All of us live in controlled informational environments. The most basic element of control, which impacts everyone, everywhere is culture – the customs and traditions that constitute the social atmosphere of our societies. These inevitably shape the flow and interpretation of information in order to preserve and rationalize the prevailing cultural paradigm. Paralleling culture are more overt forms of control that serve particular interests: government, class, interest-group domination of the specific disseminators of information such as schools, publishing houses, various forms of media and, of course, the press. These overt sources of control are more or less direct and heavy-handed to the extent allowed by, again, custom and tradition. In the United States the culture supports mostly indirect and economically based avenues of overt control. The government is forbidden by constitutional guarantees of free speech and press to directly dominate the informational environment. Private groups (corporations) and individuals of wealth, however, can dominate the press, media and publishing industries (as well as private educational institutions) and shape the flow of information to fit their biases. In the Middle East, on the other hand, control of the informational environment is, following custom and tradition, more direct. In most Arab countries the government controls the flow of information.
This latter scenario is now, however, eroding. It is becoming much easier for cultures to rapidly evolve and affect one another in a world filled with internet servers and satellite dishes. In these circumstances, Western press and media norms are creating new expectations and standards for non-Western areas. As the borders of informational environments become more and more porous, heavy-handed governmental control of information becomes less successful. This can be seen most dramatically in areas where autocracies attempt direct management of the news only to be frustrated by information coming from beyond their sphere of control. In the Middle East this breakdown of the controlled informational environment has been quickened by the creation of the satellite television network appropriately named Al-Jazeera (the island).
Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar have written a book describing the rise of Al-Jazeera. Though written in a rather dry style and sometimes repetitious, the book gives an inside look at the coming together of coincidence and cross-cultural influences that have made Al-Jazeera possible. In 1996, a partnership deal between a Saudi-owned radio and television service and the BBC (which sought to create an Arabic TV network) fell through because of a disagreement over control of programming for the new enterprise. Following from the different cultural norms of the two partners, the Saudis wanted to censor broadcast of information about the behavior of their home government, while the BBC refused to go along with such a policy. The subsequent collapse of the project led to unemployment for a number of Western-trained Arab journalists employed by the joint venture.
At the same time, in the tiny oil and gas-rich emirate of Qatar, the Western-educated emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, had come to the conclusion that democratic reforms must be slowly introduced into his state or, sooner or later, his ruling family would face political upheaval. One of the first things he did was abolish media censorship. He then encouraged the development of Al-Jazeera with the promise of no-strings-attached subsidization of the station. The people who were in the process of putting the new network together were quick to hire the displaced BBC journalists.
The result is an Arabic-language all-news and talk-show satellite TV station, consciously fashioned in the CNN format, that broadcasts throughout the Middle East and beyond. Al-Jazeera’s success within the Middle East is built on the exercise of freedom of the press. Working from the motto “the opinion and the other opinion,” the network seeks to give all sides of newsworthy stories affecting the Arab world. Whether it is alleged government corruption, human-rights abuses, economic policy, foreign affairs or Islamic fundamentalism, Al-Jazeera gives both a government’s and its opposition’s side of a story. Spokesmen from both sides are interviewed and given equal time on the station’s numerous talk shows. The result has been a severe case of culture shock, not only for Middle Eastern governments, but for all parties whose outlook calls for a censored informational environment. Numerous governments (some 450 according to the authors) have lodged formal complaints with the government of Qatar over Al-Jazeera’s coverage of their activities, and some have even withdrawn their ambassadors. Qatar’s government points out that this is a mistake, for Al-Jazeera is not the same as the government, and the former’s presentation should not be confused with the latter’s official position. Yet this defies Middle Eastern custom and tradition when it comes to the media and is thus difficult for such governments as those in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, to name just a few, to understand. Beyond Arab governments, Al-Jazeera has alienated Islamic fundamentalists as well as secularists, each interpreting the station’s attempt at objectivity as favoritism to forces it considers anathema.
Al-Jazeera’s fame has spread beyond the Middle East through its coverage of the American war in Afghanistan and the Palestinian Intifada against Israel. In the case of Afghanistan, the United States (whose foreign policy, in theory, promotes freedom of the press) acted just like a Middle Eastern autocracy when Al-Jazeera documented its killing of civilians and started to broadcast the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld followed in the footsteps of Qadhafi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq by becoming critical of the network. Powell advised the government of Qatar to “tone down” Al-Jazeera’s allegedly “inflammatory rhetoric.” Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, the station’s managing director, pointed out the hypocrisy of the U.S. position: “We learned media independence from the United States, and now the American officials want us to give up what we learned from them” (p. 176). The Bush administration had already convinced American media outlets to censor news from Afghanistan, particularly the speeches of bin Laden and pictures of dead civilians. It was reaffirmation of that old adage that knows no political boundaries – the first casualty of war is truth.
Unlike CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, Al-Jazeera refused to be a casualty of America’s “war on terrorism.” They did so with the steadfast backing of the government in Doha, which told the Americans the same thing it had told the Egyptians, Jordanians and others before them: they do not control Al-Jazeera. However, unlike frustrated Middle Eastern autocrats who can only withdraw journalists’ credentials and on occasion cut off the electricity to whole cities (as did the Algerians in January of 1999) to prevent Al-Jazeera broadcasts, the United States applied a much more direct method to restrain unwanted news coverage. On November 13, 2001, the U.S. Air Force bombed and destroyed the Al-Jazeera studio in Kabul. The U.S. government claimed it was a mistake, to which Al-Jazeera’s correspondent in Afghanistan replied, “Our location has always been known to them” (p. 169).
Israel, too, has had its trouble with Al-Jazeera. The station’s coverage of the Palestinian intifada has put Israeli colonial and military oppression on display for all the Middle East to see. Its reference to suicide bombers as shuhada (martyrs) instead of the Western/Israeli preference of “terrorists” has been a particular point of contention. How, the Zionists ask, can Al-Jazeera claim to be objective if they characterize the bombers as martyrs? The station’s management and correspondents answer in terms of what they call “contextual objectivity.” All news coverage reflects, at some level, the cultural context of the reporters and their main audiences. As the authors’ point out, “many Arab viewers who watch CNN believe that American television is biased against Arabs.
They have argued, for example, that the word ‘assassination’ is seldom used in the U.S. media when describing the Israeli policy of assassinating anti-Israeli political activists who belong to various Palestinian factions. Such events are instead referred to as ‘targeted killings’” (page 53). In reality, the Americans and Israelis are not insisting on objectivity so much as a monopoly for their own contextual interpretation of events.
However, this is exactly what modern information technology is making impossible as it slowly democratizes informational environments, triggering a competition for control and influence over multiplying sources of worldwide news. Until the appearance of Al-Jazeera, the Western contextual interpretation of events has been the dominant line being fed into the Middle East by such worldwide services as CNN, BBC, VOA and the like. This situation reflected the slow but sure penetration of Western culture worldwide. However, once Al-Jazeera appeared with its talk shows, debates, and Arab-oriented news coverage and analysis, it immediately captured the Middle East market. It’s ability to do so was, ironically, built on a Western base: sophisticated technology and a Western (CNN) style of presentation. Most of all, success was built by taking advantage of the Western (yet universally applicable) practice of a free press, which in turn can be used to report on and critique the behavior of all governments and institutions, East and West. Arabs in the Middle East, long starved for uncensored news, have responded enthusiastically. Arabs abroad, long suspicious of what Western cultural bias was doing to reporting on events in their homelands, also were quick to subscribe to Al-Jazeera’s programming.
As encouraging as Al-Jazeera’s development has been, the station is not without its problems. The authors point out that the network’s ability to operate in a free and uncensored environment flows from the liberal sensibilities of the present emir of Qatar. While this granting of a favored position by the ruling prince is in character with Middle East tradition, it is also inherently precarious. Shaykh Hamad has intentions of further developing Qatar’s democratic institutions and setting them on a constitutional basis, but all depends on his being consistent and long-lived. It is to be noted that Al-Jazeera does not spend much time covering Qatar’s domestic and political affairs. The station management claims that not much that is newsworthy happens in Qatar (characterized by the authors as “the country of goats,” p. 33), but more likely they are playing it safe (self-censoring) when it comes to their benefactor and protector. A related problem is the station’s need to achieve financial independence. This has been delayed by the reluctance of advertisers to appear on a station that, while having a vast audience, also regularly irritates most of the Arab region’s governments. Finally, the authors point out the tendency of the station’s very popular talk shows to give most air time to polarized positions on controversial issues. They recommend giving equal voice to the moderate, middle of the road point of view, which, they rightly claim, is the position of most Arabs on most subjects.
Where should Al-Jazeera go from here? The authors have a provocative and, I think, very good suggestion. The network has been enormously successful in covering news of both regional and worldwide import (Islamic radicalism, the U.S. “war on terrorism,” human rights, etc.) from an Arab point of view. And, according to the authors, the station’s management has ambitions to further promote its programming beyond the Arab world. However, if Al-Jezerra is to be a real player on the world media news stage it has to expand its offering beyond the Arabic language. Thus, the authors suggest that the station “include reports in English” and thereby “present the West with free, uncensored versions of Arab news, opinions and beliefs.” If Al-Jazeera’s management goes in this direction, and if the U.S. Air Force is not directed, as a consequence, to spread American ideals through the bombing of the station’s headquarters in Doha, there is no reason an English-language version of Al-Jazeera can’t make its way into the American heartland. That could be a big help in developing a climate that would allow reexamination of American Middle East policies that are proving ever more disastrous. In this way Al-Jazeera can help reshape thinking and awareness not only in the Middle East, but in America, too.