Political mind game
Al Jazeera has had an unprecedented effect in the Arab World the creation of an open intellectual resistance, where people are beginning to speak of political change. SHIV AROOR writes on the satellite channel that made waves during the American campaign in Afghanistan.
Inside the Al Jazeera station.
FAYSAL AL QASAM is a shy, unassuming man. He revels in the fact that many people in his native Syria now collect recordings of two things sex movies and "The Opposite Direction", his controversial discussion programme aired through the Arab satellite channel, Al Jazeera.
Started in 1996 and funded by the Qatari government, Al Jazeera had the only station in Kabul during the American campaign in Afghanistan, until it was "accidentally" bombed in a sortie in November last year. The station was able, subsequently, to send correspondents back.
The Arab world has suffered these last few years with a media that is shackled to what Qasam calls "Receive and See-Off" journalism a sort of running commentary on the rulers' banal diplomatic lives.
"Most of the time our media has nothing to say and nothing to talk about but the activities of our rulers," said Qasam in a recent discussion at Cardiff University. His top-rated programme now persuades people to go out and buy satellite receivers. The Arab press, particularly in Kuwait and Egypt, runs attacks on the station. Reactions to Al Jazeera's programmes comprise a fascinating example of Arab authoritarianism. Toujan Faysal, a Jordanian MP, has been under house arrest since March for dismantling live on television the Koran's legitimacy on the subject of polygamy. But Qasam who received death threats for the discussions he mediates and instigates, and who has been accused of being a mouthpiece and spy for every country ("except the Ivory Coast and Burkinafaso") has had an effect in the Arab world that no one else had in the past the beginning of an open intellectual resistance, one that is increasingly unafraid to speak of political change. "Now everyone is talking of how we should better ourselves and change our rulers, how to have democracy, and even how to change religion".
The existence of the station has cost Qatar diplomatically. Most Arab countries withdrew their missions from Doha after editions of Qasam's show were telecast. Arafat closed down the channel's Ramallah bureau for days after a programme showed a cartoon of the Palestinian leader with shoes around his neck a symbol of ridicule and defeat both offensive to the public Palestinian spirit. Some Palestinians resent Al Jazeera for including Israeli government spokespersons on its shows, but this is precisely what makes Al Jazeera impartial. Controversial, but impartial. By including Palestinian and Israeli spokespersons on a show, the channel seems to offer its services to propaganda, but in this case, the audience is allowed to be judge. "We don't accept anything if it looks like propaganda. We only take balanced reports."
That Al Jazeera is funded by the Qatari government might not seem quite right to a community that is keenly aware of propaganda and government spin. "Qatar right now is heading in the opposite direction of the Gulf countries", says Qasam. "Qatar has a free media and that's why Al Jazeera is going hand in hand with Qatari policies." He has run several shows where people have "torn Qatari policies to pieces".
Osama bin Laden whose taped conversations have been sent only to Al Jazeera since the attack, seems to recognise its propaganda value. But being an Islamist, and sending his tapes to a channel that is promoting a democratic discourse means he obviously must be either hugely hypocritical or fantastically clever, though it is likely that he is both. The U.S. subsequently and predictably branded Al Jazeera as an "Al Qaeda propaganda instrument". But Qasam is resolute "We were the first ones to get tapes from Osama bin Laden. We should broadcast them, I would think. That is the rule. That is the game." The channel subsequently became (and still is) a portal between the coalition and the enemy, though Al Jazeera has no obvious way of contacting bin Laden. "Look at CNN for instance. If they got a tape from bin Laden, they would broadcast it straightway. Why does America accuse us then, and not say anything about CNN? It's a media war. It just depends on how clever you are."
It is true that people in the Arab world are not watching or listening to Western media as they did before. Qasam, himself a former BBC hand, says he has not listened to Voice of America for years. "So Al Jazeera has pulled the rug from under Western media beaming to the Arab world in Arabic." Apart from its regular news coverage, Al Jazeera is one of the few channels allowed to report from inside Iraq to the Arab world. On a certain edition of his programme, filmed and made in Baghdad, Qasam criticised Hussein's policies with the UN but returned safely to Qatar. There is obviously an unspoken respect for the station.
Hosni Mubarak visited the Al Jazeera offices in Doha and is quoted to have said "All this hullabaloo from this matchbox!?" an apparent reference to the modest size of the station's buildings. "We have liberated people from the complex of fear in the Arab world," says Qasam. Al Jazeera now plans to launch a version of itself in English. Those who believe that most of the media in the West need a shock will also know that an English-language Al Jazeera will be the best news we'll have all year.
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