an area of the map for world news.
December 2001 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 48, No. 12)
Satellite Station Scoops
Al-Jazeera, The Pride
Times of India (conservative), New Delhi, Oct. 10, 2001.
When Osama bin
Laden, the world’s most-wanted man, has something to say, he
goes to Al-Jazeera. When Taliban want to denounce allied attacks
on their country, they go to Al-Jazeera. And Al-Jazeera, a Qatari
satellite TV channel, is happy to oblige. In fact, so much that
the U.S. authorities have started questioning the liberal credentials
of the channel. But everyone’s watching Al-Jazeera, established
now as one of the first sources of news from and on Bin Laden
and the Taliban. The United States, meanwhile, is keeping a
close eye on it.
|Always controversial in the Arab world,
Al-Jazeera is now controversial worldwide.
The channel’s surprisingly close links with Bin Laden and the
Taliban have seen the United States add it to its list of detractors
since the Sept. 11 attacks. The channel is being accused of
reporting in favor of the Taliban, which it denies.
It was not always so. The channel was till recently well received
in the United States. After all, it has been satiating Americans’—and
the world’s—hunger for information about a man as elusive as
he is wanted.
On Sunday, Al-Jazeera broadcast a recorded video message from
Osama bin Laden. An ominous message, really, promising that
the United States “will never again know security before Palestine
knows it.” And this was not a first. Video footage released
a day earlier showed Bin Laden and lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri
with followers celebrating, presumably after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Earlier, its offices received a fax purportedly from Bin Laden,
denouncing U.S. President George W. Bush. Al-Jazeera also interviewed
Bin Laden at least thrice—1997, 1998, and in January this year—and
had exclusive footage of the wedding of his son Mohamed at Kandahar.
The tapes are now under the scrutiny of the U.S. authorities.
Much is being read into the timing of the release of the latest
tapes, especially since Bin Laden, it is said, allows himself
to be filmed only when he has a message to convey.
Al-Jazeera, however, has a long, liberal background. The CNN
of the Arab world, as it is popularly known, has beamed freedom
into Arab homes since it began broadcasting in November 1996,
touching taboo topics like women’s rights, relations with Israel,
sex, fundamentalism and religion, and corruption.
Breaking every rule, it aired interviews and debates with controversial
figures—Israeli leaders, Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzuk, and shadowy
folk like Robert Hatem, alias Cobra, the former bodyguard of
Eli Hobeika, leader of the Lebanese Phalange militia responsible
for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.
The channel began as a pet project of Qatar’s liberal emir,
Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani. Lively programs like “The
Opposite Direction,” “Without Borders,” and “The Other Opinion”
have changed the way TV will be viewed in the region. For the
first time in a conservative land, it criticized governments
and refused to edit contrary views. No wonder then, it is the
pride of Qatar. The ruling family put up US$150 million as a
five-year “loan” to set up the channel on the condition that
Al-Jazeera became financially independent by April 2001, which
incidentally it has not. The channel has invested heavily in
state-of-the-art equipment, new infrastructure, and commercial
studios. It has bureaus in all-important centers of international
news, can be seen almost throughout the world, and has plans
Though viewers have embraced the channel with the fervor of
a people hitherto denied free information, it has been a thorn
in the flesh of Qatar’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
Lebanon, Algeria, Bahrain, and Jordan. The marked exception
has been the Taliban. And Al-Jazeera is using it to its advantage.