Al Jazeera:  One Name, Two Channels May09


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Al Jazeera: One Name, Two Channels

Many loyal Al Jazeera English viewers worldwide are drawn to the television network because of its insightful coverage of last year’s Arab Spring uprisings – and its in-depth reporting from the developing world. Since its creation in 2006, the Qatari-based English-language channel has deployed its resources around the world to fulfill a goal of being “the voice of the global south,” though it has done so with a distinctive Western style. The tagline “This is Al Jazeera” echoes James Earl Jones’ signature “This is CNN.” One of its flagship shows, “Inside Story,” analyzes the news of the day by presenting the kind of cordial, opposing-view debates that are a hallmark of American TV news. And on his program “Frost Over the World,” BBC veteran David Frost’s interview roster is packed with western figures from the worlds of politics, cinema and sport.

Then there is Al Jazeera Arabic, the first channel in the Al Jazeera network, whose 1996 debut caused a sensation in the Arab world.  Its viewers see the same golden logo used on the English channel, but much of the rest of what they see – and hear – is distinctly different:  passionate talk shows, where guests and anchors often raise their voices and even pound the table; gruesome closeups of dead bodies from violent conflicts; images of weeping Palestinian women, overcome with grief and usually accompanied by dramatic music. The Arabic channel’s sympathies in Middle East conflict zones are often readily apparent. The current conflict in Syria, for example, is a “Freedom Revolution” on the Arabic channel, while Al Jazeera English uses a more neutral label: “Syria: The War Within.”

For years, the Arab channel’s feistiness and frequent airing of Osama Bin Laden tapes created hostility to both channels in the U.S.

“Al Jazeera Arabic’s image was a double-edged sword for Al Jazeera English at the beginning,” said Dave Marash, former Al Jazeera English anchor. In the U.S., “It was used by the Bush administration, emphasizing the sort of Arab nationalist aspects of the Arabic channel to try and devalue in advance the English channel.”

Al Jazeera English currently reaches 250 million households worldwide and is attempting to gain national carriage in the United States. But, six years after its debut, it is only available through U.S. cable TV systems in Washington D.C., the New York City area, Toledo, Ohio, and two regions of Vermont.

Experts say that to some extent this is still due to the Arabic channel’s reputation.

“Satellite broadcasters don’t want to touch it because they fear the backlash from the right-wingers and the pro-Israeli Americans who would complain, and raise hell, and make a lot of problems for cable companies who distribute Al Jazeera’s signal,” said Hugh Miles, a journalist and author of several books on the Al Jazeera network.

Nevertheless Al Jazeera English’s popular Internet live stream has enabled the network to reach a wider audience and establish its separate identity.

“It became clear very quickly that Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic were two very different editorial products,” said Marash. “And I think that each has its own editorial reputation.”

The two channels’ separate identities, missions and target audiences inevitably result in differences in defining what events are newsworthy and how the news should be framed.  Global Newsroom monitored both channels for two weeks this spring, talked with journalists from each channel, and interviewed regular viewers and media analysts to compile this comparison.

Two Channels, Two Audiences

To a large degree, the sharp contrasts between the channels are not surprising, say media analysts. Each is aimed at a different, very distinct audience.

Al Jazeera Arabic’s estimated audience of 40 to 50 million is only about one-fifth the audience reach of the English channel. Those who watch are mainly Arabic speakers in the Middle East and North Africa, with some viewers in the Arab diaspora.

“The main focus is on the Middle East, and that is their priority,” said author Hugh Miles.

The English channel, said Miles, “is pitching at a very sophisticated, English-speaking audience. And English viewers are very spoiled in terms of news,” with many broadcast and Internet options. What Al Jazeera English does to distinguish itself from others, said Miles, is to cover in depth regions of the world that are neglected by Western media.

Besides sharing language and geography, Al Jazeera Arabic viewers also share a taste for news with a point of view, according to Ayman Mohyeldin, an Egyptian-American reporter who anchored much of Al Jazeera English’s coverage from Cairo last year. “They want something a little bit more polemic,’ Mohyeldin said in an interview with Columbia Journalism Review last year.  “They want to feel they have someone who is fighting on their behalf.”

That’s one reason why the Arabic channel uses some terms that would never be heard on Al Jazeera English, said Mohamed Elmenshawy, director of the Languages and Regional Studies Program at The Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. The Arabic channel might describe Palestinians as ‘resistant people” or  “freedom fighters,” said Elmenshawy, whereas on  Al Jazeera English, they are simply referred to as the Palestinians. “They are much more cautious on the English channel,” said Elmenshawy.

Two Missions, Too

There is more behind the contrasts in the channels than just the audience differences though. While each Al Jazeera channel was started by the same man, the emir of the tiny Persian Gulf country of Qatar, they were created for different reasons.

In 1995, after he deposed his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came to power as the new emir, eager to place Qatar on the map.  Around the same time, a BBC Arabic news channel project fell apart. The new emir hired many of the Arab journalists who had worked with BBC, and created Al Jazeera to deliver news in Arabic via satellite throughout the Arab world.

Almost immediately, Al Jazeera made waves. Middle Eastern political leaders, used to controlling media within their borders, were furious when the emir’s new station began beaming its independent reporting into their citizens’ TV sets. By offering critical analysis and shows that let people with opposing viewpoints confront each other, Al Jazeera brought a radical new way of seeing the world to a broad, pan-Arab audience. Qatari influence in the region soared.

“It is hard not to see Qatar’s elevation on the world stage as linked to its media,” said William Youmans, a scholar at the University of Michigan and author of “The Debate over Al Jazeera English in Burlington, VT,” In an email interview. Al Jazeera and Qatar “emerge in tandem” on the world stage in the 1990s, with a profound impact on despotic Arab states, high profile coverage of U.S. incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally the Arab Spring, “all of which Al Jazeera and Qatar had hands in either disrupting or fermenting,” said Youmans.

In 2006, the emir launched Al Jazeera English, initially called Al Jazeera International. Its stated mission was to provide English-speaking audiences with timely reporting from the Middle East and other regions underreported by western media.

“Al Jazeera English deliberately set out to try to see the world from a different perspective,” said Miles. “It wants to break out from the traditional English-language news format, which sees everything from the Washington, London, Western European perspective.”

Some reviewers have lavished praise on the result.  In 2009, in an article titled “Why I Love Al Jazeera,”  for the Atlantic, international correspondent Robert Kaplan described the English channel as “a feast of vivid, pathbreaking coverage from all continents,” and a “rebuke to the dire predictions about the end of foreign news as we know it.”

If Al Jazeera Arabic’s competitors were the tightly-controlled state-owned broadcasters of the Middle East, the new English channel sought to compete with global channels CNN International and BBC. Star journalists were hired, including BBC and CNN anchor Riz Khan and BBC’s David Frost. The channel’s very first “Newshour” featured top stories from across the globe.

Al Jazeera English, like its Arabic predecessor, was very much the emir’s project, said Miles. “Al Jazeera is very personal to him. It’s his baby and these big decisions like starting a new channel are definitely accountable to him personally,” said Miles.

The motive for becoming a global media mogul, according to Miles, is both strategic and religious. “I think he believes that he is a man on a mission from God,” said Miles. So he has chosen to use some of his vast wealth “to show a responsible Muslim faith to the world that is different from the Saudis, the Emirates and the other Arab. He wants to show that you can be a conservative Wahhabi Muslim and also contribute to the world community.”

Covering the World – or Parts of It

Al Jazeera English reports literally from around the world, and particularly from areas underreported in much of the western media. In contrast, Al Jazeera Arabic’s main focus– sometimes almost its exclusive focus — is the Islamic world.

A typical example: On April 9, “Newshour,” Al Jazeera English’s hourly news bulletin (which can run anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes), began its broadcast with a report from Syria but quickly moved to news from: Nigeria, Somalia, Tunisia, the U.S., Bahrain, Malawi, Colombia, North Korea, China, Russia, Peru and Greece. Although Syria was the top story, it was given no more time than stories from other countries.

By contrast, on the same day, Al Jazeera Arabic’s news bulletin featured 20 minutes of coverage about Syria, followed by several much shorter reports, all from Islamic countries: Turkey, Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine.

Beyond its geographic breadth, Al Jazeera English’s “Newshour” consistently offers stories rich in context. For instance, coverage of the April 4 coup in Mali went well beyond the details of the military’s takeover, showing the reaction of local residents and small business owners. The same program highlighted how sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States were impacting the population. Another April 4 story, about the sentencing of international arms trafficker Viktor Bout, went beyond his case to provide analysis showing that closing down Bout likely had done little to reduce the arms trade.

It’s this global scope, delivered with analysis and context, that have won Al Jazeera English the admiration of many media critics.

“Al Jazeera English is a fine news organization,” said Abdallah Schleifer, former Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya (a Saudi-financed rival to Al Jazeera), who is professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo.  Schleifer said Al Jazeera tops all other English-language broadcasters in “providing the most comprehensive coverage of the Arab world, and for that matter the developing or third world.”

Covering Religion

Religion is a key story on both channels. On Al Jazeera Arabic the focus is very Islamic-centric.

Even when it reports on events outside the Middle East, the channel often pursues an Islamic angle.   On April 3, for example, its news bulletin reported on: the opening of an Islamic school in Tunis, the arrest of 13 Islamists in France, unrest in Russia’s predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya, and the re-introduction of Islamic teachings in Turkish schools. Religious leaders are frequent guests on the Arabic channels talk shows, and a weekly program,“Shari’aa and Life,” Is devoted to Islamic law.

Al Jazeera English’s coverage of religion is much broader than the Arabic channel’s – and than most western media – in part, said Hugh Miles, because of its emphasis on covering the developing world. “Religion is much more important in the developing world than it is the West,” said Miles. “It’s part of the channel’s identity and their brand, how they are going to differentiate themselves from their competitors.”

Thus, the April 4 news bulletin featured a story on the religious tensions still present in Northern Ireland. On April 8 it included reports about the Pope’s Easter speech, as well as showing Easter celebrations in Iraq and Palm Sunday celebrations for Orthodox Christians

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been the central story in Arab media. When Al Jazeera first launched in 1996, one of its groundbreaking policies was that it would interview Israelis, whose voices previously were never heard on state-controlled Arab airwaves.

“It has been instrumental in bringing the Israeli point of view to the Arab world,” said Miles, who noted that giving air time to Israeli officials was seen by many Arabs as the channel’s most controversial innovation.

“But at the same time,” said Miles,  “Al Jazeera Arabic is clearly sympathetic to the Palestinians, and this is evident in the terminology and the editing and in the pictures they use.”

The channel uses evocative terminology, casting the Palestinian resistance as “jihad” and often referring to Israel as “the occupier.” On the Arabic channel, the Palestinian Territories are always called Palestine, and Hamas – labeled a terrorist group by many western countries – is never called that on Al Jazeera unless it is in a quote.

“For them and their audience, Israel is always on the wrong side of the equation,” said Elmenshawy. “And for Arab media to try to be neutral it would be committing suicide.”

Critics call Al Jazeera English’s coverage of Israel more moderate, in keeping with its audience’s lower level of emotional involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are fewer stories from the region, and some coverage of Israel is unrelated to the conflict at all. A March 25 report, for example, reported on Israel’s status as the world’s largest per capita user of medical marijuana.

The English channel uses more cautious language in reporting on Israel, and there is a clear effort to provide more balance in views presented.

Nevertheless some suggest that, as an Arab-financed channel, Al Jazeera English is inevitably more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

“The kind of reporters who work for Al Jazeera English share the same view of Israel that the Arabs do,” suggested Miles. “I think you can be pretty sure that they are sympathetic to the Palestinians, because you are not going to end up in front of the camera working for Al Jazeera if you’re sympathetic to the Israelis.”

 Covering the Gulf

Both channels are financed by the Qatari government, so perhaps not surprisingly, their most striking similarity is the lack of in-depth coverage of Persian Gulf states, including Qatar. State funding is thus widely perceived as the reason that both channels give very limited coverage to the current unrest in Bahrain – in sharp contrast with their strong coverage of Arab Spring uprisings in other Middle Eastern countries.

Analysts say that though the Qatari government supports uprisings elsewhere, it sees unrest in Bahrain – just next door to Qatar – as a threat to stability. Furthermore, Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which last spring sent Saudi troops into Bahrain to help the royal family restore order.  All member states of the GCC, including Qatar, are ruled by Sunni Muslim governments, while the large majority of protestors in Bahrain are Shia Muslims.

The lack of coverage of Bahrain is particularly evident on the Arabic channel, as broadcasts in Arabic have much more political impact on the region than those in English.

“Al Jazeera Arabic has seriously damaged its brand in the Middle East by taking a dive on Bahrain, and basically following the dictates of the Saudi government and broadcasting only from the Bahrain royal family point of view,” said former Al Jazeera English anchor Dave Marash. It’s a point of view, said Marash, “which is justifiably widely discredited among most Arabic speaking viewers.”

What is reported about Bahrain on Al Jazeera Arabic is never very critical of the government, and articles on the channel’s website often omit demands of the protesters – a stark contrast with how it covers the conflict in Syria.

The most glaring indication that the Qatar government is suppressing coverage of Bahrain is the fact that, “Shouting in the Dark,” an award-winning Al Jazeera English documentary on anti-government protests in Bahrain, was not broadcast on the Arabic channel. Among other things, the documentary contains scenes of Sunni and Shia doctors in a Bahrain hospital treating protestors who had been seriously injured by security forces.

Yet if Al Jazeera English can be considered more thorough in its coverage of Bahrain, it is still gun-shy when it comes to covering Qatar.

“Investigating issues relating to, for example, government corruption in business would result in getting in trouble with the ruling government, which pays the fares of the journalists on Al Jazeera,” said Elmenshawy.

However, experts point out that Al Jazeera’s overall integrity hasn’t been tarnished much by its lack of hard-hitting reporting in the Gulf – in large part because the Gulf states are usually pretty far from the top of the global news agenda.

“They are missing some important stories in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia,” said Elmenshawy.  “But it does not influence the big picture.”

The Voice of the Voiceless

Although Al Jazeera English coined the slogan “Giving a Voice to the Voiceless,” both channels have excelled in reporting the issues and struggles of the Arab people through their coverage of the Arab Spring.

“Without Al Jazeera there would not be an Arab Spring,” suggests Yigal Carmon, president of the Middle East Media Research Institute and former chief counterterrorism advisor to Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. “It would have been killed if citizens in Tunisia and Egypt didn’t see what was going on.” The images from one country sent powerful messages to people in other autocratic Arabic states, said Carmon, telling people that it was okay to demonstrate  “because there were others, because they were not alone. Which is the only way to break the barrier of fear, when you see that there are others.”

But what distinguishes the English channel – from its Arabic counterpart as well as its English-language competitors – is that its coverage delves into the troubles faced by disenfranchised populations worldwide. It has embraced its mandate of becoming the voice of the voiceless on a global scale. Its news bulletin is reliably rich with human-interest stories: from the victims of Russia’s nuclear program in Siberia, to the plight of Argentine mothers whose daughters have disappeared, to the dilemma of children in West Java who miss school an average of two days a week, because of flooding.

 “People say that Al Jazeera English is like United Nations TV,” said Hugh Miles.  “There’s a lot more about Africa, Latin America. It’s not so focused on the Middle East, because they know they are not just broadcasting to Arabs.”

Video by Dalal Mawad and Salim Essaid. Story by Anna Irrera.

Salim Essaid is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter @SalimEssaid
Dalal Mawad is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter @dalalmawad
Anna Irrera is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter @annairrera