Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 5

1 June 2000 

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Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV: The Power of Free Speech
by Gary C. Gambill

Although Qatar is one of the smallest states in the world, with a population of only 690,000, its foreign ministry is constantly buzzing with activity. Consider what it has had to contend with over the last month: In April, Libya abruptly withdraw its ambassador after the emirate's state-funded Al-Jazeera satellite television station broadcast an interview with a Libyan opposition figure. Shortly thereafter, the Iraqi government lodged a complaint with Qatari officials when Al-Jazeera reported the enormous expenses of Saddam Hussein's lavish April 28 birthday celebration. On May 2, Tunisia's ambassador complained to Qatar's foreign ministry about a program on Al-Jazeera that accused his government of human rights violations.1 A week later, the Iranian daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami, a conservative newspaper aligned with Ayatollah Khamenei, accused the station of "attributing false news to the esteemed leader of the revolution" after it reported that Khamenei favored the annulment of Iran's February parliamentary elections.2

    Such reactions are nothing out of the ordinary for Qatari diplomats, who have received over 400 official complaints from other Arab states about Al-Jazeera's relatively uncensored news broadcasts and controversial political commentaries since its establishment three and a half years ago. Kuwaiti officials regularly complain that Al-Jazeera's news coverage is too sympathetic to Iraq. Saudi officials insist that its programs are anti-Islamic, while Yasser Arafat is furious over its frequent interviews with leaders of militant Islamist Palestinian groups. Even Lebanese officials, who are somewhat more accustomed to a free-wheeling press than their counterparts in other Arab states, went ballistic in February when the station interviewed Roger Hatem (aka "Cobra"), a former member of the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militia who wrote a book describing the sordid war-time activities of MP Elie Hobeika and other pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians.

    Every Arab regime has found something in Al-Jazeera's programs to complain about--which is precisely why it is by far the most popular satellite news channel in the Middle East. Programs such as "The Opposite Direction" and "The Other Opinion," modeled on CNN's Crossfire, regularly feature debates on controversial issues, pitting Islamist militants against secular liberals, supporters of the peace process with Israel against its opponents, etc., and the station frequently interviews political dissidents of every imaginable persuasion. Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 1998 bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, was interviewed by the station in June 1999. During Israel's elections last year, the station sent its star correspondent, Muhammad Kreishan, to interview representatives of all major political parties, including an David Bar-Illan, an adviser to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    The origins of Al-Jazira date back to 1995 when the BBC, which had built a strong tradition of objective Arabic-language news coverage through its World Service radio network, signed a deal with the Saudi-owned company Orbit Communications to provide Arabic newscasts for Orbit's main Middle East channel. However, the BBC's insistence on editorial independence clashed with the Saudi government's unwillingness to permit reporting on controversial issues, such as executions and the activities of prominent Saudi dissidents. In April 1996, when the BBC broadcast a story on human rights in the Kingdom which showed footage of the beheading of a criminal, Orbit pulled out of the deal.

Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani
Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani
    A few months later, the new Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took advantage of this fortuitous development by establishing Al-Jazeera and hiring most of the BBC Arabic Service's editors, reporters and technicians to form the nucleus of its staff. The Emir, who had launched a sensational campaign to end censorship in Qatar (going so far as to abolish its information ministry) since ousting his father in 1995, contributed $140 million to finance Al-Jazira's operations for the first five years, after which the company would supposedly sustain itself through advertising revenues.

    Al-Jazeera has not made that transition--in fact, the Qatari government has been spending around $100 million each year to sustain the station, which has been unable to attract enough advertisers. Although the market for satellite television advertising in Arab world is estimated to exceed $500 million annually, most of it is spent by multinational corporations which are reluctant to risk alienating governments in the region. State sponsorship of Al-Jazeera clearly impacts the objectivity of its coverage of political developments within the Emirate, though not as much as one might expect. Recent programs have addressed such controversial issues as state subsidies to members of the Qatari royal family, but there have been no interviews with Qatari political dissidents who oppose the monarchy.

    Qatar's sponsorship of Al-Jazeera has helped the country achieve a level of regional and international influence way out of proportion to its military and economic strength in recent years. Qatar has played a key role in Arab and Western relations with Iran--according to one report, Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi passed a message to the U.S., asking it to relax pressure on his government prior to the February parliamentary elections, through Qatari diplomats.3 Qatar diplomats have also been involved in mediation efforts in the Ethiopian-Eritrean dispute and the Sudanese civil war.

    However, Al-Jazeera's precise function as an instrument of Qatari foreign policy is not easily discernible. Decisions as to the content of the station's news coverage and the participants in its televised political forums do not appear to be influenced by specific foreign policy objectives. If there is a cornerstone to Qatar's foreign policy, it is its development of friendly ties with all countries of the region (including Iraq, Iran and Israel), an objective that does not appear at first glance to be easily compatible with sponsoring a satellite news station that broadcasts interviews with their political dissidents, reports on their human rights abuses, and open debates on their religious practices.

    Given the immense potential of satellite television to undermine authoritarian regimes, why has Qatar not suffered a severe backlash in its relations with other Arab states? The reason for this probably lies in the Qatari government's relative lack of interference in the station's affairs. When the station broadcast an expose on the Algerian civil war a few years back, the Algerian government was willing to cut power to several major cities in order to prevent people from seeing it, but it was not willing to undertake any form of retaliation against Qatar (aside from a rather routine diplomatic protest) because it didn't want to become the one state that the Qatari government might single out in future broadcasts. In contrast, if a state-run media organ in Egypt, for instance, were to broadcast a program on Syrian political prisoners, this would create a major crisis because Damascus would correctly perceive it as a deliberate political attack.

  1 AP Newswire, 2 May 2000.
  2 Jomhuri-ye Eslami (Teheran), 10 May 2000.
  3 The Jerusalem Report, 27 March 2000.
  4 Al-Ayyam (Bahrain), 9 June 1999.
  5 Akhbar al-Khaleej (Bahrain), 9 June 1999.

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