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Alternative TV: The War Through Arab Eyes
By Gregg Reynolds


IF GOOD REPORTING can be judged by the enemies it makes, then al-Jazeera must be doing something right. The Arabic-language TV channel provoked rebukes from the U.S. government and military officials in the early days of "The War on Iraq" (al-Jazeera's phrase) when it rebroadcast Iraqi footage of dead and captive U.S. soldiers. Shortly afterwards the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ expelled al-Jazeera reporters from their trading floors.

On April 2, Iraq expelled one of al-Jazeera's Baghdad correspondents and barred another from working, apparently because they had sought interviews without government permission. The network responded by suspending operations in Iraq. "They cannot dictate to us who can and who cannot work," said editor-in-chief Ibrahim Helal.

Aficionados of the "clash of civilizations" school should hesitate before branding Osama bin Laden's favorite TV station as a mere mouthpiece for the axis of evil. The Qatar-based network has a distinguished history of ruffling feathers within as well as outside the Arab world. Arab opinion leaders of every stripe have castigated the station at various times, and on more then one occasion Arab governments have demanded that Qatari authorities rein in the station.


To his credit, the Sandhurst-educated Emir of Qatar, who has underwritten the station's expenses for most of its life, has steadfastly refused to interfere with editorial decisions. Established in 1996 from the remnants of a failed venture between the BBC and Saudi Arabia, al-Jazeera burst on the Arab scene like a super-nova. Its productions were polished and visually sophisticated; its staff was composed of experienced professionals, many of them veterans of the BBC, all of them native speakers of Arabic; its programming was completely unfettered by the state-controlled censorship that had long dominated Arab media. And it was free to anyone with a satellite dish.

It is difficult to overstate the station's impact. Prior to al-Jazeera, state control of media made for dreadful TV: uninformative, boring and unrelated to the issues of the day. Serious, open debate occurred in private, rarely in organs of mass communication. Al-Jazeera broke all the taboos, exposing the hypocrisy and vapidity of official news reporting and airing the concerns and opinions of Arab populations in a way that had previously been unimaginable. The call-in sections of its wildly popular talk and debate shows provided ordinary citizens for the first time with the chance to express opinions in a public forum. The shows often took on the character of a transnational therapy session.

The immediate and widespread popularity of its programming has revolutionized mass communications in the Arab world to the point that competing services are now beginning to emerge, with similar editorial freedom. That's why the New York Times editorialized against the expulsion of the network from Wall Street, arguing that al-Jazeera "deserves all the help it can get." Click to continue reading the article.

 
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