With Middle East unrest dominating the headlines, Al Jazeera is stepping up its efforts to persuade American cable providers to carry its English-language channel. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Associated Press report that executives from the Qatar-based satelite network recently met with the major American cable providers, Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision, to press their case. Al Jazeera has long sought access to American television audiences, but its reputed anti-American bias has so far kept cable providers away. However, recently it received plaudits for its coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended Al Jazeera for offering "real news." Nevertheless, there is good reason for caution in giving Al Jazeera unfettered access to U.S. viewers. Its brand of journalism comes with dubious baggage.
Offering "Real" News or a Narrow Perspective?
Al Jazeera's English-language service is an outgrowth of its Arabic-language service. The Arabic service commands a vast audience in the Arab world by offering an alternative to traditional state-controlled media. Its defiance of some of the region's ruling regimes has caused entities as diverse as the Palestinian Authority, the democratically-elected Iraqi government and the Libyan dictatorship to close its offices at various times.
Its news coverage and programs often reflect a sympathy for the political stance of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. This was most evident in its release of the "Palestine Papers
"on January 23, 2011, which were designed to discredit the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and benefit Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations on March 28, 2011, compared the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics to the Christian Democrat Parties of Europe. No one in the audience challenged this comparison despite the fact that no leader of a Christian Democrat Party calls for renewed Crusades, while the current leader of the Egyptian Brotherhood still extols Jihad.
The network casts Israel as the aggressor in its response to rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza and obscures Hamas's responsibility for starting the violence. On March 24, 2011, for instance, an Al Jazeera headline read, "Israeli air strikes draw Gaza rocket fire." This followed a report two days earlier titled: "Israel attacks kill eight in Gaza" which discussed the violence as "tit for tat," never clarifying that Hamas initiated the new round of violence with a mortar barrage of Israeli villages on March 19.
Lebanese-born scholar Walid Phares, now a fellow at Washington's Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has referred to Al Jazeera's Arabic service as "the mothership of jihad ideology."
Phares sees Al Jazeera as shutting out true political diversity under a deceptive guise:
One of the most dangerous things that Al Jazeera does is basically kill the potential for an alternative voice or ideology inside the Arab and Muslim world.... Basically, they are enabling only the ideologies of Islamic fundamentalism or pan Arabism to express themselves. When it comes to the Kurds, for example, there is no voice. Sudan's southern part? The case doesn't exist. The Berbers in Algeria? Silence. ("Israel and the Media Challenge,"CAMERA conference, Nov. 2003)
The network's most popular program, "Shariah and Life," is hosted by Yusuf Qaradawi, a Brotherhood icon esteemed throughout much of the Arab world. Qaradawi deals with a broad range of topics, but he is primarily known outside the Muslim community as an advocate of putting Islamic religious law (sharia) above civil statutory law, as a vocal critic of American intervention in the region and as resolutely hostile to Israel. According to Germany's Der Spiegel, Qaradawi asked God "to kill the Jewish Zionists, every last one of them." The Der Spiegel piece also commented on Qaradawi's unique stance on women's rights: "a woman does not have to ask her husband's permission to blow herself up in an Israeli café." Qaradawi proposed at a 1995 Muslim Arab Youth Association conference in Toledo, Ohio that Europe and North America will become Islamic not through jihad but dawa, proselytization.
Charges of Anti-American Bias
Despite its defiant stance towards many established authorities in the region, Al Jazeera is not an independent entity. It answers to its patron, the Emir of Qatar. In 2004, Al Jazeera drew sharp criticism from the United States for filling its broadcasts with images of excessive violence allegedly inflicted by American forces in Iraq. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell complained
When a particular outlet, Al-Jazeera, does such a horrible job presenting the news, and when it takes every opportunity to slant the news, present it in the most outrageous way, then we have to speak out...
Powell reportedly went to the Emir of Qatar to pressure the network to tone down its coverage. The network complied.
The Americans weren't the only ones complaining. In Aug. 2004, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi temporarily shut down Al Jazeera's Baghdad office, accusing it of inciting violence and racial hatred. Allawi said, "I had to make a decision to protect the lives of innocent people."
The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) has a running feud with Al Jazeera, accusing it and the government of Qatar of siding with Palestinian rival Hamas. In 2009, the PA briefly banned the channel and on January 26, 2011 Fatah supporters ransacked Al Jazeera's offices in the West Bank after the network published the "Palestine Papers," allegedly revealing how Fatah leaders conspired with Israel to target Hamas members and expressed a willingness to compromise on publicly sacrosanct Palestinian political positions.
Criticism of Al Jazeera has also come from within its own ranks. In an exposé by David Bauder on March 27, 2008, former "Nightline" reporter David Marash, who was recruited by Al Jazeera to be its anchor and face to American audiences, explained his decision to quit after two years, in part, because the anti-American bias at Al Jazeera English had become "so stereotypical, so reflexive."
Marash found the anti-American attitude came more from British administrators many former BBC employees than the Arabs. Their influence is readily seen. Al Jazeera's English-language coverage resembles that of the BBC when it comes to certain topics, like Israel.
With its continuous coverage of the region, both good and bad examples of news reporting are readily found. One has to be wary of cherry-picking the good or bad pieces to reinforce pre-existing opinions about the quality of its coverage.
Al Jazeera's commentary pieces disproportionately present fringe political sentiments and are uniformly anti-Israel. The English-language web site opinion pieces are indistinguishable from what is found in far-left magazines like The Nation or on the even more extreme Counterpunch web site. A survey of the Web site on March 11, 2011 included pieces by Code Pink's Medea Benjamin, aging radical icon Noam Chomsky, 9-11 "truther" Richard Falk and blame-Israel-firsters M. J. Rosenberg and Robert Grenier. Repeated checks on other days confirm that these and other fringe extremists routinely appear. Their pieces exhibit a tiresome repetition of themes. For example, Rosenberg's contributions invariably return to his obsession with blaming Israeli, AIPAC and neoconservative bogeymen, even turning the horrific murder of a Jewish family into an opportunity to lambast Israel.
Interview programs featured on its English language Web site offer a bit more variety, like interviews with Carter administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and commentator and 1992 and 1996 far-right Republican Party presidential primary candidate Pat Buchanan. The most discernible theme connecting such Western contributors is antipathy towards Israel.
Articles and segments diverging from its dominant political agenda can be found. On Sept. 3, 2010, Al Jazeera host Shihab Rattansi conducted a quarrelsome but fair interview
with Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. A feature piece improperly titled "Expelling Israel's Arab Population
the piece was about a territory swap
nevertheless included several Israeli Arabs candidly explaining that despite discrimination they felt was directed at them, they desire to remain Israeli citizens rather than become citizens of a Palestinian state.
These are exceptions to the rule, however. Al Jazeera's coverage is typically marked by what seems to be a policy to ignore the Jewish state's positive accomplishments and, wherever possible, to depict Israeli actions in a negative light.
Focus on Alleged Israeli Culpability; Ignore Positive Accomplishments
To illustrate the profound bias of Al Jazeera towards Israel, it is useful to contrast two pieces dealing with water issues. An Al Jazeera report accused Israeli settlers of dumping their waste water on Palestinian lands, poisoning the villagers and blocking remediation efforts by the PA. Contrast that report with a piece published on the Huffington Post Web site (not known for its sympathetic portrayal of Israel) written by an American water conservation expert working for a California-based subsidiary of an Israeli water filtration company. The piece lauds Israeli ingenuity in recycling waste water and efficiently utilizing scarce water resources.
The Al Jazeera piece takes a complex problem and casts it as a case of simple Israeli malfeasance. The American water expert describes how Israeli technological innovators lead the world in solving vexing problems of water scarcity and benefit everyone in the region, including Palestinian Arabs.
Al Jazeera's segment, Israel dumps waste on Palestinians, aired on July 17, 2010, asserts:
More than half of the West Bank's illegal settlements treatment plants are too small to handle a growing settler population, which makes dumping extra sewage onto Palestinian land an effortless alternative. Israeli sewage dumping is not an uncommon practice. One of the proposed solutions is for the Palestinian Authority to construct pipes and pumps to divert the sewage away from the affected villages, but even that cannot be implemented because the Israeli government refuses to issue the required permits for such construction. Proof of the stifling Israeli occupation crippling the Palestinian Authority and restricting its legal right to carry out vital water projects.
The report contains significant distortions. The charge that Israeli settlements are primarily responsible for the problem of wastewater contamination of the West Bank aquifers and lands has been debunked in a comprehensive report
by Israel's Environmental Unit of the Nature and Parks Authority. It has also been refuted by the data published in investigative reports
by Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental organization that includes Palestinian and Jordanian members. The overwhelming source of ground water contamination is insufficient treatment of wastewater from Palestinian communities.
The reason this problem has not been addressed is due to the inefficient use of funds and Palestinian refusal to cooperate with Israel in joint wastewater projects. The segment twists the Palestinian objections around by blaming Israel for insisting on including the settlements in any joint project.
In Gospel From the World's Headwaters, Jim Lauria, Vice President of Amiad Filtration Systems, a water purification company (updated information: the company is headquartered in Israel), presents information and a perspective absent in any of Al Jazeera's reporting. Here is an excerpt:
In the 1960s, Simcha Blass invented drip irrigation to raise crops in the Negev Desert by parsing out its scarce water ... drop by drop. Blass' innovation was a global game-changer. Today, the irrigation company that grew from his invention produces 2.5 billion feet of drip line per year to help farmers from Kazakhstan to California feed and clothe us more efficiently... High-efficiency irrigation is at the core of a vibrant cluster of water-saving industries that have earned Israel the nickname "The Silicon Valley of Water Technology."
Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project pointed out in her book, Pillar of Sand, that Israel's per-hectare water use declined 37% while its output tripled. ...Israel treats and recycles about 75% of its wastewater... In fact, half of Israel's irrigation water is highly treated wastewater.
In addition to being masters at creating usable water, Israelis are among the world's most ardent conservationists. During the depths of the water crisis in 2007-2009, domestic demand dropped from 744 to 661 million cubic meters... The nation increased water exports to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority by more than 7% .
This article highlights a crucial point obscured by the Al Jazeera segment. Israel is a net exporter of clean water to the West Bank and Gaza.
News Reporting Ranges From Balanced to Propaganda
News reports involving events linked to Israel usually include a recapitulation of what occurred and a recitation of official statements from both sides. For example, Al Jazeera was careful in giving both sides' estimates of casualties arising out of Israeli operations against Hamas in Gaza in January 2009.
But the reporting routinely tilts against Israeli claims and repeats exaggerated charges. Some of the most unbalanced reporting by Al Jazeera is attributable to its reliance on biased statements from Western-based groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Council. In this it hardly differs from the BBC and other news sources that largely ignore the Israeli point of view.
A more fundamental problem with Al Jazeera's coverage is its fixed underlying assumption that the Jewish state is, above all, an offender in the region. Reporters and news analysts invariably approach stories from a starting point that assumes Israel is the guilty party and Palestinian Arabs the aggrieved. Following are a few of many examples:
A report on the brutal murder of a family in the Israeli settlement community of Itamar on March 12, 2011 shifted the focus from the crime itself to the presence of the Jews and to Israeli military activity in the West Bank. Although photographs of the murdered family members had been made available to the news media, Al Jazeera chose instead to publish a large photograph showing two heavily armed Israeli soldiers peering down from an imposing angle. This story reveals a tendency to invert the story in order to point the finger at Israel.
Results of a search of past articles on the English-language Web site were notably scarce on the topic of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis.
This tendency is not limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Washington Post and others claimed that Al Jazeera failed to report the sexual assault on American correspondent Lara Logan by an Egyptian mob during anti-government demonstrations.
The coverage of the Itamar massacre contrasts with the coverage of the Israel's military operation in Gaza in January 2009. The Jerusalem Post described how
Al-Jazeera repeatedly streamed the image of two dead children at a morgue, wrapped in white sheets with all but their faces exposed [this appears to be a typo and should read: with only their faces exposed.] The pictures were repeated often and for significant periods of time, even as broadcasters gave the news of the hour or interviewed various guests.
The Post article described an even more egregious breach of journalistic principle, reporting that Al Jazeera's Lebanon affiliate threw a party for multiple child-murderer Samir Kuntar after he was released from Israeli prison.
Lack of balance is evident in the reporting on the Gaza flotilla in 2010. Al Jazeera reporter Ayman Mohyeldin's contribution to the report on May 31, 2010 reads like it could have been scripted by the participants in the flotilla themselves. The report states,
All the images being shown from the activists on board those ships show clearly that they were civilians and peaceful in nature, with medical supplies on board. So it will surprise many in the international community to learn what could have possibly led to this type of confrontation.
Recall that Israel quickly released video footage of the assault contradicting the claim that the passengers were all peaceful. The passengers included members of the Turkish Islamist group, IHH, that has been linked to prior terrorism and the terrorist-sympathizing International Solidarity Movement (ISM).
A second news report on June 3, allotted the Israeli perspective just 41 seconds out of 233 seconds for the total segment. The Israeli perspective was presented toward the end and quickly rebutted.
The flotilla incident also revealed a tendency to blur the distinction between opinion pieces and news analysis. A backward-looking assessment on Dec. 26, 2010 contained partisan statements and assertions already found to be false:
Public opinion over Israel's aggression and brutality towards the Palestinian people has remained unambiguous over the years. Only the US stuttered a non-committal response to the raid, but the world was unanimous in its outrage against the violent and unprovoked act.
Even Israels critics acknowledged the legal case for intercepting and boarding the ship in international waters. The piece excludes information necessary for judging whether the Israeli action was justified, failing to note, for example, that Israel had announced that it would not allow the breaching of the blockade but would transfer all humanitarian aid into Gaza if the participants agreed to an inspection in an Israeli port. It was also later established that the ships carried nothing of use to the people of Gaza. Hamas rejected the paltry medicine supplies because they had expired.
The piece describes the victims as "international peace activists." Most news organizations quickly abandoned this label because it was evident from the organizers' own statements that peace was not their agenda. Their stated goals were to break the Israeli sea blockade imposed to prevent Hamas's rearmament, bring aid to Gaza and end the international isolation of the Hamas government.
The distortions even extend to seemingly mundane aspects of Israeli life. Al Jazeera falsely reported that traffic lights in Jerusalem were intentionally set to give a shorter green light
to Palestinian motorists than to Jewish motorists. This false claim was widely repeated online before being debunked.
Al Jazeera owes it popularity in the Arab world to the failure of the regions' conventional state-controlled media to break free of its political masters and provide credible news to the public. Yet, while Al Jazeera has broken through previous media taboos in the Arab world, it still shares many similarities with the regions government-controlled media. It continues to project the political agenda of its patrons and advances an Arab ethnocentric and Islamic agenda. This renders it incapable of giving Israel a fair hearing and there is good reason to believe that this same bias would color its coverage of the United States with respect to its activities in the region.