The rise of the ‘mouthpiece of terror’
Harsh A. Desai

Al-Jazeera : How Arab TV News Challenged the World
by Hugh Miles. Abacus.
Pages 426. £ 4.99

Al-Jazeera : How Arab TV News Challenged the WorldTHE book is Hugh Mile’s riveting story of how an obscure news channel (Al-Jazeera) from an obscure Middle Eastern country (Qatar) — known for its huge gas reserves but little else — became one of the premier news channels of the world, though it began only in 1996. It presumably took advantage of its location in the Middle East, which has in the past few years become the cradle of news events with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the rise of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is the story of a channel, which follows the simple motto of the free press presenting two sides of every issue. The channel goes by its motto — ‘The opinion and the other opinion’ — even if it is offensive to this or that power or person and this has moved up its news sweepstakes. It is really the story of a village belle turning super star. It is also the story of courage. The story of reporting under fire. Despite the fact that 24 of its journalists were detained in Iraq, including many in the notorious Abu Gharib prison, the channel continues to do work in that country.

The channel has been called anti-American and an agent of America, anti-Israel and an agent of the Israel, anti-Arab and pro-Arab, anti-Palestinian and pro-Palestinian and an agent of Israel, America, Osama Bin Laden et al. Hugh Miles says at page 218: was popularly held in the Arab world that Al-Jazeera was a pawn of the CIA, the American press regularly decried the station as a mouthpiece for terror, the Israelis complained about its alleged pro-Palestinian bias, while the Kuwaitis had shut Al-Jazeera’s bureau for supporting Saddam Hussein." If a news channel’s true grit can be judged by the number of people it has offended and the number of enemies it has made, it is clear that Al-Jazeera has true grit.

Cutting its teeth on the second intifada and the Arab-Israeli conflict and then building its reputation in the Afghan War — it was the only channel initially to have access to Taliban and Kabul — Al-Jazeera’s audience has been increasing with each passing year, peaking during the invasion of Iraq at about 50 million people. It has given voice to the Arabic people and the Arabic point of view and has been embraced by Arabs worldwide. But that is not all. Its cutting-edge journalism has meant that western channels the world over have become dependent on the feed it provides on conflicts in the Middle East. And its success has spawned many imitators but nobody quite capable of matching its class.

The motives of the Emir of Qatar in setting up the channel are a little obscure. Qatar is not a democracy but Al-Jazeera has been guaranteed full press freedom. Why? That is not entirely clear. The Emir looks to be a visionary because the success of Al-Jazeera has put him at the centre of the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera has provoked American anger by showing footage of dead American soldiers or graphic footage of dead Palestinians, which has made Israel’s task even more difficult, but I think that is a matter of editorial policy. More controversial to me is the broadcast of several taped messages of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda as also of Saddam Hussein when he was on the run. Is this journalism and just reporting a story or does this cross the line of being propaganda? I think Miles has not sufficiently explored this aspect in enough detail.

Hugh Miles was the Times Young Journalist of the Year awardee in 2000 and has done a thorough job while turning the spotlight on the messenger, i.e. Al-Jazeera. It’s a good book to read if you want to understand the effect the press has had on the Middle East or indeed on politics around the world.

George Bush Beware, Al-Jazeera is soon going to launch an English channel.