Mideast Coverage by Network Reviled in Washington Is Boon for Bush
DOHA, Qatar -- From its headquarters, dispersed among cramped trailers, air-conditioned tents and a squat box of a building on a dusty lot crawling with stray cats, an unlikely ally has emerged in this desert capital for the Bush administration's new Middle East democracy campaign -- al-Jazeera.
The Arab world's most-watched satellite channel has been reviled in Washington since it began airing Osama bin Laden tapes and footage of insurgent strikes on U.S. troops in Iraq. Yet as the Bush administration struggles to design a public diplomacy program for its democracy campaign, al-Jazeera has become a leading vehicle for the region's budding reform movements.
Arab and U.S. analysts say the network helps give voice to the reformers. In January, it saturated the airwaves with coverage of the Palestinian and Iraqi elections. After the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February, it aired 10 straight hours of footage from Lebanon as street protesters demanded the ouster of the country's government and Syria's troops.
It deployed four correspondents to report on the Egyptian reform movement known as Kifaya, or Enough, this spring. And it has run long stories on Kuwait's new women's suffrage movement and Morocco's commission on human rights abuses and missing people.
"During the last weeks, everyone is talking about change, reform, political transformation and democracy in the Arab world," said Wadah Khanfar, al-Jazeera's managing director, who studied in South Africa during its political transformation. "The realities are changing, and so is what is dominating the news -- Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco. The whole discussion taking place in the region has found itself on our screen."
In a move the network says will expand regional debate on democracy, al-Jazeera last month launched a 24-hour Arab equivalent of C-SPAN. "Al-Jazeera Live" has run parliamentary doings in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, as well as President Bush's recent speech on the energy bill, a news conference by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and daily White House and State Department briefings.
Teams of workers are building a vast extension at the back of al-Jazeera's building, mainly to house a 24-hour English-language channel due to be launched later this year. It will broadcast four hours each from Washington, London and Malaysia and 12 hours from its headquarters here.
Now, as the network has intensified coverage of Middle East reform movements, it is becoming increasingly unwelcome in its own world. Its correspondents are banned in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria and Tunisia, all with autocratic governments, as well as in Iraq. Iran this month suspended al-Jazeera's coverage rights -- and threatened to prosecute the network -- after it reported on two days of unrest among Iran's Arab minority, which is unhappy with the country's government.
Arab leaders have never much liked the network. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited its headquarters, he commented in an aside to his Qatari host, "All this trouble from a matchbox!" according to al-Jazeera staff.
Al-Jazeera still runs footage that enrages the Bush administration, such as video that insurgents took last month when they shot down a Bulgarian helicopter, killing six American security contractors, three Bulgarians and two Fijians.
"It's still the enemy. It still does stupid things," a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. When Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick was in Fallujah last month, "al-Jazeera reported his convoy was attacked. There was not a germ of truth. It was sensational, unprofessional and unsubstantiated, and fit into the past pattern of its coverage. Whatever else it's doing, the reaction here was: 'There they go again.' "
Since it was launched in 1996, al-Jazeera's popularity has given rise to more than 100 satellite channels in the region. Together, they are called the most dynamic force for political change in the Middle East, "like the genie let out of the bottle," according to a new report by the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank.
"It is the satellite channels that show the greatest potential for ushering in political change in the region . . ." the report says. "Inadvertently or not, they offer a locus for the Arab street to vent, formulate and discuss public affairs. They bring Arabs closer together, breaking taboos and generally competing with each other and their respective governments for the news agenda. All in all, Arab satellite stations have pushed ajar the door of democracy and flanked state monopoly on media."
Editors at al-Jazeera -- which is financed by the government of Qatar, the only country in the region that the network does not cover critically -- say it is shifting into a new phase as the Middle East changes.
In the past year, al-Jazeera has issued a new code of conduct, pledging balance, independence and the correction of mistakes, and has replaced some key personnel. It still runs graphic pictures of Palestinians killed in confrontations with Israeli troops, but it also interviews senior Israeli officials. It interviews Islamic leaders but also extensively covered the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II. It covers anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, but its Washington bureau also had four correspondents devoted to the U.S. presidential campaigns and elections.
The range of news and views -- including the popular "Opposite Direction," a program much like CNN's "Crossfire" or MSNBC's "Hardball" -- is the key to its impact, say Arab and U.S. analysts.
"There is extraordinary diversity. They're presenting the full range of opinions. Even if reporters or producers are great critics of U.S. policy, they still report on the U.S. point of view," said Abdallah Schleifer, the U.S.-born director of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo. "The side effect is that it's educating the Arab public on the democratic process."
Al-Jazeera editors and reporters say they are largely responding to the rising ripple of activism in the Middle East, such as Lebanon's popular revolt. "It was really remarkable," said Ahmed Sheikh, al-Jazeera's editor in chief. "It was the first time people in this region have been able to topple a government. We were all captivated." Syrian troops tried to physically block al-Jazeera camera operators from covering their withdrawal from Lebanon, he added.
As al-Jazeera increasingly focuses on political reform, its editors acknowledge sharing, unintentionally, an agenda with the Bush administration. "We are unlikely allies," Sheikh reflected. "But if both of us are targeting reform in the Arab world, then it's true."
By Robin Wright Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, May 8, 2005; A16
© 2005 The Washington Post Company