Is Al-Jazeera International losing its Arab identity?

As al-Jazeera Arab satellite television channel is celebrating its tenth anniversary, with achievements unprecedented in the history of Arab media, al-Jazeera International (AJI) which encompasses plus the yet-to-be launched al-Jazeera English TV, is slowly but definitely losing its original Arab identity.

Indeed, a fleeting look at AJI’s English website these days would be sufficient to make one realize how far and deep the Qatari-based media outlet has departed from its original defining character.

In fact, one would exaggerate very little by saying that the AJI has lost not only its Arab face, but also its Arab heart and soul, and is fast assuming an “international” (western) identity, very much similar to the BBC, CNN or Sky.

Today, AJI relies heavily on the three main western news agencies, namely Reuters, Associated Press (AP) and Agence France Presse (AFP) in transmitting news and views from across the Arab world, specially the perennially hot spot, Palestine/Israel.

In October alone, for example, up 95 percent of news reports from or pertaining to the Occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, which were posted on AJI English website, were carried by the three mentioned agencies.

A few months ago, especially prior to the publication of my article (pro-Israeli editors seek to influence Aljazeera English Satellite TV), AJI relied disproportionately on AP reports, especially from Palestine.

AP, especially since the 9/11 events, has been thoroughly influenced by the worldview of George W. Bush and his conservative administration. Its choice of words, tendentious reportorial patterns and the highly de-contextualized texts of its reports, especially with regard to the Arab world, Palestine and Islam, amply testify to a growing politicized and ideological mode of reporting.

With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli strife in particular, AP is proving itself a quasi-Israeli news agency. Indeed, AP offices in West Jerusalem are staffed with hard-line American Jewish Zionists or even hard-line Talmudic settlers living in the West Bank. This may explains why a pro-Israeli slant is always present, even conspicuous, in AP reports from Israel and the occupied territories.

Now, AJI is relying increasingly on Reuters and to a lesser extent on AFP. There is nothing wrong, of course, in using wire service reports since no reasonable person would expect AJI to post correspondents in every major town in the world.

AJI should scrutinize the veracity of these reports which they often lack in context and other vital pertinent information

However, as a major news outlet (at least this is what AJI aspires to become), whose ethical code accentuates fairness, objectivity and honesty, AJI should scrutinize the veracity of these reports which they often lack in context and other vital pertinent information. If this proves to be a difficult task, then AJI could post able and experienced correspondents in the hot spots of the world like in Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, even North Korea.

I will give some examples corroborating my view that AJI shouldn’t over-rely on western news agencies.

On 28 October, AJI carried a news-wire report from Afghanistan on a massacre of scores of Afghani civilians in NATO bombing of one Afghani village.

The report quoted a NATO official as saying that the bombing occurred in “the fog and heat of war.” The report contained no further information about the victims themselves, such as testimonies from survivors, relatives and human rights activists. So, the Afghanis are killed by western warplanes and the story about their killing is also killed by a western news agency, and the story is readily and unscrupulously carried by Al-Jazeera.

This is scandalous, to say the least. We are talking about sixty families killed and devastated and all we hear and read about it on AJI English website is a few soundbites from an indifferent NATO official. Just imagine how AJI coverage would have been had the victims been Americans or Australians or even Israelis!

And this is done by al-Jazeera, the great Arab media network, which many people in the third world and the west had hoped would become an alternative source of news and views to the dominant and notoriously culturally-biased western media.

Here is another example: An AJI report from Palestine/Israel, from Reuters, also on 28 October, carried the following caption “Shalit captivity to end in days.”

Well, doesn’t AJI international realize that there are close to 11,000 Palestinian political and resistance prisoners languishing in Israeli detention camps, many of them doctors, professors, teachers, and other professionals, often without charge or trial?

So, why highlight and prominently feature the Israeli soldier’s name, who has been in captivity for only a few months, while overlooking the utter humanity of the “faceless, nameless, and worthless” Palestinians?

So, why highlight and prominently feature the Israeli soldier’s name, who has been in captivity for only a few months, while overlooking the utter humanity of the “faceless, nameless, and worthless” Palestinians? Is this compatible with al-Jazeera’s professional ethics? Indeed, how many stories has AJI done and posted on these helpless and forgotten prisoners whose only “crime” seems to be their being Palestinian and wanting to be free?

Two weeks earlier, on 14 October, AJI international posted another Reuters report from the Gaza Strip titled “Gaza clashes intensify.” What clashes? It is unbefitting for a respected news agency to call slow-motion Israeli genocide in Gaza “clashes” when almost 100 percent of the victims are on only one side (the Palestinian side) and when the Israeli occupation army is not really facing any serious military challenge. Doesn’t AJI realize that over 300 Palestinians, the vast bulk of them are innocent men, women are children, have been killed and numerous others maimed and mutilated since the said Israeli soldier was taken prisoner on 25 June, whereas only two or three Israeli soldiers were killed during the same period? Well, one might wonder if Reuters would have similarly referred to the Gestapo clampdown on Ghetto Warsaw as “clashes” just because Jewish defenders sought to put up some resistance to the Gestapo onslaught?

There is another even scandalous aspect of AJI’s Reuters reports from Palestine, namely the use or overuse of quotations and statements by Israeli army spokespersons as if these professional liars were the ultimate paragons of truth and credibility. Indeed, why does AJI accept reports that refer to the overwhelmingly innocent civilian Palestinian victims as merely “Palestinians”?

Doesn’t this amount to willfully avoiding and evading the fact that many of these victims are innocent men, women and children, killed knowingly, if not deliberately, by the Israeli army? Would Reuters have used the same impersonal and dehumanized reportorial pattern if the victims had been innocent Israeli men, women and children?

Furthermore, there is another worrying trend that is increasingly dominate in Reuters reports from Palestine/Israel and that is the impression of symmetry between Israel and the Palestinians one would get from reading Reuters reports.

This pattern of reporting is dishonest at worst and unprofessional at best. It is imperative for ordinary people, let alone reporters and journalists and politicians, to realize that it is impossible to truly comprehend the situation in Palestine without first understanding that Israel has been occupying, persecuting, tormenting, enslaving and killing the Palestinians since 1967; that this occupation is not recognized by the international community; that Israel is in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions demanding an end to the occupation; that Israel is often starving Palestinians by barring them from accessing food and work; that Israel is effectively trying to get Palestinians to leave their ancestral homeland by making their daily life unbearable; that Israel doesn’t recognize Palestine’s right to exist, and that successive Israeli governments included cabinet ministers who espoused a Nazi-like mentality.

Shouldn’t Reuters remind readers of these facts as routinely and readily as it does when it doesn’t cease reminding us that Hamas’s charter calls for Israel’s destruction and that Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist?

I haven’t been able to find convincing reasons for this scandalous departure by AJI editors from al-Jazeera’s truly professional ethics that prevailed until the beginning of 2006 when AJI administratively belonged to the Arabic department

So far, I haven’t been able to find convincing reasons for this scandalous departure by AJI editors from al-Jazeera’s truly professional ethics that prevailed until the beginning of 2006 when AJI administratively belonged to the Arabic department.

Now, it seems, everything has changed and is changing after AJI became virtually independent, with English, American and Australian editors, who include some-openly pro-Israeli individuals, giving ultimate authority and control over what may or may not appear on AJI English Website. Even erstwhile Arab English-speaking reporters for AJI, such as this reporter, have been either fired or neutralized and replaced by Israeli Jewish reporters.

I have nothing against employing Jewish reporters, even in Palestine/Israel. However, for well-known objective reasons AJI and other serious news outlets should employ Palestinian correspondents to communicate the plight of their people. These reporters happen to be in the heart of the fray, unlike other reporters who often report from the comfortable hotels of West Jerusalem or luxurious restaurants of Tel Aviv. When a reporter feels and lives the suffering of his people, he or she is usually more able and more fit than others to report on that suffering, however objective and fair-minded the latter might be.

In conclusion, I want to say the following to the executives and directors of al-Jazeera. During the past ten years, you have succeeded in enriching the Arab cultural and political life as never before. I myself on several occasions described al-Jazeera as “probably the greatest Arab achievement in sixty years.”

You succeeded because you insisted on being more or less independent, because you refused to succumb to western pressure, including the bombing and contemplated bombing of your offices and studios, and because you often consistently sought to be the voice for the voiceless and the beating-heart of the ordinary man in the street.

Now, however, AJI is being hijacked by people whose sympathies lie elsewhere, people who in the name of professional ethics are killing AJI even before it has seen the light.

What is the point of having another BBC or CNN financed by Arab money and bearing a false Arab name?

We, who deeply care about al-Jazeera, and are willing to sacrifice to ensure its success, call on you to see to it that AJI not drift away from the policies and ideals of the mother Arab channel.

Besides, why would an international audience, e.g. western, watch AJI if they could watch the original in their home countries?

Please, don’t rely on Reuters and other western news agencies, don’t mimic the BBC and CNN — have your own reporters posted in the hot spots of the world. More importantly, don’t give up your courage to tell the truth for fear of being accused of lack objectivity by your western competitors and detractors. It is them, not you, who stand accused.

Related Links

  • Pro-Israeli editors seek to influence Al-Jazeera International English Satellite TV, Khalid Amayreh (15 September 2006)

    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.