Sunday, 3 August 2008

Al Jazeera and the released terrorist's birthday party

It’s a frightening statistic: according to a Jordan-based agency called the Knowledge World Centre for Polls, 98 per cent of political science and media professors in the Arab world claim to watch at least three hours of Al Jazeera daily, labelling it as the “the most respected news agency”. What is frightening about that number isn’t that 98 per cent of Arab political science professors admit to watching three hours of television a day, but that they watch three hours of the same television each day.

The problem with watching Al Jazeera in Arabic isn’t just that the channel gives ample airtime to militants and terrorists to share their “perspective”, but because its conspiracy theories and controversies give the station so much influence on the easily-swayed Arab mindset. For those who consider the English version of Al Jazeera to be distinct, the channel’s chairman, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, promised that it “will be no different”.

In 2004, Al Jazeera published a “Code of Ethics” document that is posted on its website. The very first pledge by the Qatar-based channel includes “giving no priority to political considerations over professional ones”. There are several books that disprove Al Jazeera’s claims of neutrality. One is by Dr Mamoun Fandy, a distinguished author and senior fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, called (Un) Civil War of Words: The Politics of Arab Media.

An example that demonstrates Dr Fandy’s belief in the lack of Al Jazeera’s impartiality was evident recently when the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah scored yet another media coup with the release of Sameer Kuntar, the ultimate propaganda tool from Israel. A bigger media prize than the potential freeing of Marwan Al-Barghouti, the Palestinian activist who called for restricting attacks on the Israeli Defence Force inside the occupied territories and condemned attacks on civilians over the Green Line, Hizbollah’s latest trophy, handed over by Israel after almost three decades in prison, is a far more valuable pawn.

Kuntar was convicted when he was 17 years old (albeit it in an enemy court in 1980), of murdering, among others, Einat, an innocent four-year-old Israeli girl he dragged from bed at night to the seashore and whose fragile head, the court was told, he had smashed with the butt of his rifle. True to its spirit of courting controversy, Al Jazeera celebrated Kuntar’s release like no other television channel.

The station not only repeatedly interviewed “the hero” but brazenly threw Kuntar, live on international television, a surprise birthday party to celebrate the occasion. The party organised by Al Jazeera came complete with fireworks, a full band and a giant birthday cake along with the picture of the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah.

The channel’s Beirut bureau chief, Ghassan Bin Jiddou, sporting a pink tie for the occasion, repeatedly addressed the terrorist as “my brother” saying: “You deserve even more than this.”

Number three on Al Jazeera’s Code of Ethics list: give full consideration to the feelings of the victims of crime.

Is Qatar, the channel’s backer, fully aware of the danger it creates by associating itself with this sort of programming: a birthday party for a convicted child murderer? In fact, all Arabs should re-examine their understanding of what characterises a hero; take a look at your own child and imagine just how frightened the four-year-old Einat must have been.

The unrepentant Kuntar later told Al Jazeera how “wonderful” he thought the assassination of the former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat had been, and how he looked forward to “similar assassinations”.

Although we may never know what psychological pressures Kuntar endured during his incarceration in Israel’s prisons, we do know that he was allowed to marry and graduate from the Israel Open University with a degree in political science, rendering him an ideal Al Jazeera viewer.

Hafez al-Mirazi, the station’s former Washington bureau chief, once compared Al Jazeera to the BBC in Britain, claiming that it receives government funding but maintains a neutral stance. Nothing could be further from the truth. How would we view the BBC if it organised, say, a birthday party for the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic? Last year al-Mirazi quit the channel accusing its new management of turning it into Hamas Television.

The privileged treatment that Kuntar received courtesy of Al Jazeera was the coup de grace to their claims of neutrality. Ironically, of all the world’s news channels, it is Al Jazeera and Fox News who repeatedly emphasise their impartiality. Which brings to mind a friend of mine’s adaptation of the famous Joseph Goebbels’ dictum that characterised so much of Nazi Germany’s propaganda: “When you want to get away with a lie,” he said, “you must repeat it many times over and believe it to be the truth. Only then will others believe you”.

It certainly works for Al Jazeera. Just ask 98 per cent of Arab political science professors.

Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities.

This article first appeared in newspaper on Sunday August 3rd 2008

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