Profile: Al Jazeera Comes Under Fire From Governments In The Region

Morning Edition: November 11, 2002

Al Jazeera TV Stirs Controversy in Arab World


The independent Arab satellite television channel, Al-Jazeera, is enormously popular in the Arab world. It's made a name for itself with its uncensored coverage of Middle East issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. Al-Jazeera also has been criticized in the United States for what some consider anti-American reporting following the September 11th attacks. But it is equally controversial in the Arab world where its reports have offended most governments. And the station's coverage is creating political problems between host country Qatar and its Arab neighbors. From Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, NPR's Kate Seelye reports.

KATE SEELYE reporting:

Al-Jazeera may be notorious in the West for carrying exclusive taped broadcasts of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, but here in the Arab world, the station is better known for its programs and talks shows that give critics nearly free rein to blast Arab governments. Political science professor, Waheed Hashem, says Al-Jazeera's programming has gone too far.

Professor WAHEED HASHEM (Political Science): The propaganda it's using is not with the Arabs, it's against the Arabs.

SEELYE: Kuwait recently shut Al-Jazeera's local office, calling the station's broadcast hostile. That follows a similar move by Jordan last August, which also recalled its ambassador from Qatar. Jordanian officials were angered by a talk show that examined Jordan's relations with Israel prior to their 1994 peace treaty. In September, Saudi Arabia also withdrew its ambassador from Qatar reportedly in response to an Al-Jazeera show that criticized the kingdom's founder, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Hashem says Al-Jazeera is highlighting sensitive issues that do not serve the Arab cause.

Prof. HASHEM: And these issues, they're not intended to unify the Arabs or strengthen their positions on the country. It is trying to rip the Arabs apart.

SEELYE: Al-Jazeera officials insist that the station is just providing a forum for dialogue and debate in an independent environment. That's a rarity in the Arab world where most media is state controlled. But university Professor Halidal Dahil(ph) says Al-Jazeera is not as independent as it claims to be. The station was founded by Qatar's ruler, Shah Ahmad bin Hmad Al Thani, and Dahil believes it has become a very effective tool of the Qatari government. Dahil says the Qataris use it to deflect attention from their own unpopular policies.

Professor HALIDAL DAHIL: Al-Jazeera is the mouthpiece of the Arabs. Their coverage is anti-Israelis. Their coverage is anti-Americans.

SEELYE: Yet, says Dahil, the Qatari government is hosting a large US military presence and is likely to serve as a launchpad in the event of an American attack on Iraq. It also maintains an Israeli trade mission despite Arab pressure to shut it down.

Prof. DAHIL: You will notice that Al-Jazeera always target Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the largest states in the region, exposing their positions. These states, they have so many things to hide. The Qataris, they want to expose them, to distract attention of the people from what they are doing themselves.

SEELYE: Saudi dissident Mossilen Oraji(ph) appears frequently on Al-Jazeera. Oraji, an Islamist, agrees that the station is not always objective, especially in its coverage of Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, he says, it plays an invaluable role in the region.

Mr. MOSSILEN ORAJI (Saudi Dissident): Al-Jazeera did something which is not imaginable, you see. We don't--we want to know what's going on here in our home, not abroad, you see. Al-Jazeera has started to highlight these things.

SEELYE: At a recent meeting, gulf state information ministers threatened a boycott of the station unless it improves its coverage. But Oraji says regardless of what Arab governments do, Al-Jazeera will remain the number one station for most Arab viewers.

Mr. ORAJI: The officials themselves when I went to meet them, I found them, you know, turning their TVs on Al-Jazeera. They are blaming Al-Jazeera, but watching Al-Jazeera. What about the Arabs? Everybody now is watching Al-Jazeera.

SEELYE: Giving its popularity, analysts here say Qatar is not likely to bow to Arab pressure and muzzle Al-Jazeera. Halidal Dahil adds that Arab governments might be wiser to enhance their own broadcasts and try to compete instead. Kate Seelye, NPR News, Riyadh.

EDWARDS: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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