MEDIA

 
FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 28 2001 

Bin Laden's TV choice 

BY ADEL DARWISH 

The Arabic mouthpiece for Muslim radicals has broken a few taboos 

Osama bin Laden’s reply to President George Bush’s “call to arms” against terrorism was sent by fax to Al-Jazeera, an Arabic satellite television channel that is favoured by Arab and Muslim radicals and can now be seen in Britain. 
Thanks to the presence of a strong body of radical Palestinian and Syrian journalists working at the station, extremist groups such as Hamas and al-Qaeda always send their press releases to Al-Jazeera. The network was also the first to be given an exclusive video of the destruction of the two Buddha statues last year by the Taleban. 

A picture of the fax message carrying bin Laden’s rare autograph, which called upon Muslims to fight America, was splashed on the front page of most of the world’s press. The Qatar-based network welcomed this scoop as much-desired free publicity. With the exception of one or two radical newspapers — which also receive frequent messages from bin Laden — Arab papers, whose readers are also potential Al-Jazeera viewers, did not print the picture, thanks to covert pressure from conservative Arab governments. 

Exploiting the unexpected free coverage, Al-Jazeera re-transmitted an exclusive interview with bin Laden conducted in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in 1998 by its correspondent in Pakistan, Gamal Ismail. 

World television networks queued up, and paid handsomely, for pictures of bin Laden’s interview, according to Muftah Al-Suwaidan, the chief executive of the channel’s London bureau, one of 35 bureaux worldwide. 

Arabic speakers in Britain and elsewhere in Europe can from this week watch Al-Jazeera free on BSkyB (in which News International, owner of The Times, has a 37.5 per cent stake) after a deal was struck this month. Viewers with analogue equipment can receive it, also free of charge, on the W2 satellite. 

Al-Jazeera was launched in November 1996 from the small, independent, oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar after the 43-year-old Crown Prince, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995.

As part of Sheikh Hamad’s attempt to modernise his tiny nation and raise its international profile, he set up the network. Unlike other Arab TV stations, most of which are controlled by ministries of information, Al-Jazeera was innovative in broadcasting live talk shows. 

The channel benefited from the misfortune of the BBC. Its disastrous venture of Arabic Service TV, financed by the privately owned Saudi Orbit channel, collapsed because of cultural differences over journalistic standards and practice. Al-Jazeera quickly recruited the experienced but jobless BBC Arabic staffers. 

The staff — the majority of whom are Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, with the occasional Egyptian — have tried hard to plant what they learnt at the BBC in a hostile Arabic soil. Some, such as the Egyptian-born Yousri Fouda, have emulated BBC programmes successfully. His version of Panorama, the investigative Top Secret, which appeals to Arab viewers’ firm belief in conspiracy theories, has become a household name. 

Al-Jazeera’s claim to have 35 million viewers is hard to verify, since viewer surveys are virtually unknown in the government-controlled environment of Arab countries. 

Its claim that “impartial news and current affairs — including controversial topics such as women’s rights and peace with Israel — has earned it a global reputation” can definitely be taken with a pinch of salt. The reporting of news about Israel’s clashes with Palestinians is always partial in Arab television, and Al-Jazeera is no exception, with its characterisation of Palestinian suicide bombers as “martyrs” and regular debates on how to defeat Israel. 

So far, no reports have been broadcast on human rights abuses in Qatar or neighbouring friendly Gulf states, or the appalling conditions endured by “guest workers” and domestic staff from the Far East and the Indian subcontinent in Gulf states. 

However, putting it in its historical context, Al-Jazeera represents an important milestone as it has broken a few taboos in Arab TV. As well as having live debates, it begins bulletins with real news rather than reporting what the head of the state did that day. 

But it remains to be seen whether programmes such as Top Secret can succeed in truly tackling taboo subjects.
 
 

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