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Sun 5 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Wild Wadah

Being Al Jazeera is no easier today than it was when it launched, the network's director general Wadah Khanfar tells Arabian Business.

Wild Wadah
Wild Wadah
In the wake of Al Jazeera’s launch, France, Russia, America and the UK have all launched government-backed media outlets to target the Arab world.
Wild Wadah
Al Jazeera Arabic has been accused of biased coverage on the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Wild Wadah
The Al Jazeera English news channel has won awards for its reporting, yet industry insiders have derided it as little more than a BBC clone.

Thirteen years after the Arab world's premiere news network launched, the number of newspapers and magazines in the region has soared, the internet has revolutionised how media is consumed, and no Arab nation is without its own satellite channel. But being Al Jazeera is no easier today than it was thirteen years ago, the network's director general Wadah Khanfar tells Arabian Business.

Much has been said over the last decade about the state of the Arab media, with buzzwords usually including "progress" and "improvement".

In Saudi Arabia, articles about women's rights and domestic abuse now regularly make the front page of the Kingdom's newspapers. Kuwait, seen by many as home to the region's most outspoken press, currently publishes more than 20 daily newspapers for its 2.7 million residents.

A new media law in the UAE that scraps prison sentences for journalists has been presented as an improvement over the old legislation, but it has been criticised for its ambiguous wording and steep fines that could be used to undermine free speech.

In another sign that media criticism remains a sensitive issue in the region, the director general of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom resigned in June, claiming that Qatari officials were trying to "suffocate" the organisation.

The head of Al Jazeera, the trailblazing news channel that has been credited with revolutionising the Arab media landscape when it began broadcasting in 1996, does not number among the optimists, but could perhaps be described as sitting on the fence. The environment in which its two news channels, Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English, operates, has neither gotten worse since the Arabic operation hit the airwaves in 1996, nor has it improved, says director general Wadah Khanfar.

"We do still face obstacles. Unfortunately, issues related to governments and centres of power in the Middle East and internationally are not easily discussed nowadays, just as they weren't easily discussed in the past," he admits.

Obstacles may be understating it. Two weeks ago, two Al Jazeera producers were arrested in Afghanistan and detained by authorities without being told why.

Then, a few days after their release, and in what must have been one hectic week for the Al Jazeera HR department, the network's Yemen correspondent was severely beaten by an angry mob whilst covering the turmoil in the Sadaa region, where protestors are calling for independence from the country's central government.

Yemeni police officers were standing nearby, observing the event, but did not step in. The Sanaa government and the Sadaa secessionists may not agree on a lot of things, but they do share a dislike for Al Jazeera.

"They are not satisfied with the coverage of Al Jazeera. Each one of them would like Al Jazeera to adopt his political angle," Khanfar shrugs. "Media in the Arab world has become much more outspoken. Since 1996, when we started Al Jazeera, it was seen as breaking a lot of taboos.

"Now, it is much more often done and therefore people are used to some kind of reporting where we question centres of power, we question politicians, we speak about certain issues that were not really present in the media before."

But those changing attitudes have yet to filter through to the people in power.

"I must say that this new attitude, which is in my opinion very positive and people are used to it now, is not at all convincing governments to open up," Khanfar admits.

"It is actually putting governments in a position where they are trying more and more to silence voices and they are sometimes inventing new laws and regulations to work against the freedom of journalists."

Some governments' mistrust of the press is reflected by the ambiguous legal framework governing the region's media.

"I do feel that there is no dramatic change taking place, either forwards or backwards," he says. "Legal implications are very difficult now, actually, in many countries, where people can be sued by governments, or they could be put in jail for certain reasons that are related to freedom of expression."

Controversy, of course, has been a hallmark of Al Jazeera's since its inception. Most of the Arabic channel's original staff was hired from BBC's Arabic television service on the Orbit network, after the Saudi-owned company severed its ties with the British broadcaster following a controversial report on human rights in the Kingdom.

The Arabic channel has fallen foul of most Mid Eastern governments at some point in time, and its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been bombed by American forces. The US military insists that both incidents were "mistakes".

The Saudi government's dislike for the station has resulted in a virtual advertising boycott by regional and international companies, who are concerned that affiliating their brands with the broadcaster could jeopardise business with government-linked firms in the largest Arab economy.

The commercials the channel does air mostly feature Qatari companies like the state-owned Qatar Petroleum.

"I don't think that we have much more than a quarter of our budget now coming from advertising. We have other sources of revenue as well, like sharing content with other networks, selling pictures, and other issues," Khanfar says. "But in general, advertising for Al Jazeera is not the most important source of income. It does not cover most of our expenses."

Will it ever be profitable? The Al Jazeera Network, which includes subscription-based sports and documentary channels, might, he says. The news channels, probably not.

"As a TV station that is specialised in news, I don't think any channel in the region can become self-sufficient," he says.

Perhaps tellingly, virtually all other players to enter the Middle East television news market have been government-owned or funded. Since America launched Al Hurra in 2005, to counter an alleged anti-US bias at Al Jazeera, BBC Arabic, France 24 and Russia Today have all followed suit.

Its lack of friends is sometimes cited as proof that Al Jazeera's reporting is truly unbiased. However, observers claim that in recent years Al Jazeera Arabic's coverage of many issues, especially the Palestine conflict, has become more opinionated and emotive, possible to differentiate the station from Saudi-owned, US-leaning rival Al Arabiya, which launched in 2003.Khanfar does not skip a beat before denying allegations that the network has become a Fox News for the Middle East.

"I don't think that Al Jazeera is not objective. I think Al Jazeera is very objective," he says. "On the issue of Palestine and the Israelis we have been covering this story for many years now, since the beginning of Al Jazeera. Within the Israeli landscape as well, we also have reporters.

"As you know the issue of Palestine and Israel is maybe one of the most sensitive in the region and it needs a lot of balance," he continues. "It needs a lot of thinking on how to do it without being trapped by alienating yourself from one side or another.

"But I can tell you that we are monitoring what we are doing."

There is a difference between reporting on the anger and frustration on the Arab street and trying to perpetuate it, he argues.

"We don't think that should be our role."

His removal from Al Jazeera's board of directors in 2007 sparked rumours that the Qatari government was trying to rein in the station, particularly in regard to its coverage of Saudi Arabia.

But Khanfar argues that the move was only designed to ensure the independence of the board of the newly formed Al Jazeera network, which amalgamated the news, documentary and sports programming divisions into one organisation.

"I thought, and the board also was thinking the same, that there should be a separation between the legislative and the executive levels of action," he says.

"I attend board meetings and I interact with the board on a daily basis, but the issue is membership of the board. I think this is very useful for both parties."

If Al Jazeera Arabic is known for being controversial, the criticism levied at its English language sister channel could not be more different.

The channel has won several industry awards for its reporting, but industry observers have also described it as bland, and little more than a BBC clone.

Khanfar says Al Jazeera English has been successful in its remit to "give a voice to the voiceless", adding that the English network's coverage of developing countries and the southern hemisphere is unrivalled.

"The Western media did not cover the South as it should have. We are headquartered in the South. We have excellent investment in the South, in reporters who understand the environment and culture and language; people who can understand the fabric of the society and the collective mind of the nations that we are reporting from."

At the time of writing, Al Jazeera and other news channels and media outlets are facing tight restrictions on reporting from Iran in the wake of the country's disputed presidential election.

Video footage of protestors on the streets of Tehran is reaching the outside world, but it's not coming from Al Jazeera, CNN or any of the other big broadcasters. It is being filmed on regular people's mobile phones, and downloaded from YouTube. How does that affect the traditional players, whose role has always been to provide the public with that same footage?

"It will never undermine the conventional media; all these images that come out of YouTube need analysis and confirmation, they need much more credible, professional discussion," he says firmly.

"We are using new media and we are looking to develop our new media department into a much more active way of covering news. So it is a platform of covering news and it is a platform for delivering news as well," he continues.

"But definitely, I don't think that the new media will replace or undermine conventional media anytime soon. Conventional media will be stronger with the new media, not weakened."

In quotes"The only country we haven't been kicked out of is Israel. Even the Palestinians kicked us out once"

Former Al Jazeera English . - Managing director Nigel Parsons

"Al Jazeera is a perfect example of [how]... we open up the doors so that you can see what these cultures are and understand that the differences are not so much" - George Clooney, actor

"Accuracy in Media is renewing its demand for a federal probe to determine if Al Jazeera constitutes a global terrorist entity and whether its American operations should be closed down immediately" - Statement by right-wing US media watchdog Accuracy in Media

"Where are you heading, Jazeera? Why this hostility toward the mujahideen (holy warriors)?" - Statement by militant Islamist group led by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi

"If anyone lived in the Middle East and watched a network like the Al Jazeera channel day after day after day, even if he was an American, he would start waking up and asking what's wrong. But America is not wrong. It's the people who are going on television chopping off people's heads, that is wrong" - Former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld confounds a security conference in Singapore by alleging that Al Jazeera broadcasts beheadings

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