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Thursday, January 7, 1999 Published at 14:58 GMT


Qatar's Al-Jazeera livens up Arab TV scene

Al-Jazeera scooped the world in the Iraqi crisis

By Peter Feuilherade of BBC Monitoring's Foreign Media Unit

Not for the first time the Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera has upset some of its Arab Gulf neighbours - on this occasion through its coverage of events in Iraq since last month's US and UK strikes.

In the first few days following the launch of attacks against Iraqi targets in December, Al-Jazeera TV broadcast interviews or speeches by several senior Iraqi officials, including President Saddam Hussein.

On 5 January, in advance of Iraqi Satellite TV and other Iraqi media, it broadcast the Iraqi president's Army Day speech in which he called on Arabs to overthrow their leaders if they were allied to the US.

Al-Jazeera's Director-General Muhammad Jassim said: "The American CNN and British BBC were also considered ... but Saddam preferred Al-Jazeera for its credibility and wide audience in the Arab world... Our station refuses to be any regime's propaganda instrument."

That view is not shared by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Kuwaiti Information Minister Yusuf al-Samit accused the channel of trying to rehabilitate the Iraqi regime.

An editorial in a Saudi newspaper which shares the same Arabic name [denoting the Arabian Peninsula] commented: "Simply speaking, the poisonous ideas that are conveyed via the Western satellite channels are easy to handle because the [Arab] viewer knows the thought they are trying to convey in advance.

"However, when this poisonous thought is conveyed via an Arab satellite channel, it becomes all the more dangerous because it is concealing itself behind our culture."

BBC formats borrowed

Al-Jazeera was launched in 1996. It was fortunate timing because the BBC's own Arabic TV venture with the Saudi-owned company Orbit had foundered earlier that year over issues of editorial control. Al-Jazeera recruited a number of former BBC Arabic staff and devised its news and current affairs programme formats from programmes seen on the BBC.

Since then, Al-Jazeera's willingness to broadcast discussion programmes about a range of inter-Arab political and diplomatic differences has provoked official protests from several Arab countries. But the station's ratings show that it is finding favour with Arab audiences, even if not with their governments.

Independence or irresponsibility?

In November, Jordan ordered the closure of the Al-Jazeera bureau in Amman, accusing the station of "intentionally attacking the Jordanian people and regime". Other Arab countries that have complained about Al-Jazeera's coverage include Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt.

Their complaints have focused particularly on one of the station's flagship programmes, The Opposite Direction, which occasionally provides a platform for political dissidents to criticise their governments, usually with a spokesperson from the country involved to provide an official response.

The programme is presented by Faysal al-Qasim, a Syrian who used to work for the BBC. In response to the wide range of complaints that his panel discussions have provoked, he says: "If we have been accused of being agents of so many regimes, we must be getting it right."

But when the Arab States Broadcasting Union decided to admit private broadcasting stations as members, it specifically excluded Al-Jazeera, insisting that it must first "conform to the code of honour of the Arab media". Yet as the Qatari newspaper Gulf Times noted, other Arabic TV channels "which offer only nudity" were allowed to join.

Analysts of the Arab world remain divided on whether Saddam Hussein is deliberately using Al-Jazeera as a conduit to ensure that his speeches reach a wide Arab audience - or whether it is the Qatar-based station's own growing reputation for independent reporting that has secured it the Iraqi scoops in the first place.

BBC Monitoring (http://www.monitor.bbc.co.uk), based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.



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