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Tiny Qatar beams big signal to Arab world

Satellite news channel Al Jazeera has made waves with its open discourse, a rarity for Arabs.

When journalist Samir Khater told his co-workers that he was quitting to work at another TV station, the whole newsroom applauded.

Not that his fellow reporters in Jordan were glad Mr. Khater was leaving. Rather, their applause was congratulations for "going to the best news station in the Arab world," Khater says.

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Khater is an assistant producer and translator for Al Jazeera, a nearly three-year-old satellite news channel supported by the government of Qatar and seen by millions in the Gulf region.

For Khater, it was a goodbye to censorship, to regional fondness for footage of Arab leaders waving on airport runways, dubbed with a 1930s marching-band soundtrack. "Al Jazeera is complete freedom," he says.

Al Jazeera ventures into a realm of open discussion rarely attempted by other broadcasters in the region: Viewers may see a Syrian member of the Islamic Brotherhood cataloging torture in Syria, or an Islamic scholar arguing that clerics' explanations lack the authority of the Holy Koran.

"This is why I'm afraid for Al Jazeera," says Khater of the 24-hour station's blunt news style. "Journalists in the Arab world are perceived as a threat."

Challenges to the channel

In the past year, Al Jazeera bureaus have been temporarily closed in Kuwait and Jordan; an Algerian reporter was stripped of his license; the Moroccan government canceled a show on democracy; an employee was deported from Bahrain; and the Arab States Broadcasting Union rejected its application for membership. Saudi Arabia has a permanent ban on Al Jazeera reporters.

Compared with Western media, Al Jazeera's concept is closer in spirit to the old Soviet Union's underground press than to CNN. "Jazeera provides a space of freedom to the Arab viewer," says correspondent Jamal Demiloj. "Before, Arabs didn't have any idea of media freedom."

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Tunisian journalist Leila Chebib says Arabs are shocked to see an honest approach to journalism. "With censorship, you do not create. You say what is expected of you," says Ms. Chebib.

One of the reasons Al Jazeera has won the hearts of the Arab masses boils down to economics. "We are beamed freely on the air, "says Ahmed Sheikh, a program editor. "You just have to own a $300 satellite dish."

Mr. Sheikh says the power of Al Jazeera is clear. "When you talk about things considered taboo in the past, it encourages people to be more open-minded and courageous about issues. When we talk about human rights violations, we are instructing them that they have basic rights that they need to stand up for."

Many people attributed the protest march and ransacking of the US Embassy in Damascus last December to Syrians watching the Al Jazeera footage of the US bombing campaign in Iraq.

While Al Jazeera's staff say they have a commitment to objectivity, many also believe the station's greatest contribution is the exchange of radically different opinions. Showing an Iraqi dissident denouncing Saddam Hussein, or a Palestinian and a Kuwaiti debating the Gulf War, is a radical act, says Farouk al-Kassem, an Al Jazeera journalist. "People are hungry and thirsty to express themselves," he says.

Mohammed Jassim al-Ali, the managing director of Al Jazeera, notes a gradual loosening up of censorship in Qatar from his days as a floor manager of state-run Qatar television in 1975. By the time Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani came to power after toppling his father in a nonviolent June 1995 coup, the support existed to found a Qatar satellite channel that would be dramatically different from the region's standard fare.

Al Jazeera's start-up

Sheikh Hamad, in fact, saw an opportunity to hire quality staff from a closed BBC venture in Saudi Arabia. And the satellite channel fell in line with his image as a modernizer in the Gulf. By taking the name Al Jazeera, which means peninsula in English, Qatar appropriated a word that has cultural significance to the whole Arabian peninsula, not just Qatar.

Al Jazeera also broke Saudi Arabia's virtual lock on the international Arab media. In the 1990s, Saudi companies have owned the two Arab cable networks that dominate the Middle East.

The Qatar government committed $140 million to Al Jazeera over five years, intending for the station to become financially independent at the end of 2001. However, the station has struggled to attract advertisers because of political pressure from Arab governments, concedes managing director Ali. Still, the channel has other revenue sources. Ali notes paid subscriptions in Europe and North America, selling film footage, and renting equipment to other networks.

Special treatment?

Responding to a local newspaper column that accused Al Jazeera of getting special treatment from the Qatar government, Ali argues the station's function is vastly different from the other media. "We are an international channel," he says.

However, the June 19 closing of Al Jazeera's Kuwait bureau sparked what some staff and viewers regard as Al Jazeera's first concession to an Arab regime. An Iraqi living in Norway phoned a Kuwait episode of an Al Jazeera talk show to insult the Kuwait emir. Two days later, Kuwait shut down the bureau. The board of directors of Al Jazeera suspended the show's host in a move widely seen as appeasement to Kuwait.

One staffer says that viewers believe some talk-show hosts are now cutting telephone callers short before they say anything controversial. Kuwait has since allowed the Al Jazeera bureau to reopen.

Ali denies the host's removal had anything to do with the Kuwaiti incident. "We have only two choices, to win with the government or the audience."

*Ned Parker writes for The Peninsula, a newspaper based in Qatar.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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