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A Lesson in Press Freedom from Al-Jazeera

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Set up by the progressive and pro-Western Emir of Qatar in 1996, Al-Jazeera is the only uncensored media channel in the Middle East. So if Western governments are keen to spread democracy and freedom to the Islamic world, why does Al-Jazeera get such bad press?

Qataris held their breath when the Ministry of Information was abolished in 1998, paving the way for their first taste of press freedom. Although established and financed by the Emir, Al-Jazeera is a fully independent news organisation. Al-Jazeera’s motto is ‘the opinion and the other opinion’, and quickly made a name for itself by broadcasting highly controversial programmes.

Its most popular programme quickly became ‘The Opposite Direction’, in which two guests with diametrically opposed views were invited to talk on topics as politically explosive as ‘Is Hezbollah a resistance movement or a terrorist organisation?’ and ‘Is the House of Saud corrupt?’ Before Al-Jazeera, media channels in the Middle East had always been purged of any criticism of the government and accuracy had always been sacrificed to a pro-state bias. In the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 Egyptian radio reported that Israel had been defeated. With the advent of Al-Jazeera, critical views accusing Arab governments, including the Qatari government itself, were aired for the first time. This was revolutionary stuff, and the viewers loved it.

Unsurprisingly, governments across the Middle East were furious, demanding censorship, the closure of Al-Jazeera’s offices, and a return to ‘responsible journalism’. Saudi Arabia banned Al-Jazeera’s journalists from working in the country. They refused to take on aboard the fact that Al-Jazeera was simply broadcasting the views of critical commentators, rather than its own opinions, or those of the Qatari government. Al-Jazeera responded to its critics by playing them off against each other. It pointed out that it was being accused of propagating secular, communist, Zionist and Arab nationalist views all at the same time. What a fantastic illustration of the power of free speech!

But Al-Jazeera really got into hot water over its reporting of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although they had made no objections whatsoever to pictures of dead Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians, the Bush administration and the Pentagon was up in arms when Al Jazeera showed pictures of dead US servicemen. Al Jazeera’s coverage of the bombing of Kabul and Baghdad, showing devastated families and footage of wounded children in hospitals, was deemed to be ‘anti-Western propaganda’.

Relations deteriorated much further still when Al-Jazeera broadcasted a video showing Osama bin Laden praising the plane hijackers of 9/11, and urging Muslims to rise against the crusaders of imperialism. The British and American governments claimed that this was wholly irresponsible on the rather dubious grounds that Bin Laden could be giving messages to his associates. The extensive coverage of the story rather confirms Al-Jazeera’s argument that the video was highly newsworthy. In the end, Al-Jazeera’s live footage from Afghanistan was vetted and censored for American viewers. Given that the war on terror was carried in part to spread democracy and freedom to the Islamic world, the irony of this beggars belief.

On 13 November 2001, Al-Jazeera’s Kabul office was bombed. The Pentagon claimed it was an accident and that it hadn’t known where the building was, a highly unlikely story given that it had been monitoring Al-Jazeera for some time. Al-Jazeera’s journalists have been tortured in Abu Ghraib and held in Guantanamo Bay, and still today it is often portrayed as a portal of Islamic extremism. “Al-Jazeera is the great enabler of Arab hatred and self-deception. It propagates the views of Osama bin Laden. It cheerleads for Palestinian suicide bombers”. So ran an editorial of the New York Daily News. Interestingly, many in the Arab world are convinced that since 2003, the Americans and Israelis have been influencing Al-Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Al-Jazeera’s critics in the Middle East and in the West consistently misunderstand the meaning of a free press. Al-Jazeera doesn’t have an agenda, it simply broadcasts the news, whether it is in the interests of governments or not – surely the very meaning of impartiality. If we are interested in spreading democracy in the Middle East we should welcome the arrival of Al-Jazeera as a hugely positive step in the right direction.

In fact in many ways the British media would do well to take a leaf out of Al-Jazeera’s book, for a start in being less Eurocentric and giving more coverage to other continents. While the British and American press largely reports the war on terror as being a fight between good and evil, Al-Jazeera has a much more nuanced perspective. And how many western media channels have the guts to criticise the Saudi monarchy? Al-Jazeera’s fearless reporting style is an inspiration for both East and West.

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