Al Jazeera: Guilty of Being Free

Ibrahim Mansour

Posted Dec 16, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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While following the day’s news, it’s difficult not to see disturbingly similar policy mistakes being committed by both the French government and our own government here in the United States. The problems are certainly fundamentally and substantially different - one is a domestic matter, the other a matter of foreign policy. But both share the common conundrum of perceiving and approaching the “other.” The French government’s efforts to deflect its own culpability in the institutional racism that has given rise to the recent riots has resulted in perhaps one of the most absurd blaming campaigns ever. In the aftermath of the recent riots, which have unsettled French society, the conclusions arrived to by the French government have been of spectacular - and oftentimes simply laughable - range. To date, the riots have been attributed to Islamic extremism, excessive immigration, the architecture of the immigrant housing complexes, incompetent parental control and even polygamy.

For many observers who have enjoyed a degree of familiarity and intimacy with French society, one of the most exasperating aspects of all this has been the many indications of an impending explosion of tensions. These tensions exist in the rap music, movies, traditional North African rai music and virtually every artistic outlet available to those tormented by the depressing and demeaning realities of the banlieues. These expressions were often as vivid and brilliant as the high-rises in the banlieues are bleak and dismal.

The issue of addressing and encountering the “other,” as exemplified by the French, has found a disturbing correlative in the recent revelation that President George W. Bush suggested bombing the studios of satellite Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera during a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair on April 16 of last year. According to the memo, which has not been fully disclosed due to British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s threats to prosecute any news outlet or parliamentarian who releases the classified five-page document, Blair was able to dissuade Bush from bringing the idea to fruition.

This isn’t the first time that Al-Jazeera had been subjected to less-than-kind treatment by the U.S. government. In November of 2001, Al-Jazeera’s offices in Kabul were destroyed when an American cruise missile struck the building, though no one was killed. Later, when covering the invasion of Iraq, Al-Jazeera was careful to provide the U.S. military with the exact location and map coordinates of its offices. Yet, on April 7, 2003 at 7:45 a.m., an American missile destroyed its Baghdad bureau. This time, it killed veteran war reporter Tareq Ayoub and injured cameraman Zuhair Falih.

Interestingly, Al-Jazeera would not even exist today if it weren’t for its insistence upon complete editorial freedom. Initially a project launched jointly by an Arabic TV division of the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Saudi-owned Orbit Radio and Television Service, the station was conceived to be the fulfillment of the desire for quality news and reporting present throughout the Middle East following the first Gulf War. The quality of state-run news in the region could, perhaps, only be summed up by the infamous failure of the official Saudi media to report the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq for more than 48 hours. Instead, the Arab world had to rely upon CNN for news on something happening in its own backyard.

But the project failed after the Saudi investors terminated the contract over a feud involving the production of a documentary examining executions in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi investors opposed the documentary, but the 20 Arabic-speaking media professionals and journalists - all experienced and trained by Western journalistic standards primarily from their time with the BBC itself - refused to compromise on their standards. The project was only salvaged by Qatar’s British-educated emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who provided Al-Jazeera with a $140-million grant in an effort to produce an editorially independent, but publicly sponsored, news service for the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera has continued to draw the ire of many throughout the Middle East for being the first Arab news station to frequently feature Israeli representatives in its news programs and for delving into topics often considered inappropriate for public discussion. It has significantly contributed to the regional discourse, not only by way of its quality - and oftentimes exclusive - news coverage, but also through its famed “Crossfire” style programs pitting religious leaders against secular liberals, defenders of various Middle Eastern governments against their detractors, and has generally created a public space that was previously nonexistent.

The United States can no longer afford to lash out every time someone’s view in the Middle East fails to correspond with its goals in the region. It is the very lack of avenues for political expression that has given rise to the popularity and acceptance of violent forms of expression as exemplified by al-Qaeda. At a time when the United States has invaded entire countries in the name of freedom and liberty, the only thing those in the Middle East seem to be seeking freedom from is the United States.

Ibrahim Mansour is a Rutgers College sophomore majoring in political science. His column, Uberhim, runs alternate Fridays in the Daily Targum