Among the more remarkable developments since Sept. 11 is that the Western monopoly on global news production has met its first serious challenge from a Third World source. The improbable upstart is Al Jazeera, a 24-hour Arabic language satellite news channel from the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar. The U.S. may control the Afghani air space, but in this war the airwaves belong to Al Jazeera.
Since its founding in 1996, Al Jazeera has created a revolution in Arab news media and public opinion, emerging as the first independent, professional pan-Arab news outlet. Now that Al Jazeera is the primary international news organization providing serious coverage from inside Afghanistan and is commanding the attention of Arab public opinion—a key constituency in this most political of conflicts—the station’s coverage and its audience have become more important than any other in the world. If CNN was made by the 1991 Gulf War, the current conflict represents a similar global coming of age for Al Jazeera.
Because of its reporting and free-wheeling call-in talk shows, Al Jazeera has evoked the wrath of almost every Arab government. Now U.S. officials have joined the love-hate club, actively trying to alter Al Jazeera’s content and condemning its coverage while demanding to be interviewed on its programs. Even more intense has been the Al Jazeera-bashing in the Western press, which is, at the same time, heavily relying on news and footage gathered by Al Jazeera from the war zone. During the most dramatic moments of the war so far, news sources such as CNN and ABC simply morph into a rebroadcast and translation service for Al Jazeera and then squabble over rights to its coverage.
The concurrent green-eyed bashing of Al Jazeera has been shameless. Since almost all hard news coming from the war zone comes from Al Jazeera, its coverage is often cited, but generally with the proviso that this information “cannot be independently confirmed,” as if there were any question about its credibility. There is more than a hint of racism in this double gesture of simultaneously relying on and undermining Al Jazeera’s reporting.
Among the pots calling the kettle black, the New York Times opined that Al Jazeera “often slants its news with a vicious anti-Israel and anti-American bias” and “deeply irresponsible reporting [that] reinforces the region’s anti-American views.” Dan Rather questioned whether there was “any indication that Osama bin Laden has helped finance this operation.” Britain’s Daily Telegraph called the station “Bin Laden TV,” while NPR warned listeners that Al Jazeera’s coverage should “come with a health warning.”
All this from people who understand not a word of Arabic.
U.S. officials are upset that Al Jazeera has shed daily and gruesome light on the civilian death toll wrought by the current bombing, which the Western press has studiously downplayed. The carnage dismissed as “ridiculous” by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been on live, 24-hour display to more than 40 million Arab homes.
Al Jazeera is simply telling the truth about what is happening in Afghanistan, while CNN and company have switched from “all-Condit, all the time” to “all-anthrax, all the time.” Western television has been mostly forced to make do with videophone reports from journalists in the Northern Alliance’s desolate no-man’s land, describing the night sky and reading the latest Pentagon press release. If journalists cannot be where the news is, then the news must be where journalists are.
Whatever one thinks of the current bombing in Afghanistan, it stands to reason that when one throws huge amounts of bombs at a country, people are going to get killed. The public, both in this country and around the world, has a right to see the effects of these actions.
Among the most troubling aspects of the attempts to manipulate and smear Al Jazeera is the specter of censorship of inconvenient and embarrassing news about civilians killed in a war that is not supposed to be aimed at the Afghan people. Finally, a news organization is not under the control of the Pentagon press pool system and not beholden to U.S. officials for “access.”
Worse still is the implication that Al Jazeera is a threat because it alone provides an honest and open forum for Arab public opinion. Trying to vilify or censor it sends the worst possible message to Arabs—that free debate and, by implication, democracy in the Arab world are threatening to the West.
Al Jazeera represents the best trends of openness and democratization in the Arab world. It is a long-overdue two-way street in the global flow of information and opinion. It should be celebrated and encouraged, not smeared or censored.
Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Ali Abunimah regularly writes public letters to the media, coordinates campaigns, and appears on a variety of national and international news programs as a commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada. Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 22 October 2001.