Arab world. To the Bush administration, and especially its neoconservative thinkers, this is a region of mostly poor people whose highest priority is to be "free." They are thirsting for democracy, and they are clamoring to become part of the global economy. Unfortunately, their aspirations are perpetually thwarted by authoritarian and inefficient governments. Even more unfortunately, they are to some extent being brainwashed by "Islamist terrorism" organizations which have hijacked what Washington policymakers know to be the true Islam. Stagnant economies and anachronistic educational systems are helping create a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism, with its particularly anti-American and anti-Israeli character. The new satellite channels, especially Al Jazeera, promote incitement, xenophobia, and retrograde nationalism instead of facilitating the Arabs' quest for freedom, democracy, and global integration. It follows, perhaps, that a vigorous program of public diplomacy in the Arab world will somehow neutralize these impediments. Such a program would educate Arabs about the virtues of American values and deflect their misguided hostility to American policies.

Which reality is "real"? There may be kernels of truth in both. But "real reality" is surely too complex to be compressed either into a "nationalist" frame or Washington's "liberal-global" frame. One thing, however, is clear: Al Jazeera is hardly the sole player in this game of ongoing cultural construction. Serious competition has now arrived in the form of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned all-news channel based in Dubai. The channel was profiled recently in The New York Times Magazine(Shapiro 2005), as an antidote to Al Jazeera. Shaykh Walid al-Ibrahim, the owner, declared that his intent was to provide a more moderate alternative to Al Jazeera. "After the events of Sept. 11, Afghanistan and Iraq, people want the truth. They don't want news from the Pentagon or from Al Jazeera." The free marketplace of ideas seems to have taken hold in the Gulf, at least, guaranteeing that no single outlet will have a monopoly on framing reality. What do the Al Jazeera people feel about the competition? At a recent conference on the Arab media held at Georgetown University, Hafez al-Mirazi, the Al Jazeera bureau chief, remarked:

There are positive ways to answer Al Jazeera, and there are negative ways. Al Arabiya is a good answer to Al Jazeera, even if it is a Saudi-owned, all-news network. The idea was to get some of the people who founded Al Jazeera and try to construct the same model, with different red lines and different sensitivities, but not to do it as big as Al Jazeera has. In order to compete with Al Jazeera, you have to push the envelope, widen the margin of freedom. That is healthy competition because it prevents Al Jazeera from retreating and covering up something that happened in Qatar, like the car bombing of some of the Chechen leaders that took place there. If Al Jazeera does not broadcast that picture, Al Arabiya will. Thus, this dynamic really helps to prevent de-liberalization by Al Jazeera. [But] when the leader of the free world is encouraging Arab people to be free, and is promoting democracy and non-government intervention in the media, it really sets a negative example to contribute to a government-run station like Alhurra. By creating Alhurra as the "answer" to Al Jazeera, the US is telling the Arab world that to solve its problems, get government-controlled media to answer more independent media. The US is trying to diminish a non-government-controlled media outlet that is modeled on the BBC, a public corporation.

Conclusion: Washington's Double-Standard

The story of Washington's confrontation with Al Jazeera is not yet over. It would be a shame if it ends with the closure of the Al Jazeera office. "Killing the messenger" who brings bad news is not a substitute for sound policy. Even though, as we have noted, the criticism from high Administration officials has been fierce, it also appears that there are those in Washington who appreciate the importance of Al Jazeera and the other transnational Arabic channels operating there. The controversy over Al Jazeera itself has had a beneficial effect in opening a debate about what America's true intentions in the region are and should be. An administration whose foreign policy mantra is "the transformational power of freedom" should practice what it preaches when it comes to dealing with the powerful new media forces shaping tomorrow's Arab world. The United States should remain true to its liberal principles and support rather than suppress "the free marketplace of ideas" in the Arab Middle East.


(The author wishes to thank Dr. Leila Hudson for her advice and assistance in the preparation of this paper. He also would like to acknowledge the valuable help of his student research assistant, Sara Sari Dajani.)

“Colin Powell Register US Complaints about Al Jazeera,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2004. http://www.showbizdata.com/contacts/picknews.cfm/35316/COLIN_POWELL_REGISTERS_US_COMPLAINTS_ABOUT_AL JAZEERA

“Uncovered: Arab Journalists Scrutinize Their Profession,” report from a conference at Georgetown University, October 7, 2004, with presentations by Thomas Gourguissian of Al-Nahar (Beirut), Rami Khouri, editor of The Daily Star (Beirut), Salama Nemaat of Al-Hayat (London), and Hafez al-Mirazi, chief of the Al Jazeera Washington Bureau. CCAS Occasional Paper. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, January 2005.

2004 Report of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. September 28, 2004. http://www.state.gov/r/adcompd/rls/36522.htm

Advisory Group on the Arab and Muslim World, “Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for US Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World,” October 1, 2003. http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/23.htm

Ajami, Fouad, “What the Muslim World is Watching,” The New York Times Magazine. November 18, 2001. 

Al Jazeera Washington Bureau, Fact Sheet 2004.

Al-Humayd, Tariq, “Al-Hurrah: Washington’s Sin”, Asharq al-Awsat [London], July 12, 2004.

Al Jazeera: Opportunity or Challenge for US Foreign Policy in the Middle East? CRS [Congressional Research Service] Report to Congress, by Jeremy M. Sharp, July 23, 2003. http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/23002.pdf

Allaf, Rime, “Qatar’s Al Jazeera is not pro-Zionist enough for Fouad Ajami’s taste,” The Daily Star (Beirut), November 20, 2001. http://www.medea.be/?page=lang=&doc=1101

Al-Mirazi, Hafez, “The 9/11 Commission Recommendations on Public Diplomacy: Defending Ideals and Defining the Message,” Testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, August 23, 2004. http://reform.house.gov/UploadedFiles/HafezAlMiraziTestimony.pdf

Alterman, Jon B., New Media, New Politics? Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998.

Barr, Cameron W., “Top Arab TV Network Hits US Market,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 2002.

Control Room. Documentary film about Al Jazeera, by Jehane Noujaim. 2004.

Dadge, David, “Al Jazeera: A Platform of Controversy,” Chapter 2 in Dadge, Casualty of War: The Bush Administration’s Assault on a Free Press. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004.

Dean, Thalif, “Media: US Trying to Tighten the Screws on Al Jazeera,” IPS-Inter Press Service/Global Information Network, October 12, 2004.

El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Adel Iskandar, Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. Cambridge, MA: Westview, 2002.

Evers, Tré, “Success of and Challenges Facing US Public Diplomacy,” Statement before the House Committee on Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, August 23, 2004. http://www.state.gov/r/adcompd/rls/35707.htm

Feliz Sefsaf, Wendy. “US International Broadcasting Strategies for the Arab World: An Analysis of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Strategy from a Public Communications Standpoint,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies, No. 13, Fall 2004. tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com/felizsefsaf.html

Fisk, Robert, “US Moves to Close Down Al Jazeera TV: Wolfowitz the Censor,” The Independent (London), August 1, 2003.

Friedman, Thomas, “Glasnost in the Gulf,” The New York Times, February 27, 2001.

Hudson, Michael C., “Information Technology, International Politics, and Political Change in the Arab World,” Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (Amman), vol. 4, no. 2 (Autumn/Winter 2002), 1-18.

Institut Européen de recherche sur la coopération Mediterranéenne et Euro-Arabe, Dossier Spéciale: Al-Jazira, phénomene médiatique arabe. 2004. http://www.medea.be/index.html?page=0&lang=fr&idx=0&doc=717

Khanfar, Wadah, “The Future of Al Jazeera,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies, No. 12, Spring-Summer 2004. tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com/Archives/Spring04/spr04.html

Loewenstein, Anthony, “Al Jazeera Awakens the Arab World,” Counterpunch, June 13/14, 2004. http://www.counterpunch.org/loewenstein06132004.html

Lynch, Marc, “Beyond the Arab Street: Iraq and the Arab Public Sphere,” Politics & Society, Vol. 31, No. 1, March 2003, 55-91.

Moran, Michael, “In Defense of Al Jazeera: Attacking the messenger, and our message at the same time,” MSNBC, October 18, 2001. http://www.msnbc.com/news/643471.asp

Rumsfeld, Donald, Remarks at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, August 6, 2004. http://usinfo.state.gov/mena/Archive/2004/Aug/09-490718.html

Schleifer, S. Abdallah, “Al Jazeera Update: More Datelines from Doha and a Code of Ethics,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies, No. 13, Fall 2004. tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com/aljazeera_schleifer.html

Shadid, Anthony, “Rivalry for Eyes of Arab World: New TV Station Take On Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, February 11, 2003.

Shapiro, Samantha M., “The War Inside the Arab Newsroom,” The New York Times Magazine, January 2, 2005.

60 Minutes. “Inside Al Jazeera.” CBS-TV, October 10, 2001. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2001/10/10/60minutes/main314278.shtml


The Al Jazeera Code of Ethics

“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- Endeavor 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.”

About Michael C. Hudson

Michael C. Hudson is director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University. This paper was presented to the Conference on Arab Media and Global Developments, The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Abu Dhabi, January 9-11, 2005.

Check Also

Arab Women self-presentation in feminist podcasts: An Analytical Study (Arabic)

Scroll down for Arabic abstract. In contrast to the negative stereotypical portrayals of Arab women …