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Al Jazeera TV Rubs Arab Govts the Wrong Way

With at least 35 million viewers in the Arab world and elsewhere, the Al Jazeera satellite TV channel has gained prominence for its exclusives on Osama bin Laden as well as open debates on taboo subjects, in contrast to the region's mostly censored media.
by N Janardhan
Dubai (IPS) Aug 20, 2002
It is the "CNN of the Arab world" for many people in the Middle East, but governments in the region are beginning to feel that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television channel is a "chronic headache".

With at least 35 million viewers in the Arab world and elsewhere, Jazeera has gained prominence for its exclusives on Osama bin Laden as well as open debates on taboo subjects, in contrast to the region's mostly censored media.

However, it has also contributed to tension between countries by airing liberal and critical programmes on Arab politics and its regimes. The latest row involves Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The government of Jordan closed the Qatar-based satellite news channel's office there on Thursday and recalled its ambassador for consultation, saying Jazeera was provoking "sedition" through a broadcast that portrayed the kingdom's rulers as "puppets of the United States and Israel".

The reference was to a show aired Tuesday last week -- 'Al Ittijah Al Moakess' (Opposite Direction) -- in which the participants criticised Jordan and the royal family's Middle East policies.

The participants on the show challenged the basis of the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty and slammed Jordan's policies toward the Palestinians and Iraq, blasting King Abdullah II and his late father King Hussein as "liars" and "agents" of Israel's secret service and the United States Central Investigative Agency (CIA), accusations that are almost never made on record.

Jordan Information Minister Mohammed Adwan's angry reaction was immediate: "This station has exceeded all professional and moral values in dealing with many national issues," the official news agency Petra said.

Accusing Jazeera of "cheap tactics", Moasher said the issue "is not one of freedom of speech but of voluntary falsification of the noble history of Jordan and its Hashemite leadership".

The Jordanian press accused Jazeera of cosying up to Israel and suggested that the Qatari leaders were ready to help the United States attack Iraq, unlike Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

This implication follows recent reports that the United States is likely to use Doha as a military base in the Gulf in its bid to topple Saddam Hussein, after Amman and Riyadh refused to cooperate.

The 'Jordan Times' said in a report that Qatar was "defaming Arab countries through Al Jazeera to cover up for its trade links with Israel and its military agreements with the United States. This television channel is a lion with the Arabs and a lamb with Qatar."

It argued that Jazeera, "which insists on its impartiality, refrains from covering controversial Qatari domestic politics".

Political analyst and 'Gulf Today' editor P V Vivekanand says the spat could well be a fallout of last year's resolution of the row between Qatar and Bahrain over the Hawar islands, which both claimed for its potential as a tourist destination.

"Qatar was peeved at the Arab backing that Manama received in the Hawar legal case, finally settled in favour of Bahrain with the involvement of the International Court of Justice. Unable to vent its anger in any other form, Doha used Jazeera," Vivekanand said in an interview.

But it is not just Jordan that is irked by Jazeera. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar also plunged to a new low in July over programmes aired by the channel that was seen as an affront to the Saudi royal family.

In a talk show aired by Jazeera in the last week of June, Saudi dissidents blasted the royal family. The channel also telecast a documentary about the founder of Saudi Arabia, late King Abdulaziz, which Riyadh considered insulting.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has also complained about Jazeera's coverage, arguing that it is violating a GCC code of conduct that bans cross-border media attacks.

Qatar has admitted that Jazeera is a "perpetual headache" but insists it would not close the channel, which is also a major advertisement for the royal family's "liberal outlook in a region dominated by conservative thinking".

"Yes, there is resentment, but there is a misunderstanding. We need to open a dialogue to sort it out since we are one (Gulf Arab) family and share the same destiny," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani said in a statement after the diplomatic row. He cited freedom of the press in his defence of Jazeera.

While Doha claims Jazeera is an independent, private sector channel, many Arabs believe it is a government mouthpiece that can be used as needed.

Qatari officials liken their relationship with the channel to what the British Broadcasting Corp enjoys with the British government, but it is a well-known fact that Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani owns 35 percent of the channel and is a cousin of the Qatari emir.

Launched five years ago and sustained by a 137 million U.S. dollar grant from the Qatari emir, the satellite television channel is now charging up to 20,000 dollars per minute of footage of bin Laden-related tapes.

Hanan Ragheb, a researcher in the department of communications at Al Ain University, feels the reactions from Amman and Riyadh are symptomatic of the limited tolerance levels the region's governments have.

"There is no media censorship as long as the target is an enemy of the government as well, like it is with Israel. But the rules of the game swiftly change when the regime and its leadership comes under scrutiny. Having got used to little or no political opposition, the regimes eye even the lowest decibel of dissent with suspicion, even if it were constructive criticism," Ragheb said in an interview.

"In the Middle East, any opinion has to confirm with the official view. It cannot emerge from the masses or through the media, but should be handed down from the regime. That's the tradition on which the system survives and thrives," he added.

But whatever the reservations of the region's governments, many say they find Jazeera's telecasts worth watching.

Noora Abdullah, who works at the Dubai Media City, said: "It gives you both the truth and the gossip. The hottest news is on Jazeera."

Copyright 2002 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by IPS-Inter Press Service. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of IPS-Inter Press Service.

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