Pro-Israeli editors seek to influence Al-Jazeera International English Satellite TV

15 September 2006

When the Qatar-based pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Satellite Television announced two years ago plans to launch Al-Jazeera International (AJI), many people around the world hoped the new satellite channel would provide a genuine alternative to the notoriously biased western media, which often operates under Zionist influence.

The new channel, the launching of which has been postponed several times, will provide both regional and global perspective to a potential audience of hundreds of millions of English speakers.

AJI is the world’s first English-language news channel to be headquartered in the Middle East, with news management rotating around broadcasting centers in Athens, Doha, London, Washington, D.C., and Kuala Lumpur.

AJI has already attracted a number of luminaries in the world of TV broadcasting, including such people as Sir David Frost and Riz Khan.

However, it seems that disappointment may lie in wait for many of those who expected to see an international TV channel that is fair and objective and — especially — free from the usual Anglo-American (and Israeli) worldview.

In fact, there are already ominous signs showing that pro-Israeli sympathizers, some of them with a background in the BBC, are exerting control on the editorial policies of the new channel, all under the rubric of professionalism and journalistic standards.

This writer, who has been working for Aljazeera.net/English (which has now been incorporated into AJI) has discovered, by chance, efforts by some senior western editors at AJI to minimize and avoid as much as possible the publication of articles, especially news and feature stories, portraying Israel in a bad light or otherwise exposing Israeli occupation practices against the Palestinian people.

This trend has become quite conspicuous lately. Aljazeera.net/English, for example, failed to report important newsworthy events from Israel, such as the admission by an Israeli military officer that the Israeli air force dropped over a million cluster bomblets on Lebanon during the recent war with Hizbullah.

Similarly, a story quoting Eifi Eitam, head of a right-wing Israeli party, calling for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, was left unreported, even after AJI was notified of the subject.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar examples, all showing that AJI is knowingly and deliberately avoiding serious coverage of the Palestinian plight, especially in its feature section which abounds with all kinds of stories covering various — and outlandish — subjects and events.

Earlier this year, one of the pro-Israeli editors contemptuously rejected a human interest story on a Palestinian college student from al-Najah University in Nablus who lost her right eye to an Israeli rubber bullet while on her way home from campus.

The senior editor, Vince Ryan, argued that the subject was not a priority and that Aljazeera.net/English would prepare a more comprehensive coverage of similar cases later. Of course, the promised coverage never materialized.

Eventually, thanks to intensive pleading by this writer, the article was posted (see “Rubber Bullets menace West Bank”, Aljazeera.net, 26 April 2006).

Ryan apparently never forgave me my “audacity”, as was evident from his subsequent behavior. In the third week of June this year, I submitted an article on Palestinian children and minors killed by the Israeli army and paramilitary Jewish settlers. The article was based on statistical information released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

However, instead of thanking me for the article, Ryan, upon seeing it and without giving it a second thought, wrote to tell me that I was lying and that the information contained in the article was false. His vindictive and nervous tone was very telling and spoke volumes.

Unable to reason with the man, who never accepted even a single proposal — and I submitted many — from a series of feature articles he dismissed as “anti-Israeli,” I turned to Russell Merryman, Editor-in-Chief for Web and News Media services at AJI, who is probably the most pro-Israeli employee in AJI today.

Instead of treating the matter professionally, Merryman launched a tirade against me, accusing me of lacking professionalism and violating al-Jazeera’s professional ethics.

He argued that employing terms such as “martyrs” — even within a quote — was unprofessional (most Arab media employ the term in reference to Palestinians killed by the Israeli army). The same man readily approves quotes by Israeli army spokespersons and Jewish leaders vilifying Palestinians as “terrorists, murderers and thugs.”

Finding he had no case against me, Merryman resorted to a red-herring, accusing me of creating confusion and turmoil at Aljazeera.net from the West Bank — from which I am barred from leaving by the Israeli occupation authorities! And after a brief email exchange, he told me I was fired.

I have written more than 300 pieces for Al-Jazeera’s English website, probably more than anybody else, and never encountered any problem with previous editors. Indeed, Merryman himself, after starting work with Al-Jazeera’s English website in 2005, praised my professionalism and experience as a journalist.

I don’t know for sure why Merryman behaved the way he did. It is quite possible that he had been urged or cajoled by some of his Zionist friends to make sure that “anti-Israeli” articles were rejected.

But I have my suspicions, which I am sure will be vindicated one day.

It may be that he wanted to make AJI coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a carbon copy of that of the BBC where he had spent several years as producer, presenter and news editor.

That would be a real disaster. Indeed, it was due to the BBC’s cumulative coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, at least in part, that a majority of British youths came to think that Palestinians were “the settlers” and Jews were the victims of the “Palestinian settler violence,” as was revealed in a British opinion poll a few years ago.

Yes, of course, it is important to be neutral and impartial when covering international conflicts. But it is even more important to be honest when dealing with asymmetrical conflicts where one side is occupied and oppressed and the other is the occupier and oppressor.

Eventually, though somewhat belatedly, the Al-Jazeera administration became conscious, although I don’t know to what extent, of the silent but real pro-Israeli lobby that was building-up quietly but steadily within AJI.

This build-up had two main manifestations: neutralizing Palestinian correspondents from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and the intensive reliance on reports by American news agency, the Associated Press, viewed by many as ‘Israel’s ultimate news agency.’

Needless to say, reports by this agency, whose Jerusalem offices are staffed by extremely pro-Israeli, Jewish-American zealots, never misses a chance to remind readers that Hamas was a terrorist organization and that Palestinian resistance fighters are actually terrorists. AP never ever remembers that timeless maxim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and that Israel itself is also viewed by hundreds of millions of people around the world as a terrorist state par excellence.

Seeking to rectify the situation before it was too late, Al-Jazeera’s top managers appointed, Ibrahim Hilal, an able Egyptian journalist, to make sure that AJI didn’t drift too much away from the policies of the mother Arabic channel.

Hilal, under instructions from Al-Jazeera General Manager, Waddah Khanfar, asked Merryman to reinstate me as correspondent in Palestine. Merryman complied but only begrudgingly.

On 18 July, Merryman sent me a terse and condescending message, demanding that I apologize to him — I don’t know for what — and warning that my performance would be closely monitored. He said he would commission me to write some pieces, but that he, and he alone, would decide when and how. He actually never asked me to write a single piece, despite the numerous newsworthy events taking place in Palestine.

I did propose to him that I undertake some feature stories on the situation in Gaza, the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah and how Israel was barring Palestinians from accessing food and work.

He wouldn’t even reply to these messages.

Last week, Merryman decided to change the rules governing the editorial policies of Aljazeera.net/English. The new rules make sure that “undesirable stories,” e.g. stories that expose Israeli brutality and racism against the Palestinians, or those portraying Israel as a Nazi-like entity, wouldn’t find their way to Aljazeera.net.

Merryman has already put this policy into effect. For the past three or four months, not a single feature story about the Israeli persecution of Palestinians, which of late assumed nearly genocidal proportions, appeared on Al-Jazeera’s English website. This is while the site abounds with all sorts of stories about outlandish subjects.

Merryman claims he has received a full authorization from Al-Jazeera General Director Waddah Khanfar granting him full authority to decide what is posted on Al-Jazeera’s English website.

I have sought to communicate my concerns about this grave trend — now permeating through AJI — to Al-Jazeera’s top officials, some of whom have openly voiced their frustration and exasperation in this regard.

One official intimated to me that “Merryman views with utter contempt the way the Arabic channel is run.”

Another told me that “this man and his friends want to turn Al-Jazeera into another Fox News or even another Jerusalem Post.” The latter is Israel’s main right-wing English newspaper, and a mouthpiece for the Jewish settler movement.

I am sure that this article will sign me off from Al-Jazeera. However, I am willing to sacrifice my own personal interest and lose the bulk of my income in the hope that al-Jazeera officials, particularly Chairman Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani and Managing Director Waddah Khanfar, will open their eyes and make sure that al-Jazeera International doesn’t become a new weapon in the hands of the enemies of Arabs and Muslims.

For God’s sake, don’t let them hijack Al-Jazeera under the disguise of journalistic ethics.

Khalid Amayreh is a professional journalist and political analyst from Dura, 10 km. south west of Hebron in the West Bank. His writings appear frequently in Al-Ahram Weekly and Al-Jazeera.