Diary

Tariq Ali

In Cairo and Abu Dhabi, the two Arab capitals I have visited this year, street and palace are for once in harmony. A pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he might, at some point in the future, authorise the production of nuclear weapons, would be, for the people of the region, a classic display of imperial double-standards. They know that the only country which possesses both nuclear and chemical weapons is Israel. Arab public opinion has not been so united for decades. And a cable television station, al-Jazeera (‘the Peninsula’), has played a crucial part in both promoting and symbolising this unity. It has raised mass consciousness in the region, by providing a ruthless analysis of what is wrong with the Arab world.

Unity was the recurring theme of the nationalist period of Arab political history. First there was Nasser and his dream of a united Arab republic. Then defeat in war. Then the laments of exiled poets – Nizar Qabbani from Syria, Mahmoud Darwish from Palestine and Muthaffar al-Nawab from Iraq. The Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum sang their poetry and was revered. Then darkness. The 1991 Gulf War demoralised and atomised the Arab world. Secular dissenters continued to meet in the cafes of Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Cairo, but could speak only in whispers. Elsewhere, mosques became the organising centres for a confessional resistance to the New Order and the Great Satan that underpinned it.

The state media networks continued to broadcast propaganda of the crudest kind; criticism of government was unheard of. Then, in 1996, al-Jazeera arrived. It is, as Mohammed el-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar explain in their new book,[*] a TV news channel that defies taboos and prohibitions. Arab viewers abandoned the state networks overnight and al-Jazeera’s newsreaders and talk-show hosts became instant celebrities.

Nothing like this had been witnessed since the early 1960s, when nationalist radio stations in Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus issued daily incitements to listeners to topple every crowned head in the region. The Jordanian King was nearly overthrown and the Saudi monarchy seriously destabilised. In both countries Western aid helped to crush the nationalist revolts. Al-Jazeera has no such ambitions: the men running the channel are only too aware that a crowned head, the eccentric Emir of Qatar, provides the funds and the headquarters for their operation. The Emir has also allowed the US to construct the largest military base in the region, which boasts a recently completed 13,000 foot runway to handle heavy bombers. Iraq will no doubt be attacked from this base while on al-Jazeera commentators denounce US aggression.

The idea of a semi-independent Arab TV network was first suggested by BBC World Service journalists and supported by the Foreign Office. A deal was signed with Orbit Radio and Television Service to provide a news programme in Arabic for Orbit’s Middle East channel. But Orbit was Saudi-owned, and its financiers were unwilling to allow news bulletins critical of the Saudi Kingdom. The project collapsed in April 1996 after footage of a public execution was broadcast. The BBC retired hurt and the Arab journalists who had been made redundant began to search for a new home. They were lucky. Their quest coincided with a change of rulers in the tiny state of Qatar.

In 1995, the old Emir, a traditionalist, was deposed by his son, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who promised to modernise the statelet. Starting with a dramatic gesture, he abolished the Ministry of Information. When informed of the collapse of the BBC venture, he offered the journalists a headquarters in Doha and $140 million to restart operations. Sheikh Hamad’s father and grandfather had together owned 452 cars, including ones hand-built for them. A TV station must have seemed cheap by comparison, and has given the Sheikhdom more visibility and prestige than it has ever had. Encouraged by the response to his action, Hamad allowed women to vote and to stand as candidates against men in municipal elections in 1999. This was a shot across the Saudi bows and was recognised as such.

Virtually none of the journalists who came to work for the new channel was a local. The Syrian-born Faisal al-Kasim, al-Jazeera’s most controversial host and now one of the most respected journalists in the Arab world, studied drama at Hull and spent a decade as the anchor of the BBC’s Arabic Service. His show, The Opposite Direction, features political debates and confrontations conducted with an intensity rarely seen on Western networks. When I met him in Abu Dhabi he had just finished an interview with the local paper and was fending off other journalists and well-wishers. I asked whether the complaints about his show had started to drop away: ‘They never stop,’ he replied. ‘People can’t believe that I choose the guests and the subjects. No authority has ever tried to influence or censor me and I have much more freedom than I ever did at the BBC.’

In the early days, the Qatari Government received at least one official complaint about the channel every day from fellow Arab Governments – five hundred in the first year alone. Gaddafi withdrew his Ambassador from Qatar after the station broadcast an interview with a Libyan opposition leader; Iraq complained when the channel revealed the amount of money that had been spent on Saddam Hussein’s birthday celebrations; Tunisia was angry at having been accused of human rights violations; Iranian newspapers resented ‘slurs’ against Ayatollah Khomeini; Algeria cut off the electricity in several cities to prevent its citizens from watching a programme that accused its Army of complicity in several massacres; Arafat objected to Hamas leaders being interviewed, and Hamas was angered by the appearance of Israeli politicians and generals on The Opposite Direction.

The Saudi and Egyptian Governments were enraged at criticisms made by dissidents on al-Jazeera. As loyal allies, both countries have had a relatively good press in the West. Before 11 September it required the death of a Westerner in Saudi Arabia to focus attention on the Kingdom, but the furore never lasted long. Over the last decade, the Saudis have spent hundreds of millions of pounds to keep Western and Arab media empires and their employees on side. Al-Jazeera’s broadsides were viewed as treachery. Riyadh and Cairo put massive pressure on Qatar to muzzle the station, but the Emir ignored the protests and his Government denied that the channel was the instrument of Qatari foreign policy.

During its early years, al-Jazeera was warmly welcomed in Washington and Jerusalem. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, celebrated the birth of the station with a bucketful of praise: it marked, he said, the dawn of Arab freedom. Ehud Ya’ari was similarly praising two years ago in the Jerusalem Report: ‘Out of a modest, low-rise prefab, five minutes’ drive from the Emir’s diwan, the tiny Sheikhdom of Qatar is now producing a commodity much in demand in the Arab world: freedom.’ The channel’s ‘powerful video signals’, he continued, ‘are gradually changing the cultural and political order in the Middle East’.

What happened last September put a stop to these eulogies, especially after al-Jazeera broadcast interviews with bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, al-Zawahiri. The bin Laden interviews were banned on Western TV on the spurious grounds that they might contain coded instructions for future terrorist hits. In fact, it was because bin Laden’s soft features undermined the portrayal of him as evil incarnate. A senior TV producer in Berlin complained to me last October that his ten-year-old son, after seeing bin Laden on the news, had remarked: ‘Papa, he looks like Jesus.’

Qatar now came under very heavy pressure to do something about al-Jazeera. Maureen Quinn, the US Ambassador, delivered a strongly worded complaint to the Foreign Minister. It had little impact. In October, Colin Powell was sent to browbeat the Emir, who once again defended the freedom of the press and stressed that the state could not interfere with what he described as a ‘private commercial operation’. US officials who met al-Jazeera executives were heard politely and told that the channel would be delighted to interview the American President or his nominees: Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair and Colin Powell were allowed unlimited time to explain their point of view. The effect of these broadcasts on Arab public opinion was non-existent.

When the bombing of Afghanistan began, al-Jazeera was the only TV network sending out regular reports. And so began its dazzling ascent. Its footage was eagerly sought, bought, carefully edited and shown on CNN, BBC and every major European network. Then the building in Kabul it was using as a temporary studio was bombed, just as a BBC journalist using its facilities had begun to broadcast a live report. He hit the floor and we witnessed the ‘accidental bombing’ live on our TV screens. When a Belgrade TV station was targeted by Nato forces in 1999, Clinton and Blair admitted the bombing was deliberate, and justified it on the grounds that ‘deliberate misinformation’ was being broadcast. Qatar could hardly be categorised as an enemy and so the spin-doctors were far more careful when it came to explaining the bombing in Kabul: the building was targeted, they claimed, because of ‘reports’ that it had housed al-Qaida suspects, and they hadn’t known that it was al-Jazeera’s base.

It is on the second front of the ‘war against terror’, however, that al-Jazeera’s coverage has made the most significant impact. After Israeli tanks entered Nablus earlier this month, the channel broadcast a story about the following incident (the description here comes from LAW, a Palestinian human rights organisation):

Khaled Sif (41), who is married and has four children, received a call on his cellular phone. In order to get a better signal he went to the balcony. The moment he reached the balcony, Israeli forces shot him in the head and killed him. After he heard the shot, Muhammad Faroniya, who is married and has six children, went to the balcony. Israeli forces opened fire and also shot Muhammad Faroniya, wounding him in his chest and abdomen. Mahmoud Faroniya, Muhammad’s brother, tried to save his brother, but Israeli forces pointed their guns at him and he was prevented from doing so. Muhammad bled to death. According to eyewitnesses, Israeli forces deliberately left Muhammad Faroniya bleeding for ninety minutes.

The daily coverage on al-Jazeera of stories such as this one stands in contrast to what is shown in Europe, let alone the United States. CNN established its reputation during the Gulf War through the work of its correspondent, Peter Arnett, who remained in Baghdad and whose reports of civilian casualties and the bombing of non-military targets enraged the US, with the result that Western Governments are now much more careful to control access to information during times of conflict. They also try hard to stop anyone else covering the stories they are trying to suppress.

Having failed to curb al-Jazeera’s influence, however, the US is now going to try to mimic its success. With a war in Iraq seemingly imminent – a war about which the West is profoundly divided, and for which there is no support at all in the Arab world – there are plans to launch a satellite channel in Arabic funded by the US Information Service, to which can be added the expertise of CNN and BBC World. The Israelis have already launched their own version, with little effect. The notion that the Arabs are brainwashed and all that is needed to set them right is regular doses of Bush and Blair is to ignore every reality of the region. But the plot is far advanced.

‘What will they name their channel,’ I asked Faisal al-Kasim. ‘The Empire?’

‘No’, he said. ‘They have a name for it already. Al-Haqiqat.’

That translates neatly into Russian as ‘Pravda’.

[*] Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East (Westview, 228 pp., £16.99, 19 July, 0 8133 4017 9).