Al Jazeera (AJ), whose name means “the peninsula” in Arabic, is a 24-hour, Arabic-language satellite TV news network based in Qatar, a small, oil-rich, peninsular nation jutting into the Persian Gulf from the midsection of Saudi Arabia’s eastern border. The station was launched on November 1, 1996, several months after the Saudi-based BBC World Service Television (whose broadcasts also were in the Arabic language) had shut down its operations in reaction to the Saudi government's efforts to censor the station.
AJ was created with a $150 million grant from the Emir of Qatar, who, upon coming to power in 1995, abolished his country's Ministry of Information; such ministries were generally the source of media censorship in most Arab states. Pledging to let AJ “report the news as they see it,” the Emir, who continues to fund the station heavily to this day, said in 1997: “I believe criticism can be a good thing, and some discomfort for government officials is a small price to pay for this new freedom.” AJ's founding slogan was (and still is): “The opinion and the other opinion.”
The fledgling Al Jazeera initially populated its workforce by hiring some 120 of the 250 employees who had worked for the recently-shuttered BBC station in Saudi Arabia. Because of its willingness to criticize Arab rulers, AJ created a significant public stir when it first aired in Middle Eastern nations, where the press was mostly government-controlled, and where criticism of political leaders was thus rarely heard.
In November 2001, Fouad Ajami, a Mideast expert affiliated with the Hoover Institution, offered some insight into the mindset that enabled AJ journalists to be critical of existing Arab governments in a manner that was so uncommon in that part of the world. Most of AJ's reporters and editors, he explained, were “either pan-Arabists—nationalists of a leftist bent committed to the idea of a single nation across the many frontiers of the Arab world—or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life.” Because their “primary allegiance” was to fellow Muslims rather than to Muslim states, said Ajami, they “have no qualms about challenging the wisdom of today's Arab rulers.”
When Ajami was articulating these observations, the rulers of Libya and Tunisia had already condemned AJ for giving opposition leaders in those countries significant amounts of air time. A number of other Muslim governments have likewise rebuked the station for its lack of deference to political authorities.
Al Jazeera's Prime Targets: America and Israel
AJ's criticisms of Arab governments, however, are dwarfed and far outnumbered by the station's myriad, passionate denunciations of the United States and Israel. Indeed, AJ routinely glorifies Islamist terrorists, anti-Semites, and other fanatical foes of those two nations. Fouad Ajami, for one, has accused AJ of “deliberately fan[ning] the flames of Muslim outrage” on a “day in and day out” basis; romanticizing the Taliban and Osama bin Laden; exhibiting a “virulent anti-American bias” in its reportage; and being a genuinely “dangerous force” that “should be treated as such by Washington.”
AJ's newscasts and on-air discussions are staged to show its mostly-Muslim viewers a relentlessly visceral, emotion-charged drama in which Jews, Israel, and Americans are almost always cast as villains, infidels, and evil-doers. As journalist Michael Wolff puts it, “The more anti-U.S. and anti-Israel, the higher ratings [AJ] gets.” “You don't have to look too closely to find that Al Jazeera also inhabits the far side of the ideological moon,” adds Wolff.
American guests on AJ programs are routinely shown great disrespect. A 2007 episode of the flagship talk show The Opposite Direction, for instance, featured guest appearances by U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli and Iraqi parliamentarian Mishan al-Jibouri. When host Faisal al-Qassem asked whether the United States had invaded Iraq (in 2003) in order to free its people or to gain access to its oil, Jibouri replied: “It's not just Iraqi oil; it's all Arab oil. They want to kill off indigenous people and control their wealth.” When Ereli tried to interject, the host quickly cut him off, saying: “The U.S. is the biggest supporter of dictatorships. Aren't you ashamed to repeat these lies? Are you against dictatorships? The U.S. created them with the CIA and all these other people, lying to the world.”
Israeli guests on AJ programs are likewise commonly treated with contempt and disregard. As one Israeli spokesman who appears regularly on AJ explains, “We're never invited to long interview shows but always short interviews of three and a half minutes. They're unwilling to engage in a real dialogue, and instead use Israelis as fig leaves.”
Consistent with such journalistic practices, AJ invariably presents the Palestinian people as innocent victims of Israeli abuses and atrocities. For example, during the Second Intifada (which began in September 2000 and persisted until 2005), the station excoriated the Jewish state on a regular basis, prompting Fouad Ajami to write, in November 2001:
“The channel's policy was firm: Palestinians who fell to Israeli gunfire were martyrs; Israelis killed by Palestinians were Israelis killed by Palestinians.... Al Jazeera's reporters exalted the 'children of the stones,' giving them the same amount of coverage that MSNBC gave to Monica Lewinsky. The station played and replayed the heart-rending footage of 12-year-old Muhammed al-Durra, who was shot in Gaza and died in his father's arms. The images' ceaseless repetition signaled the arrival of a new, sensational breed of Arab journalism.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, AJ promoted the blood libel that Israel's Mossad had forewarned American Jews about the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, and that all Jews who were employed there consequently stayed home on that fateful day. AJ interviewed, as one of its “experts” making this claim, the former Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party leader David Duke, without clearly explaining to its Arab audience who and what Duke is.
Such journalism inevitably influences the perceptions and beliefs of its audience. Consider, for instance, that in May 2001 the AJ program The Opposite Direction explored the question, “Is Zionism Worse than Nazism?” A poll of AJ's Arab viewers found that 84.6% said Zionism was worse than Nazism; 11.1% said Zionism was equivalent to Nazism; and 2.7% said Nazism was worse than Zionism.
AJ's effort to portray Jews in a negative light has continued unabated ever since. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, for instance, reports that during Operation Cast Lead (a.k.a. the “Gaza War” of 2008-09), “a senior Al Jazeera reporter stationed himself at Shifa Hospital, from where he broadcast a stream of carefully selected horror pictures … to show what was purported to be the endless killing of civilians and especially children.”
In 2011, Erik Nisbet, an Ohio State University-based scholar of Arabic media, called it undeniable that anti-Semitism thoroughly pervades AJ's reporting—as evidenced by the solicitous treatment the station typically gives to Islamic terrorists and extremists.
9/11 Coverage and Anti-Americanism
Most Americans first heard Al Jazeera mentioned following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Soon thereafter, AJ began repeatedly broadcasting a videotape that showed 9/11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden praising and taking credit for those attacks by members of his al Qaeda organization. AJ refused to explain where or how it had obtained this videotape, or to impart to others any information that might have helped them track down bin Laden. The station also chose not to stop airing the inflammatory video, despite U.S. concerns that the footage might contain coded messages to other al Qaeda agents around the world. Over the next decade, AJ would distinguish itself as bin Laden's media outlet of choice for airing his various communiques. Indeed the al Qaeda kingpin broadcast no fewer than 10 separate, “exclusive” bin Laden videos via Al Jazeera.
In a post-9/11 New York Times Magazine cover story titled “What the Muslim World Is Watching,” Fouad Ajami noted: “Jazeera's reporters see themselves as 'anti-imperialists.' Convinced that the rulers of the Arab world have given in to American might, these are broadcasters who play to an Arab gallery whose political bitterness they share—and feed.”
Coverage of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
During America's military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, AJ aired many incendiary broadcasts designed to provoke anti-American sentiments. Most notably, it displayed visual examples of the destruction and human suffering that could be blamed on U.S. military actions. In 2003, journalist Michael Wolff wrote in New York Magazine: “It's pretty hard to adequately describe the level of bloodiness during an average Al Jazeera newcast. It's mesmerizing bloodiness. It's not just red but gooey. There's no cutaway. They hold the shot for the full viscous effect. It's vastly grislier than anything that's ever been shown on television before.”
AJ's anti-Americanism manifested itself also in the words which the station's news presenters used to describe the war and its events. For instance, AJ reporters routinely referred to the conflict as America's “War on Iraq,” rather than the War in Iraq. Instead of attaching the terms “terror” or “insurgency” to America's enemies on the battlefield, the terms of choice were “resistance” and “struggle.” And suicide bombings against U.S. troops were often called “commando attacks,” or sometimes even “paradise operations.” With predictable consistency, AJ reports emphasized the heroic exploits of faithful Muslims who, in service to their God, were bravely standing up to the evil foreign invader.
“Al Jazeera has an editorial line and a way of presenting news that appeals to the Arab public,” said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003. “They tend to portray [U.S.] efforts [in Iraq] in a negative light.” President George W. Bush, for his part, in 2004 accused AJ of spreading “hateful propaganda,” while defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld similarly portrayed the station's war coverage as “propaganda” that was “inexcusably biased” and “vicious.”
Documents obtained by the London Times in 2003 (after the fall of Baghdad) revealed that between August 1999 and November 2002, three Iraqi agents had worked inside AJ and were devoted mainly to giving favorable coverage to Saddam Hussein. In other words, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, AJ reporters in Baghdad were on Saddam's payroll—and were probably working for the dictator's brutal intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat. The documents further revealed that AJ's chief executive, Mohammed Jassem Ali, had privately been in contact with Saddam's regime. In light of these revelations, Ali resigned.
By contrast, AJ's bureau chief in Baghdad refused to resign after a pan-Arab daily newspaper in London reported in November 2004—erroneously, he claimed—that he was related to the “main aide” of al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who in several videos used a knife to behead kidnapped people.
In April 2003, U.S. military leaders noticed that one particular AJ reporter who was stationed in Baghdad consistently arrived, with his camera in hand, at the site of Iraqi-perpetrated terror attacks soon after they had taken place. Suspecting collaboration between Al Jazeera and America's enemies, the U.S. bombed AJ's offices in Bagdad, just as it had bombed the station's headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan in late 2001.
Al Jazeera and the Democratic Party
By the time the 2004 presidential campaign season was underway, the Democratic Party was well aware of the fact that AJ's negative depictions of the Bush administration's war efforts in Aghanistan and Iraq were helping to erode popular support for Bush not only overseas, but in the United States as well. In March 2004, AJ praised the Democratic presidential nominee-apparent, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Later that year, AJ was invited to cover the Democratic National Convention, and it did so with remarkably positive reporting.
Ties to Terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood
AJ news anchors and commentators have traditionally treated Hamas representatives with politeness and deference, while giving them large amounts of air time. This is not surprising, given the station's numerous, sustained ties to the terror group. For instance, AJ's original service provider in the United States was raided by the FBI in September 2001 and was subsequently convicted of several crimes, one of which was that he had knowingly taken money from an investor who was a member of Hamas.
Moreover, AJ's bureau chief in Afghanistan, Samer Allawi, was an active member of Hamas from 1993-2004. During that period, he served on a senior committee that was responsible for fundraising and overseeing the group's operations abroad. In 2000 he met with a senior Hamas operative in Dubai and conveyed not only his willingness to take part in the organization's military actions, but also to use his position with AJ to promote Hamas's interests. In 2001 and 2003 he traveled to Syria to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal’s deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook. The latter offered Allawi an opportunity to serve as Hamas’s official representative in Iran, but Allawi turned down the offer. Then, according to the Jerusalem Post, Allawi in 2006 “traveled to Qatar and met with additional Al Jazeera reporters, who … were also Hamas operatives and discussed the possibility of using their positions to advance Hamas by criticizing the U.S. military in Afghanistan.”
By no means is Hamas the only terrorist organization with noteworthy ties to Al Jazeera. In September 2003, AJ's lead reporter in Spain, Tayssir Alouni, was arrested after an investigation found that he had maintained “frequent and continuous” contact with the leader of an al Qaeda cell in that country. This AJ reporter also had close contact with a Germany-based businessman who may have funded 9/11 skyjacker and al Qaeda agent Muhammad Atta in Hamburg.
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) says: “In the course of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Al Jazeera behaved as a Hizbullah spokesman in all but name. It broadcasted all Hizbullah communiqués without bothering to check them, as well as footage from Hizbullah’s satellite network, Al Manar, which was deliberately distorting the facts and grossly exaggerating the actual damage. At no time did Al Jazeera take into consideration what Israel had to say about the situation on the ground.”
In 2009 JCPA stated: “Al Jazeera … may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel—but he is clearly its star. The channel's graphics assign him a lead role: there is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden's silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar.”
“The channel's promos are particularly shameless,” added JCPA. “One clip juxtaposes a scowling George Bush with a poised, almost dreamy bin Laden; between them is an image of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames. Another promo opens with a glittering shot of the Dome of the Rock. What follows is a feverish montage: a crowd of Israeli settlers dance with unfurled flags; an Israeli soldier fires his rifle; a group of Palestinians display Israeli bullet shells; a Palestinian woman wails; a wounded Arab child lies on a bed. In the climactic image, Palestinian boys carry a banner decrying the shame of the Arab world's silence.”
Among the most egregious examples of AJ's affinity for terrorists took place in 2008, when the station covered the release of longtime convict Samir Kuntar from an Israeli prison—a release negotiated in a deal between Israel and Hezbollah. Twenty-nine years earlier, Kuntar had kidnapped a young Israeli father and his 4-year-old daughter, shot the man dead as the girl looked on, and then savagely murdered the child by bashing her head against a large rock. Though Kuntar never subsequently expressed remorse for those killings, AJ threw a festive birthday party in his honor following the sudden termination of his prison sentence. “Brother Samir, we wish to celebrate your birthday with you,” said master of ceremonies Ghassan Ben Jeddo, AJ's Beirut bureau chief. “You deserve even more than this," he said, lauding Kuntar as a “pan-Arab hero.”
University of California computer scientist Judea Pearl, whose journalist son Daniel was kidnapped and beheaded by al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan in 2002, said in 2011 that AJ's “unconditional support of Hamas's terror in Gaza, the Hezbollah takeover in Lebanon, and the Syrian and Iranian regimes betrays any illusion that democracy and human rights are on Al Jazeera's agenda,” and that “weakening the West is their first priority.”
Consistent with AJ's ties to Islamic terrorism is its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological wellspring of groups like Hamas and al Qaeda. “I have no doubt that, today, Al Jazeera is the most powerful voice of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Judea Pearl. Maamun Fendi, a prominent Egyptian liberal thinker currently residing in the United States, estimates that fully half of AJ's personnel belong to the Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera's Islamist Core
In 2007, The Nation'sKristen Gillespie wrote that 9/11 had “brought a new anti-imperialist and, many argue, a pro-Sunni Islamist bent” to AJ; that the station's field reports were “overwhelmingly negative with violent footage played over and over, highlighting Arab defeat and humiliation”; and that the “clear underlying message” was that “the way out of this spiral is political Islam” (i.e., Islamism). Added Gillespie: “Sunni religious figures are almost always treated deferentially as voices of authority on almost any issue, and Arab governments as useless stooges of the United States and Israel.” Further, Gillespie quoted Alberto Fernandez, former director for press and public diplomacy in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, as saying: “We see [AJ's] unconditional support of Islamic movements, no matter where they are: Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan.… How things are covered, the prominence of things, what words are used—sometimes you do see that very clear Islamist subtext.” In 2009, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs stated that “religion is central” to AJ's reporting. And in 2012, the Middle East Forum noted: “Al Jazeera's sectarian impulse has been moving ever closer to garden-variety Sunni Islamism.”
AJ's Islamist sympathies account for the station's clear support for Hamas in its rivalry with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. “In Arabic, it's unmistakable—Al Jazeera is not just pro-Palestinian, but pro-Hamas,” says an Israeli spokesman. The New York Times concurs that there is “little doubt” that AJ portrays Hamas more favorably than it portrays the group's [secular] rivals.
The prominence of Islamism in AJ's presentation of the news is evidenced by the fact that the station's most popular show, a weekly program called Sharia and Life, is hosted by the leading theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Infamous for his virulently anti-Semitic diatribes and his support for Palestinian suicide bombings, Qaradawi, in a January 2009 sermon that aired on AJ television, said:
“Oh Allah, take your enemies, the enemies of Islam. Oh Allah, take the Jews, the treacherous aggressors. Oh Allah, take this profligate, cunning, arrogant band of people. Oh Allah, they have spread much tyranny and corruption in the land. Pour Your wrath upon them, oh our God. Lie in wait for them. Oh Allah, You annihilated the people of Thamoud at the hand of a tyrant, and You annihilated the people of 'Aad with a fierce, icy gale. Oh Allah, You annihilated the people Thamoud at the hand of a tyrant, You annihilated the people of 'Aad with a fierce, icy gale, and You destroyed the Pharaoh and his soldiers – oh Allah, take this oppressive, tyrannical band of people. Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.”
Al Jazeera and the Arab Spring
According to The New York Times, AJ's “aggressive coverage” of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011—when mass demonstrations began to topple several Arab governments and facilitated the political ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood—“helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next.” The Times added that the station's “galvanizing early reports” lent invaluable assistance to the Tunisian revolt that was the first of the Arab revolts, and that AJ “helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel).” “The notion that there is a common struggle across the Arab world is something Al Jazeera helped create,” says Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University. “They did not cause these events, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera.”
Al Jazeera's Reach
As of February 2012, Al Jazeera's worldwide network had more than 65 bureaus in at least 60 countries; these were staffed by over 3,000 employees, including some 400+ journalists. Accessible throughout the Middle East, AJ is today the most viewed station in the Arab world. Polls indicate that 53.4% of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank use AJ as their primary news source, placing the station far ahead of its next two competitors in those regions, Palestine TV and Al Arabiya, which poll at 12.8% and 10%, respectively. AJ also broadcasts in many other parts of the globe.
Al Jazeera English
On November 15, 2006, AJ launched a sister television network, known as Al Jazeera English (AJE), which airs English-language broadcasts in the U.S. and around the world. Like AJ's Arabic-language station, AJE is based in Doha, Qatar. Also like AJ, its programming consists of news features and analysis, documentaries, live debates, current-affairs shows, business and technology reports, and sporting events.
Former Nightline correspondent David Marash, an American Jew, was named to anchor one of the fledgling network's daily broadcasts. Two years later, however, Marash quit AJE because of what he viewed as its pronounced anti-American bias. As an example of that bias, Marash cited an AJE series called Poverty in America:
“This series reported nothing beyond the stereotype and the mere fact that there were homeless people living on the street in Baltimore, for example. Well, were they there as a consequence of mental illness that was not properly cared for because of a generation of a policy of de-institutionalization? Al Jazeera didn’t know because they didn’t ask. Frankly they didn’t know enough to ask. It was enough for them to show poor people living in wretched conditions in a prosperous American city and decry it.”
In March 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded AJE's programming as “must-watch, real journalism.” “Al Jazeera has been the leader in that they are literally changing people's minds and attitudes,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And like it or hate it, it is really effective.”
Notwithstanding Mrs. Clinton's laudatory remarks, cable television networks in the United States have been reluctant to relay Al Jazeera’s broadcasts to their subscribers. As of late 2011, AJE was available only to cable subscribers in New York City, Houston, Washington DC, Toledo, Burlington (Vermont), and San Francisco (via Link TV). The station was also available to U.S.-based viewers through DVB-S on the Galaxy 19 (and Galaxy 23 C-band) satellites, and was broadcast over the air by WNVC on digital channel 30-5 in the Washington, DC area.
Elsewhere in the world, AJE's growth has been far more explosive. As of February 2012, the station employed more than 1,000 staffers situated in over 50 separate countries. By December 2012, AJE broadcasts were available to some 250 million households in 130 nations.
Al Jazeera Purchases Current TV, Plans to Develop Al Jazeera America
On January 2, 2013, Al Jazeera spent an estimated $500 million to purchase the left-wing Current TV, whose ownership group included former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. (Gore owned a 20% share of Current TV, meaning that his payout from the deal was approximately $100 million.) The transaction boosted AJ's potential reach in the U.S. to approximately 40 million homes, a nearly ninefold increase. In a statement confirming the sale, Gore proudly said that Al Jazeera shared Current TV’s commitment “to give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling.” News reports at the time of the sale claimed that AJ was planning to gradually transform Current TV into a network called Al Jazeera America (AJA), which would be editorially separate from the Qatar-based broadcast center that also houses Al Jazeera English.
In February 2013 Al Jazeera announced that it would soon expand its existing U.S.-based AJA staff from 13 to approximately 200 (i.e., reporters, producers, videographers, and online writers). Moreover, AJA planned to build a new broadcast center in Washington, DC; expand its space at the United Nations in New York; and establish bureaus in Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, and five other American cities.
AJA was officially launched on August 20, 2013 with a staff of 900 people, including 400 newsroom employees. The New York Times reported that the station would "start in about 48 million of the country’s roughly 100 million homes that subscribe to television."
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