Al-Jazeera America and the Sheikdom Off Camera

Al-Jazeera America, an expanded replacement of Al Jazeera English, is to debut in August on cable television networks reaching approximately 50 million U.S. households. Its Washington, D.C. studio reportedly will be that formerly used by ABC Television in a journalism museum between the White House and U.S. Capitol (“ABC Moving ‘This Week’ From Newseum; Al-Jazeera Moving In,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 21).


The satellite channel promotes itself as a competitive source of national and international news.


In addition to a prestige Washington location, Al Jazeera America will have bureaus “in multiple cities, not to mention 800 incoming employees” including former CNN reporter and host Soledad O’Brien. “The channel has hired Emmy Award-winning former NBC correspondent Michael Viqueira as its White House correspondent,” The Washington Times reported (“Inside the Beltway: Built By Al-Jazeera,” June 6). Viqueira “vows his new network is committed to ‘straight-forward, hard-nosed journalism’ and ‘real, unfiltered and fact-based news.’”


Maybe, but Claudia Rosett, writing in The Weekly Standard, raised an eyebrow about the Qatari-owned operation:


“According to the State Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report, Qatar has no independent broadcast media and all print media are owned by ‘members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials.’ Journalists censor themselves due to ‘political and economic pressures.’ The government forbids political parties, censors the Internet, and strictly regulates the right of assembly. Foreign residents, who make up the bulk of Qatar’s population, are prohibited by law from criticizing the emir” (“Al-Jazeera at the Newseum; Made-in-Qatar media, live from a studio in Washington,” July 1).


Al-Jazeera America’s progenitor, Al-Jazeera Arabic, began in 1996, funded by the ruling dynasty of Qatar. It is based in that sheikdom, a small thumb of desert jutting into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia. (Al-Jazeera means “the peninsula” in Arabic.)


The satellite television network came to Western attention after the Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of New York City’s World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It was the first television network to air propaganda video and audiotapes from Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists. At the time, “U.S. officials accused it of promoting terrorism,” USA Today  recalls (“Al-Jazeera: Coming to a TV near you; Qatar-owned network set for a major growth spurt,” Feb. 20, 2013).


Not ‘the CNN of the Arabs’
“By the end of September [2001], Al-Jazeera was being labeled ‘the CNN of the Arabs.’ I nearly jumped out of my seat when I heard this because it meant that Al-Jazeera was now considered part of the mainstream world media and the end of this process would be to actually believe [italics in the original] what Al-Jazeera is saying,” declared Walid Phares, then an associate professor of Middle East studies and ethnic and religious conflict at Florida Atlantic University.


Speaking to a CAMERA conference in Washington on Nov. 23, 2003, Phares explained: “If you’re not knowledgeable in Arabic, you turn on Al-Jazeera and what do you see? You see a table with a gentleman in the middle [a moderator,] and then usually two males at the ends of the table, shouting and screaming at each other. Your conclusion would be, regardless of the substance of their argument, that what is being presented is clashing views, like ‘Crossfire,’ hence the ‘CNN of the Arabs.’


“But if you understand the Arabic language well and watch some of those programs which fall under the concept of muwajaha, a confrontation, a very different image emerges. For example, there was a panel with two persons, one criticizing bin Laden, the other supporting him. So far, so good. But …. [t]he gentleman who was criticizing Osama bin Laden was saying, ‘He led us into disaster because he attacked America at the wrong time. The other view was, ‘No, you’re wrong; he attacked the head of the snake at the right time [italics in the original]. … Basically, these are not clashing views; these are clashing voices with one general view. So if you understand Arabic, and you watch Al-Jazeera, you realize, at the end of the day, that it is carrying one major message, a ‘jihad ideology.’”


Among Al-Jazeera Arabic’s top-rated programs have been those of a leading Sunni Muslim cleric, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Once the “spiritual guide” of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the anti-American Qaradawi has said he looks forward to the conversion of Europe to Islam and to a new genocide of the Jews, this time conducted by Muslims.


Anti-Brotherhood journalists forced Al-Jazeera staffers from a news briefing “held by the Egyptian military in Cairo after the shooting of dozens of supporters of Mohammad Morsi, the nation’s ousted president,” The Washington Post noted (“Mideast journalists allege bias in al-Jazeera’s reporting on Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood,” July 8). “The incident comes at a sensitive time for the satellite network, which is preparing to launch an ambitious news channel for American viewers….”


“Al-Jazeera’s rude reception in Cairo probably reflects a perception that has been building since even before Morsi and his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, won and lost power in Egypt over the past year: that Al-Jazeera and its owner, the royal family of the oil-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar, have been supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood&#1
33;. Once hailed as a democratizing force in a region dominated by government-owned or -controlled news media, Al-Jazeera’s independence from the politics of its Qatari owners has been challenged in recent years.”


Western commentators have noted “Al-Jazeera’s limited coverage of the uprising against Bahrain’s ruling family and its brutal suppression in 2011, contrasting it with its robust coverage of other popular revolts during the so-called Arab Spring. Qatar and Bahrain are close allies.”


Al-Jazeera English started in the United States in 2006. When it launched, The Post reported that American political conservatives “view Al-Jazeera and its English-language spin-off as anti-American at best and a terrorist house organ at worst” (“Al-Jazeera’s U.S. Face; Former ABC Newsman Dave Marash Is Getting Used to Explaining His Job,” Nov. 15, 2006). But “moderate voices also find things not to like in al-Jazeera.


“‘There are some positives there, but there are plenty of negatives,’ says Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington-based group that studies Arabic media and describes itself as nonpartisan. ‘And the negatives outweigh the positives.’


“On its Web site, MEMRI catalogues Al-Jazeera’s news coverage into several telling categories, such as ‘Anti-Semitism,” ‘Conspiracy Theories,’ Suicide (Martyrdom) Operations,’ ‘Holocaust Denial.’”)


Tiny state pays big bucks for potential viewers
Few U.S. cable carriers offered Al-Jazeera English. Hence the purchase in 2012 for a reputed $500 million by the network’s Qatari owners of Current TV. The latter was a widely-distributed but little-watched cable channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore Jr., former legal services discounter Joel Hyatt, investor Richard Blum (husband of U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, [D-Cal.]) and others.


Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera English operate independently of state control, executives told The Washington Post (“For Al-Jazeera, a double standard in coverage? Amid praise for reports on Middle East uprisings, critics question the Arabic network’s close ties to the Qatari government,” May 15, 2011). A “2009 U.S. Embassy cable made public by WikiLeaks describes al-Jazeera as ‘an instrument of Qatari influence.’”


“‘They have lost their credibility in the Arab world, by either covering developments one sided—or completely ignoring them,’ said As’ad Abu Khalil, author of the Angry Arab News Service, a widely read blog about media coverage of the Arab world” and an international politics professor at California State University. 


The network’s post 9/11 U.S. reputation improved during the 2011 “Arab Spring” “when State Department officials began to praise its coverage and Americans tuned into its online channel.” During the anti-regime upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain “60 percent of al-Jazeera English’s online viewership came from within” the United States, The Wall Street Journal reported (“Al-Jazeera Acquires Al Gore’s Network,” Jan. 3, 2013).


NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, told The Atlantic magazine that the satellite network’s “Arab Spring” coverage “has become indispensable. There’s a big difference between Al-Jazeera overseas and Al-Jazeera English but they are clearly part of the story and I rely on them very heavily, as does the State Department.”


In 2011, Al-Jazeera English received a Columbia University journalism award for its coverage of the upheavals in Arab countries.


Perhaps the difference Mitchell discerned developed after 2008. That’s when Al-Jazeera English’s anchorman, American journalist and former ABC “Nightline” correspondent Dave Marash resigned in protest over what he called “reflexive anti-American bias.” The Associated Press reported that Marash said “he felt that attitude more from British administrators than Arabs at the Qatar-based network” (“Anchor quits Al-Jazeera, cites anti-American tone,” March 28, 2008). 


The ex-ABC staffer joined Al-Jazeera English in 2006 as the channel attempted “to compete with CNN and the BBC,” AP added. “He said there was a ‘reflexive adversarial editorial stance’ against Americans at Al-Jazeera English. ‘Given the global feelings about the Bush administration, it’s not surprising,’ Marash said. But he found it ‘became so stereotypical, so reflexive’ that he got angry.”
Congress questions Qatar’s Hamas ties


U.S. Representatives Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and John Barrow (D-Ga.) had 17 co-signers by mid-July for a letter to Qatar’s U.S. ambassador, Mohammed Bin Abdullah al-Rumaihi, challenging the emirate’s financial ties to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.


“Qatar is a valuable ally for Washington. The sprawling al-Udeid Airbase near Doha is a crucial asset for CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command]…. Qatar has played a key role in organizing, financing and arming the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria….” Politico reported (“Confronting Qatar
’s Hamas ties,” July 10).


“However, Roskam, Barrow, and a growing group of other legislators don’t believe that should absolve the Qataris of their support for a terrorist group best known for suicide bombings and firing rockets into civilian areas.” The article noted that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, having departed Syria, is now based in Qatar and the former emir made the first visit by a foreign leader to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.


The Roskam-Barrow letter “will fail far short of labeling Qatar a ‘state sponsor of terror,’ but it will undoubtedly encounter stiff resistance from the State Department, which jealously protects its alliance with this tiny but influential state.”


Other signers included Democrats Brad Schneider (Ill.) and Brad Sherman (Cal.) and Republicans Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Kerry Bentivolio (Mich.), Rodney Davis (Ill.), Jeff Duncan (S.C.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Alan Nunnelee (Miss.), Aaron Schrock (Ill.), Steve Stivers (Ohio), Pat Tiberi (Ohio), Tim Walberg (Mich.), Randy Weber (Texas), Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) and Kevin Yoder (Kan.).


Phillip Seib, author of The Al Jazeera Effect about the network’s influence in the Arab world, told The Washington Post that Qatar wants the new channel “‘to be successful, and they know it can’t be a mirror image’ of its Arabic and English-language forebears. All three are ‘operating in their own political environments.’”


How Al-Jazeera America covers Congress’ interest in the Qatar-Hamas connection may be an early test of just how it envisions the U.S. “political environment,” not to mention American expectations regarding correspondent Viqueira’s promise of “real, unfiltered, fact-based journalism.”


(Note: The spellings al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, and al-Jazeera have been standardized in this article as Al-Jazeera.)






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