Sunday, 11 January 2009

The war that made al Jazeera English 'different'

It was the winter of 2001, barely a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks: an obscure channel in a tiny Gulf state created shock waves with its coverage of the American invasion of Afghanistan. Tayseer Alouni, the only journalist in Taliban-controlled Kabul (he is currently serving a seven-year jail term in his adopted country of Spain for colluding with al Qa'eda), was able to interview the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden shortly after the September 11 attacks. It was one of the biggest television events in history and it put, for better or worse, al Jazeera Arabic on the map forever.

Today, it is the al Jazeera English channel that has without a doubt made its name in the past two weeks. What the American invasion of Afghanistan did for al Jazeera Arabic, the Israeli invasion of Gaza is doing for its English language twin.

In 2007, one of Hamas's few successes as governors of the Strip was securing the release of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, then the only Western journalist working full-time in Gaza. Ironically, the imbecile gang that kidnapped him denied the Palestinians of Gaza the opportunity of having based among them a professional and respected news reporter who would have been able to report on the sickening Israeli bombings of their impoverished ghetto.

Enter al Jazeera English to fill the void: a channel that is now clearly trying to assert its breakaway from its sensationalist sister after a tangled start. Despite the insistence of al Jazeera Arabic's management that their channel is independent, it was clear to anyone watching it that ever since the "courtesy visits" in the spring of 2008 between the Qatari and Saudi leaderships – after a six-year break in relations – the station's critical stance against Saudi officials completely ceased.

The cessation was so evident that the Lebanese political scientist As'ad Abu Khalil commented on his Angry Arab blog about "the demise of al Jazeera". Something seismic happened in the corridors of al Jazeera that coincided with the wake of this sudden reconciliation between the two countries. Up to 16 journalists working in al Jazeera English were abruptly fired or quit, including the veteran American journalist David Marash citing "lack of clarity over its direction".

This was followed soon after by the replacement of Nigel Parsons, the managing director of al Jazeera English, with Tony Burman, the former head of CBC News who later told National Public Radio in America that "al Jazeera English is not a translation of al Jazeera Arabic. It's a different channel that's intended for a different audience, and its choice of stories, formats, etcetera, are both different", adding that "there is no interference from the Qatari government" in the editorial.

This winter's war on Gaza could cement the emergence of al Jazeera English from the shadows of its now tamed sister channel. Al Jazeera English's journalists inside the Strip, including Nour Odeh and Sherine Tadros, have covered the attacks quite professionally – unlike many other journalists, who remind me of the quotation: "In time of war, the loudest patriots are the greatest profiteers."

The reporters are backed by an array of news anchors and political commentators, including Shihab Rattansi, Ghida Fakhri and Marwan Bishara. But the star of the coverage is probably the young Egyptian-American producer-turned-correspondent Aymen Mohyeldein, a veteran of both NBC and CNN who appears on the channel day and night. Mohyeldein's professional reporting as well as his grace-under-fire attitude is sure to make him a household name in the near future.

Accentuating its "different" approach, al Jazeera English refrains from calling even the civilian victims of the Gaza attacks "martyrs" even though the Arabic channel uses the term loosely on various occasions in order to appeal to Arabic viewers.

Al-Jazeera English also doesn't seem to be sharing its editorial team with the Arabic channel. The footage that is shot by one channel is seldom seen on the other. Even though most of their journalists are proficient in Arabic as well as English, I have yet to see one of them appear on the other channel even for a brief update.

But the biggest factor that distinguishes al Jazeera English reports from all the hundreds of others filed by global news channel reporters stationed around the Gaza Strip, is its status as the only network with professional television reporters inside the territory. By interviewing families of victims and ordinary Gazans caught between Hamas's arrogance and Israel's reign of terror, and by beaming pictures of dying children and crowded hospitals, they have been able to embarrass both Hamas and Israel, neither of whom seem to care for the plight of the Palestinians of Gaza as long as they appear to be triumphant.

The pictures that appear on al Jazeera English have contributed to the galvanising of the collective conscience of the English speaking world. Al Jazeera English broke its blockade in America recently by making use of technology such as its website, YouTube, Livestream and even employing Twitter, the global online social messaging utility to get its "different" message across.

For al Jazeera English, the horrific war on Gaza has proven to be a "different" blessing in disguise.


rabab said...

Even if the content of Al Jazeera English is different from its Arabic sister. I think that the government interference will always remain. Let's face it, Qatar like many other arab countries is not Democratic. In such countries, freedom of speech is always influenced even if it "appears" to be practiced. Al Jazeera English did a great job at covering the Isreali war on Hamas only because the decision makers were interested in letting them be, at this war atleast.

Andres said...

In so many words, Al Jazeera is as versatile in it's reporting as CNN, CNN International and CNN En EspaƱol, catering to different audiences...

coffee said...

i would love for Al Jazeera to be available all over the U.S... i trust their reporting quality more than CNN or Fox

Enki said...

It's different all right, there seems to be very little reporting on anything in the middle east, and when they do mention something its only vague articles with absolutely no analysis, but perhaps with the exception of Afghanistan which is not surprising since the USA is focused on there at the moment, the the Zionist controlled media would never fail to report on such things...