The last session of the morning, “Al-Jazeera in the Mirror” gives a chance for media analysts and members of the network to celebrate and criticize the network, which is now ten years old. Leading off, Hugh Miles – the author of “Al Jazeera – How Arab TV Challenged the World” – sees more to celebrate than criticize. Travelling through North Africa as a UN consultant, he reports that AlJ is a “looming presence”. Part of this is because literacy is low, which makes newspapers less important, and that local TV stations are really poor. But AlJ is a “domestic staple” – it’s fundamental to daily life. Miles admires AlJ’s extensive coverage of the Gaza pullout, reporting that 6-10 Israelis, often expressing opinions unpopular in the Arab world, were featured each month. “All in all, Al Jazeera covers Israeli affairs remarkably thoroughly.”
Miles sees AlJ as the “most powerful nonstate actor in the Arab world”. If AlJ were a political party, he believes, it would give Hamas or Mulsim Brotherhood a run for their money. But he’s concerned about future of AlJ. Conspiracy theories that AlJ is run by Mossad, the CIA or Qatari intelligence are becoming popular in the Arab world. If AlJ International is percieved to be insensitive to Islam or biased, the network will lose trust and people will lose faith in the AlJ brand.
Lawrence Pintak, Director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism in Cairo, explains that it’s impossible for Americans to underestimate the impact of alJ and other satellite television in the Arab world. People in the region are no longer dependent on American media for their news. But there’s a complete and total disconnect between American and the Muslim world – to what extent do journalists need to take some responsibility for this disconnect?
Reflecting on the impact of Al Jazeera on the wider world, Pintak says “People in Indonesia never gave a damn about Palestine”. But in 2003, Indonesians told people that the world leader they most respected was Arafat. This is due to the influence of Al Jazeera, Al Arabia, Abu Dhabi TV.
Pintak reflects that he’s part of the generation of American journalists who got involved with reporting due to the example of Woodward and Berstein – he gets that same sense of enthusiasm from Al Jazeera today. But it’s too easy to get the impression that “all is goodness and light” in the world of Arab media. Dozens of journalists in Egypt were beaten up while covering the recent elections – one of his graduate students was beaten and thrown into a 20-foot deep ditch. The “relative freedom” of AlJ is exciting, but this freedom isn’t available across the region.
Naomi Sakr, a lecturer from the University of Westminster, notes that an entrepreneur in Nairobi is planning on setting up an African Al-Jazeera. He wants Africans to talk to each other rather than getting news from outside of the continent. She notes the importance of accountability in journalism, admitting that “accountability” is a difficult term to translate for different political systems. In a democratic system, leaders are accountable to the public; in authoritarian system, they’re accountable to the rulers. Wondering what it means for media to be accountable, she talks about AlJ’s critical coverage of the pilgrimage deaths in Saudi Arabia. Rather than being accountable to the people, the Saudi government blamed AlJ for covering the events, calling it “a dagger in the flank of the Arab nation”. Despite this criticism, AlJ needs to be accountable to its audience to be a success.
Mahmud Shamman, bureau chief for Dar Al Watan and Newsweek Arabic, wants to balance the praise of Jazeera with some criticism. He argues that Al-Jazeera is not an Arab invention, but a western invention. It doesn’t follow Arab models of media and television – it uses an infrastructure inspired by western media. The values, techniques and codes of Al Jazeera are descended from the BBC and other western networks. While Al Jazeera is trying to become an international network, it may be failing at being a local network. While issues that are critical to the Arab world – Israel/Palestine, Iraq – are being covered, key local issues are sometimes not covered. Al Jazeera has not reported on issues of local corruption, or the rise of prostition in the Arab world. Before dreaming of becoming international, maybe Al Jazeera needs to become more local.
Mostefa Souag, the director of the Al Jazeera Center for Research and Studies, is interested in the criticism Al Jazeera gets in the west. He’s pleased to note that he’s seeing very different questions at this conference than those raised in the west. He sees three western reactions to Jazeera. Some admire and defend AlJ, and he appreciates the support. A second category is a group that criticizes the network, despite not knowing anything about it – they’ve not watched the network, but are working on hearsay. The third group simply believes this sort of media shouldn’t come out of the arab world, that this form of speech is inherently a threat.
Steve Tatham, the author of “Losing Hearts and Minds” and a career military officer, opens by noting that Members of House of Commons asked for a live feed of AlJ to see “what’s really going on in Iraq”. In 1996, nobody could have invisaged the success and influence of AlJ. But he’s surprised that AlJ has appeared ambivalent to criticism. He believes that AlJ leaves much western criticism unanswered, perhaps considering it “a badge of honor”. He believes that long-term success of AlJ – especially success of Al Jazeera International – will rely on addressing these criticisms and deceloping trust both in the Middle East and internatinally.
Of all the audience questions, I found one particularly interesting: “Why are you guys creating AlJ international? What’s the reason? Aren’t you guys worried about the financial future of AlJ? When will you become independent?” I didn’t get a good answer from the AlJ representative on the panel, but think it’s an interesting question to have come from the floor.