Al-Jazeera: the Arab NPR

(This post is a condesed version and further reply to a discussion at Dean's World)

I've blogged on Al-Jazeera before, but feel compelled to mention again just how little respect that the Arabic news channel gets from those people most interested in promoting human freedom. That's a shame, because it's one of the few venues for a genuine battle of ideas that exists in the Arab broadcast media. Al-J doesnt shy away from giving air to both extremes of opinion as well as the mushy middle on any given topic. It gets lambasted for showing the POV of the terrorist, but few will also credit the organization for then showing the POV of the Bush Administration immediately afterward (google for how many times Condoleeza Rice has been interviewed on Al J and you will be surprised).

I strongly believe that the way that freedom and liberty are promulgated is by dissemination of speech, when people are exposed to ideas and see for themselves how those ideas fare against each other. Al J isnt a propaganda outlet, as most supporters of the WoT would prefer; instead it is something far more important.

A commentator at Dean's World had the following critique:

The problems people have with Al J, however, go to their news reporting (Al-Jazeera has a practice of describing Palestinian suicide-bombers who strike in Israel as "martyrs")as well as well as their financial affiliation with people like Saddam.

Most of the accusations about AlJ's use of terminology is ultimately sourced to MEMRI, which has an explicit agenda and bias. They are guilty of cherry-picking as well - would we characterize "American Media" as innately hostile to Islam just because one talk radio show had broadcast a sentiment to bomb Mecca by a US Congressman? I could certtainly create the impression that the US was an implacable enemy of Islam by cherrry picking stupid quotes by fools off our diverse media landscape if I chose to (or had an agenda that demanded I do so).

A fairer assessment of AlJ's actual content is provided by Abu Aardvark, who is not Arab but speaks fluent Arabic. Some of his posts on Al-Jazeera include:

How to criticize al Jazeera
Arab TV and Regional Transformation
Bush says the right thing and the Arab media notices

As for financial affiliations, I have not yet read the Jpost article linked to by TD but will do so soon and comment. Still, given that AlJ is an ARAB media organization, it makes sense that there would be financial ties to Arab regimes - but the question is do those ties translate into editorial control? I dont think so. AlJ's distinction is that its been vilified by every single Arab regime for some sacred cow or another - including Saddam Hussein. And its perhaps crass to suggest it, but AlJ has benefited as much from the largesse of war (in terms of advertising revenue and viewership) as did CN from the Persian Gulf War. I really dont see why a fiscal connection automatically should translate into an indictment, especially given that AlJ's programming remains absolutely broad in scope.

This will undercut my argument to some people, but I cant resist the analogy: AlJ is the analogue to NPR in the Arab world. Not the FOX News! That means, warts and all, its the furthest from a media entertainment enterprise, and closest to the ultimate journalistic ideal, as we can reasonably expect in this day and age. Given that AlJ is in the Arab world, however, it stands to do much more good than harm, because debate is sorely lacking there, while one might argue we here have a surplus.

UPDATE: I have read the JPost article and it's a thin reed. Abu Aardvark had already addressed the issue in some detail (responding to the same allegations as published by The Weekly Standard):

The Weekly Standard piece recounts Mohammed Jassem al-Ali's taped meeting with Uday Hussein, for the umpteenth time, but still can't prove that the sycophantic pleasantries add up to "on the payroll" (maintaining good relations with the regime in order to get access to the country, something which all the news organizations did for better or for worse, explains it just as easily). For the record, the fact that al-Ali was "resigned" from his position shortly after the Iraq war suggests to me that he personally might well have been compromised, but the evidence on offer here doesn't prove it.

The piece insinuates that Ahmed Mansour (host of No Limits and the correspondent in Fallujah in April 2004) was on the Iraqi payroll, but the evidence they cite only shows that the Iraqis liked him, not that he was on the Iraqi payroll. There were plenty of other reasons for al-Jazeera to hire Ahmed Mansour, who is one of the most popular and effective talk show hosts in the Arab media.

I see no evidence that Al J sanctioned Al Ali's liason with Saddam; in fact he was dismissed from the channel after the US invasion. My reading of the JPost article hardly supports the contention that ALJ as a media organization was in any kind of fiscal collusion with Saddam's regime.

Given that the role of Al J is to be an Arab media news source, I think it is reasonable for ALJ to try to initiate and maintain a relationship with every regime in teh region, irrespective of its good, bad, or despicable status on human rights. How they use that access is a different matter, and if someone can find evidence that ALJ sanctioned the deliberate softpedaling of Saddam's crimes, especially in return for some kind of financial kickback, that would be far more damning. However, in the meantime, I stand by my assessment that ALJ is being unfairly vilified - and the reason for this vilification campaign is that ALJ refuses to toe the propaganda line and filter one side out.

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