x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Jazeera's 'alternative' worldview reaches US

The Qatar-based news network will broadcast its alternative view of international events to 2.3 million North American viewers.

Newscasters at work at the English-language newsroom at the headquarters of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite channel in Doha.
Newscasters at work at the English-language newsroom at the headquarters of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite channel in Doha.

Al Jazeera English (AJE) signed its first major deal with a US cable television provider this month, paving the way for more deals to expand the network's reach into North America and deliver its take on news in the Middle East and around the world. The deal with MHZ, a Washington-based educational broadcaster, will beam AJE to 2.3 million North American viewers. Since its launch in 2006, AJE has marketed itself as providing an alternative view of developments to that of the mainstream western news media, and telling a side of the story that western outlets are said to have either under-reported or ignored. But critics accuse the channel, owned by the Qatari government, of being anti-US and anti-western, of primarily focusing on issues in which Arabs are seen as the "victims", and of failing to criticise Qatar. Indeed, according to Robert Menard, who recently resigned as head of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, citing official restrictions on, and interference in, the centre's operations, the channel faces a number of red lines, among them, "never criticise Qatar, don't talk about the army, don't talk about internal issues". "They [AJE] always have to show the bright side of Qatar and never bring up controversial issues about the country," Mr Menard said. However, Tony Burman, AJE's managing director, said much of the criticism of AJE's Qatar coverage was unjustified. He said the channel had run a number of reports on the conditions of foreign workers in Qatar in recent months. "Qatar does not get a free ride on AJE," Mr Burman said in an e-mail. "But it should be pointed out that Qatar itself is very small, and doesn't justify excessive coverage on an international news channel." AJE has won plaudits for its coverage of such conflicts as the war in Iraq and, more recently, Israel's assault on Gaza. But issues such as "slavery" in Mauritania and northern Sudan, the war in Darfur, treatment of religious minorities in the Middle East and the widespread abuse of immigrant workers have often been either under-reported by AJE or fallen off the radar altogether, critics say. At a 2007 Arab media conference on Sudan at the American University in Cairo, Kamal al Gizouli of the Sudanese writers union asked why Al Jazeera was ignoring what was going on there. "Al Jazeera focuses on the human side in Palestine," he said. "So you have to ask why they don't do the same in Darfur. There is a double standard on human feelings. Al Jazeera is operated by Arabs so they show sympathy for the Palestinian and Iraqi people and show the dead babies there, but when it comes to Darfur, they don't. They want to show Arabs always as victims." Mr Burman, however, rejected the criticism. "AJE has done extensive coverage of Darfur and southern Sudan, and in fact has been criticised by the Sudanese government for this," he said. "It has also covered Mauritania, [the treatment of Christians in] Egypt and immigrant workers." In the West, much of the controversy surrounding the Al Jazeera name is derived from its Arabic-speaking sister channel, headquartered in Qatar alongside AJE. Al Jazeera Arabic gained renown after the September 11 attacks as the preferred destination for militant groups, particularly al Qa'eda, to send recorded messages. This led to many conservatives and the Bush administration at the time labelling it a "mouthpiece for terror". Indeed, the US targeted Al Jazeera operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in the death of the reporter Tarek Ayoub when the station's office in Baghdad was hit. The continuous airing of such tapes and a number of other incidents have led to accusations that the station is too close to militants. In July last year, the station covered a welcome home party for Samir Kuntar, who was imprisoned in Israel for killing three Israelis, including a four-year-old girl whose skull he crushed on a rock with the butt of his rifle. The station's Beirut bureau chief, Ghassan bin Jiddo, organised a birthday party for him and called him a "hero". Al Jazeera issued a statement days later admitting that the event had violated its code of ethics. Mainly as a result of Al Jazeera Arabic's reputation, AJE, which was never in fact banned in North America, was considered risky by cable providers. But some former employees accuse AJE of harbouring an anti-US agenda. In March 2008, Dave Marash resigned after just over a year as AJE's US anchor because of the station's US coverage. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Mr Marash cited an AJE series titled Poverty in America as an example: "The specifics of the plan were so stereotypical and shallow that the planning desk in Washington said that we think this is a very bad idea and recommend against it and won't do it. And so the planning desk in Doha literally sneaked a production team into the United States without letting anyone in the American news desk know, and they went off and shot a four-part series that was execrable. That was essentially, if I may say so, here a poor, there a poor, everywhere a poor poor." Mr Burman insisted AJE harbours no biases. "AJE does not have an [anti-]American bias," he said. "In its journalism, [AJE] has challenged all governments - including the American government." jspollen@thenational.ae

But critics accuse the channel, owned by the Qatari government, of being anti-US and anti-western, of primarily focusing on issues in which Arabs are seen as the "victims", and of failing to criticise Qatar. Indeed, according to Robert Menard, who recently resigned as head of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, citing official restrictions on, and interference in, the centre's operations, AJE is prohibited from bringing up any "controversial issues" about Qatar.

The channel, he said, faces a number of red lines, among them, "never criticise Qatar, don't talk about the army, don't talk about internal issues". "They [AJE] always have to show the bright side of Qatar and never bring up controversial issues about the country," Mr Menard said. However, Tony Burman, AJE's managing director, said much of the criticism of AJE's Qatar coverage was unjustified. He said the channel had run a number of reports on the conditions of foreign workers in Qatar in recent months.

"Qatar does not get a free ride on AJE," Mr Burman said in an e-mail interview. "But it should be pointed out that Qatar itself is very small, and doesn't justify excessive coverage on an international news channel." AJE has won plaudits for its coverage of such conflicts as the war in Iraq and, more recently, Israel's assault on Gaza. But major issues such as slavery in Mauritania and northern Sudan, the war in Darfur, the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and the widespread abuse of immigrant workers have been either under-reported by AJE or fallen off the radar altogether, critics say.

At a 2007 Arab media conference on Sudan at the American University in Cairo, Kamal al Gizouli of the Sudanese writers union asked why Al Jazeera was ignoring what was going on there. "Al Jazeera focuses on the human side in Palestine," he said. "So you have to ask why they don't do the same in Darfur. There is a double standard on human feelings. Al Jazeera is operated by Arabs so they show sympathy for the Palestinian and Iraqi people and show the dead babies there, but when it comes to Darfur, they don't. They want to show Arabs always as victims."

Mr Burman, however, rejected the criticism. "AJE has done extensive coverage of Darfur and southern Sudan, and in fact has been criticised by the Sudanese government for this," he said. "It has also covered Mauritania, [the persecution of Christians in] Egypt and immigrant workers." In the West, much of the controversy surrounding the Al Jazeera name is derived from its Arabic-speaking sister channel, headquartered in Qatar alongside AJE.

Al Jazeera Arabic gained renown after the September 11 attacks as the preferred destination for militant groups, particularly al Qa'eda, to send recorded messages. This led to many conservatives and the Bush administration at the time labelling it a "mouthpiece for terror". Indeed, the US targeted Al Jazeera operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in the death of the reporter Tarek Ayoub when the station's building in Baghdad was hit.

The continuous airing of such tapes and a number of other incidents have led to accusations that the station is too close to militants. In July last year, the station covered a welcome home party for Samir Kuntar, who was imprisoned in Israel for killing three Israelis, including a four-year-old girl whose skull he crushed on a rock with the butt of his rifle. The station's Beirut bureau chief, Ghassan bin Jiddo, organised a birthday party for him and called him a "hero". Al Jazeera issued a statement days later admitting that the event had violated its code of ethics.

Mainly as a result of Al Jazeera Arabic's reputation, AJE, which was never in fact banned in North America, was considered risky by cable providers. But AJE, too, stands accused of harbouring an anti-US and anti-western agenda, even by those who have worked there. In March 2008, Dave Marash resigned after just over a year as AJE's US anchor because of the station's US coverage. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Mr Marash cited an AJE series titled Poverty in America as an example:

"The specifics of the plan were so stereotypical and shallow that the planning desk in Washington said that we think this is a very bad idea and recommend against it and won't do it. And so the planning desk in Doha literally sneaked a production team into the United States without letting anyone in the American news desk know, and they went off and shot a four-part series that was execrable. That was essentially, if I may say so, here a poor, there a poor, everywhere a poor poor."

Jo Burgin, former head of planning at the channel, took AJE to court for discrimination last year after her contract was not renewed for what she claimed were race, gender and religious reasons and accused senior staff of harbouring "anti-western sentiment". Steve Clark, Ms Burgin's husband and AJE's former head of news, walked out in March last year. Still, Mr Burman insisted AJE does not harbour any biases.

"AJE does not have an [anti-]American bias," he said. "In its journalism, [AJE] has challenged all governments - including the American government." jspollen@thenational.ae