It’s hot there too. And stuffy. Not least because the guards smoke. But we get to avoid the sun.
When our permit turns out to have disappeared somewhere in Al Jazeera’s corridors, there’s a lot of confusion. Everyone’s speaking in Arabic. They’re looking at us. A new guard arrives. They nod towards us.
After forty minutes comes the clear answer:
No way. Please leave now.
Several calls and hours later, it’s been solved. The permit has turned up and the guards let us through after the car’s been searched. At entrance number two, we walk through metal detectors that react to weaponry. They look in our bags, and at first want to confiscate photographer Calle’s equipment; it’s not written on the permit.
Given where in the world Qatar lies – squeezed in the Middle East between the powerful dictatorships of Iran and Saudi Arabia – and how many regimes have attempted to silence Al Jazeera, their caution is understandable.
The channel’s employees have been abused, threatened, imprisoned, and in some cases killed. The offices in Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and in the West Bank have been closed at times. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the offices were bombed – by American missiles according to Al Jazeera, but the if, how, and why are unclear.
In Algeria, the authorities desperately tried to stop a program by cutting power to the capital. The Egyptian authorities tried to block their satellite signal with state-owned NileSat, and the editorial offices in Cairo were burned down.
And so on.
It’s the channel’s successful work within news that’s the background to these harassments. Al Jazeera has become a powerful force because so-called ordinary people have suddenly got a forum for criticizing power in closed-off states. Al Jazeera’s reporting is considered to have played an important role when the regimes fell in 2011 and, of course, it’s not popular everywhere.
Stefan Åsberg, Swedish Television’s US correspondent, observes from his American and international perspective:
“Al Jazeera has, in quite a short time, become one of the main channels to follow. Their way of getting about and reflecting the Arab Spring has been extremely successful. Today, I watch Al Jazeera nearly as much as CNN.”
But with all due respect to Stefan Åsberg, another statement about the channel held greater PR-value:
”Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of millions of commercials and arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff we do on our news.”
Who said that?
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State.
When Mohammed Atta steered American Airline’s Flight 11 at 790 km/h into floors 93 to 99 of the World Trade Center’s Tower One at 08:46 on September 11, 2001 it shook the entire world.
What was this about?
Al Qaeda? After a few days it was a normal word. Much like ”bow visor” had become a term after the MS Estonia accident in 1994, and “tsunami” a Swedish noun after Boxing Day, 2004.
This was when many of us heard of Al Jazeera, maybe for the first time.
Not many people could receive Al Jazeera, but references were constantly made to information reported on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, on a TV channel that had been broadcasting news in Arabic from Doha in Qatar for five years.
Al Jazeera was set up in 1996 by the emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, who had taken power the previous year in Qatar in a coup against his own father. Al Thani has invested a lot in profiling the country. Qatar Airways, for example, is growing fast and was recently named the world’s best airline. A number of large sporting and cultural events are held there, and the football World Cup for 2022 is the jewel in the crown of his PR work.
And Al Jazeera is an important part of this – for several reasons.
When bin Khalifa al Thani took power, he realised that his country’s security was the first and most important question. He knew that the country’s military strength was negligible compared to his neighbours. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, another small country in the Gulf just four years earlier, was still in his mind’s eye.
The US military was therefore quickly invited to build the Al Udeid Air Base. And then, wondered the emir, could media provide a completely different type of weapon. Or perhaps a shield? At a time when war is broadcast live, a strong TV channel can protect you better than an army.
And if you believe all those involved, bin Khalifa al Thani pumps money into the channel but lets it take care of itself. The free editorial line was something completely new in the Arab world. The region’s leaders hadn’t been openly criticized before – and it was the first Arabic channel that interviewed Israelis.
A free press is a given in many countries, but in the Middle East the very thought of an independent TV channel was a little revolutionary 15 years ago.
Where broadcasting started on November 1st, 1996, the channel’s journalists consisted largely of staff from an abandoned attempt to produce BBC broadcasts in Arabic. Today, Al Jazeera has a total of 1,400 employees, of which 450 are journalists – many recruited from CNN, the BBC, and other large stations.
They reach 220 million households in more than 100 countries.
In the editorial offices in Doha sit a crowd of reporters and research staff in a sea of computers. If it weren’t for the cameras positioned in front of the place where someone sits in shot, it could be any kind of company at all.
MD Al Anstey, former editorial director and old newshound, is quick to quote Hillary Clinton. Yes, he’s even taken a copy of her quote, and some similar ones from other big names, for the launch of the channel’s office in New York.
Now, he laughs and says:
“What can I say? Thank you, Hillary!”
We’re sitting in Al Jazeera English’s premises, in the middle of one of the world’s most technically modern TV buildings – including the 21 meter plasma screen which is the TV world’s largest. Anstey sweeps his hand round the big office and says:
“I have worked on international news for 25 years on ITN, CBS, Reuters . . . I came here five years ago. Then, this was a parking lot. It’s hard to believe how fast it’s been.”
His baby, Al Jazeera English, was born November 1, 2006 on the tenth anniversary of the original Al Jazeera Arabic’s birth. In rocky economic times, most large media companies cut back on staff and, not least, the number of trips in so-called reality. Cancelled Correspondent Postings could become a popular Facebook group.
Al Jazeera is doing exactly the opposite. They have unique resources from the state of Qatar, and the channel is growing on all fronts. Al Jazeera Turkish and Al Jazeera Balkan had their premier broadcasts this autumn. Editorial offices are planned in Miami and South Korea. Al Jazeera India too.
“And in the winter”, says Al Anstey, “We open Al Jazeera Swahili in East Africa. We, at Al Jazeera English, will soon have 35 editorial offices around the world, and together with those on the other side of the street, Al Jazeera Arabic, we have over 70 offices with correspondents”.
Christina Aivaliotis, American and responsible for communications at Al Jazeera English, takes us across the street. The Arab sector looks, to Swedish eyes, more outdated as a TV studio; more old state-TV than CNN-flashy. At Al Jazeera English, it’s striking that most people are Westerners, and English is both the working and coffee-break language. At Al Jazeera Arabic, many go around wearing long, white dishdasha, more women wear the veil and, naturally, Arabic is spoken.
There’s a small museum here where tribute is paid to dead colleagues. Like Ali Hassan Al Jaber, a cameraman shot down in Libya; and Tariq Ayoub, a producer who was bombed to death in Bagdad; or Sami al Haj, a cameraman who was in Guantanamo for six years before being released without explanation. In the display-cases are the clothes they wore when they were killed, notebooks they wrote their last notes in . . .
Someone is described with the word ”martyr” which, you notice, is a word that the Westerners at Al Jazeera English don’t feel completely comfortable with.
All this with the memorial Wall of Freedom as backdrop. But, everyone emphasizes, the differences between the offices are mostly superficial.
Al Anstey makes the point:
“Our fundamental ideas about journalism are the same. And we have access to each others respective material. But even if we’re the same brand, we have our own identity and they have theirs. We have different audiences, so we become different. Of course, they’re more interested in what’s happening in the Arab world, even if the whole world has been interested in the Middle East this particular year.”
The sister channels loan resources from each other, but are otherwise completely independent.
Al Jazeera English’s employees come from over fifty different countries. Having news anchors from many nationalities in the frame, preferably with easy accents but definitely with perfect English, is an explicit goal. As part of this, for example, Swede Linda Nyberg stood in as the first Scandinavian news anchor over a couple of months this summer, after she was recruited by a former colleague from her time at Sky News in London.
Al Jazeera’s problem was – and to an extent still is – trustworthiness regarding objectivity. The channel has struggled for a long time to wash away suspicions that arose in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center.
At the time, the channel was the first to broadcast statements from Osama bin Ladin, with the effect they were blamed for being bin Laden’s mouthpiece, pro-Islamist, Hamas supporting, antisemitic . . .
Most critical was then US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld.
Against this background, Hillary Clinton’s statement about Al Jazeera is even more interesting. And that Donald Rumsfeld, as late as last autumn, allowed himself to be interviewed by the channel, and then heaped praise on it, also says a lot about how the view on Al Jazeera has changed.
CNN was once scornfully called Chicken Noodle News, after the advert for Campbell’s chicken soup, but the station’s position as news-leader was strengthened by the Gulf War. In the same way, Al Jazeera’s position was strengthened when they were the only channel to have an office in Afghanistan, and comparisons with CNN became common.
And during the Arab Spring of 2011, when Al Jazeera was first to understand the significance of what was happening in Tunisia, the channel wiped the floor with its competitors.
But there is still criticism of Al Jazeera – although now, if anything, it’s the reverse. That’s to say, no one views the channel as carrying out the errands of the powerful any more, but instead there’s a criticism that the channel – however well meant – is taking the position of troublemakers / the people in the conflicts where the regimes of the Middle East are falling one after another.
Mats Larsson, foreign editor at Expressen and New York correspondent, goes along with this.
“A problem that I have with Al Jazeera is that, all too often, they seem to be participants when they should be reporting on events that are close to them, that’s to say – in the Arab world. As I understand it, they took a really clear stance against, for example, Mubarak and Ghadaffi. It becomes a problem of trustworthiness if the channel sees it’s job as overthrowing dictators instead of reporting on what’s happening”, he says.
“At the same time, they’re undeniably very good at being on the ground and hunting out stories that the BBC or CNN don’t”, he continues. “They’ve provided the Western media with useful competition there”.
Al Anstey has heard all this before and brushes it away:
“Take Egypt and Tahir Square as a good example. There the regime tried to stop us because we were showing protests that Egypt had never got close to before. As a result of appeals on Facebook, 50,000 made for the square. Our job, then, is also to make our way there. The regime tried to prevent us from doing our job on the ground. Security was important, so we removed the reporters’ names but continued to show the pictures. Journalists were arrested. The regime tried to block the signal for Al Jazeera Arabic, but we came up with a technical solution and succeeded in broadcasting anyway.”
He taps on the table for emphasis:
“But do we choose sides? No, we show what we see, we make journalism out of it. It was a popular movement and social media that lay behind what happened. After that, it definitely made a contribution that we we showed what was happening. But to put my answer simply: Did we start it? No. Did we cover it? Yes.”
“I think they’re objective but, naturally, they have a problem winning trust here in the US”.
He means that the channel is above all exceptionally good in the Middle East, but not as good on political coverage in the West. So far, we should add. The channel is growing in the US too.
And that interest in the channel is growing in the US is shown by the fact that the Kansas City Starnewspaper published a guide on the easiest ways to get Al Jazeera.
Whatever the people we meet at the channel say, there are certain differences between Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English. The Arabic version has taken more of a stand on the risings in the Middle East, and a news producer there even described them as “a fighting channel” in an interview. Something not all the staff appreciated. There was a fear, not least among those who were there at the beginning, that it will cause associations with what they’ve struggled to wash away.
Al Anstey thinks that Al Jazeera’s successes – the channel has won a series of international prizes in recent years, the latest being the Columbia journalism award for “singular journalism in the public interest”, – are simply built on good journalism.
“We don’t look at the world through a prism. Neither Arabic, nor Western, nor American. We take every story on it’s own terms, wherever it is. In the Arab world or the Balkans. We show the world as it is.
“Take Tahir Square again. When Mubarak’s supporters stormed it. It’s incredibly dramatic and difficult to watch a story like this and understand what you’re seeing. We have to try and give the whole picture. History, context, retrospect . . . why is this happening?”
He suggests that their resources make them strong.
“We have real journalism in place. We had 8-9 teams in Egypt. Many want to direct what we say, but penetrating coverage is the key. We have a slogan, ‘Voice of the voiceless’. If world leaders make a decision, it affects people all round the globe. We want to hear these people’s voices. Not just the decision makers. That’s why we’re respected now.”
With the same feeling, and the same argument, he dismisses claims that sometimes the channel doesn’t dare report on risings that are too close, like in neighbouring Bahrain. Critics suggest that those revolting there didn’t get the same support at all, in the form of TV broadcasts, as those who revolted in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Hugh Miles, who’s written the book Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That is Challenging the West, has said:
“Bahrain was too close to home. It would have been playing with fire to encourage a revolution so close by. Qatar’s top priority is security, and the demonstrations in Bahrain were too sensitive because there’s no democracy.”
Al Anstey thinks that, on the contrary, they’ve done a number of features on Bahrain, and they recently showed a documentary that led to diplomatic conflicts between Bahrain and Qatar. The documentary was shown on Al Jazeera English, not Al Jazeera Arabic.
Anstey points out of the window at Doha City where finished and half-finished skyscrapers form the skyline.
“And if something happens here in Qatar, we’re going to cover it in the same way. We’ve never been subjected to pressure or attempts to influence us.”
Although Qatar is, it should be emphasised again, no democracy.
Despite its mere 1.7 million inhabitants – of which the majority are male guest-workers from South Asia, which means that the country has only 24 percent women – the country is important diplomatically. On several occasions, amongst others the conflicts in the Horn of Africa, they have mediated. But the emir autocratically appoints the prime minister and all other ministers. Health, education, and electricity are free for the roughly 400,000 citizens in the country, and there’s no serious dissatisfaction with him, at least not outwardly.
Al Jazeera broadcasts around the clock but this is the time of the evening that Al Anstey packs up his briefcase. It’s been another long day. He recommends a restaurant in Doha and suggests that we take a walk after dinner to Cornichen, the promenade where people gather to cool themselves in the in-every-way-so-hot Doha.
The last thing we see in the studio is South African news anchor Jane Dutton.
220 million households in 120 countries can, on this particular day, see her in front of the long plasma screen. A report from a correspondent in Egypt rolls, and for a minute she makes small talk and feels her pregnant belly before a voice in her earpiece has her look to camera 2, lower her voice a touch, and say:
“In Libya today …