Al Jazeera, the Other Source
By: Trevor Francis Martin & John Robert Crowley
Keith Olbermann wrote, “In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld’s speechwriter was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For in their time, there was another government faced with true peril–with a growing evil–powerful and remorseless. That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld’s, had a monopoly on all the facts. It, too, had the “secret information.” It alone had the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld’s — questioning their intellect and their morality. That government was England’s, in the 1930’s and it “knew” Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone England. It “knew” Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords. It “knew” that the hard evidence it received, which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions — its own omniscience — needed to be dismissed. The English government of Neville Chamberlain already “knew” the truth. Most relevant of all — it “knew” that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused.
That critic ’s name was Winston Churchill.”
Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S Secretary of Defense, said, “Al Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again. What they do is when there's a bomb that goes down, they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children. And it seems to me, that it's up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don't know, and recognize that we're dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case.” However, this assertion made by Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration couldn’t have been further from the truth but the U.S. media did nothing to counter the claims of the administration.
Noam Chomsky stated in his book, Turning the Tide, “Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.” That statement was published 18 years prior to the war in Iraq and it could not have been more acute with the demure of the U.S. media at present.
In the year 2000, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted the growing impact of satellite television in the Middle East region. One major area of concern for Arab and Western governments such as Saudi Arabia and the United States of America was the growing popularity of the news agency, Al Jazeera. The concern was heightened exponentially after September 11th, 2001 when the station first gained widespread attention in the western world when it broadcasted videos of Osama bin Laden praising the attacks as “an act of god.” In October of that year, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Emir of Qatar, who partly finances the television network, to rein in its editorial line and conform to western standards. Al Jazeera responded by publishing the request. Diplomats in that region have since dubbed the phenomenon the “Al Jazeera effect.” 1 Through the airing of significantly controversial material, accusations by the United States government extolled that Al Jazeera was engaging in propaganda on behalf of terrorists. Al Jazeera countered that it was merely making information available without comment and indeed several western television channels later followed suit in broadcasting portions of Al Jazeera news footage because of the lack of existence of another avenue for reliable information within the region. 2
Prior to 2001 Julie Salamon of the NY Times reported that 166 articles had mentioned Al Jazeera eight months after September 11th compared to 20 articles mentioning the Arab news corporation five years prior to September 11th. 3
Though Al Jazeera has been venerated as a credible news source, had it been more established and not discredited by the Bush Administration in the days leading up to the Iraq war it would have been more difficult for anyone to assert that Saddam Hussein was capable of threatening the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction.
Communication scholars like Clifford Christians and British journalist/ novelist Hugh Miles 4 disagree with the portrayal of Al Jazeera as a terrorist organization and see it as a second avenue to the truth rather than a propaganda machine. In this light, Al Jazeera is important to consider alongside Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere because Al Jazeera greatly enhances the scope of the public sphere, which is defined as “a network for communicating information and points of view.”
Murdock and Golding’s 5 (1989) expansion upon Habermas’ definition of the public sphere takes the notion one step further, “Communication systems would have contributed to this idea in two ways. Firstly, they would provide people with access to the information, advice and analysis that would enable them to know their rights and to pursue them effectively. Secondly, they would provide the broadest possible range of information, interpretation and debate on areas that involve political choices, and enable them to register dissent and propose alternatives,” the alternative in this case being avoidance of a quagmire in Iraq.
The argument presented is an amalgamate of derived theories and testimonials drawing upon Habermas’ theory of the public sphere, to Murdock and Golding’s (1989) relationship to news media, to Immanuel Kant’s maxim of duty based ethics and reporters/media scholar studies before and after the incursion into Iraq.
Shortly after the U.S. had established a presence in Iraq the U.S.-backed Iraqi government banned the network from reporting in the region. Al Jazeera continued to report from the region and stationed more reporters within Baghdad outside of the reporter friendly zone. Allied planes bombed both Al Jazeera's bureaus in Afghanistan in November 2001 and in Baghdad in April 2003. The U.S. claimed both bombings were accidental but reportedly Al Jazeera had given the U.S. military its coordinates so as to avoid any accidental bombing. 6
The Al Jazeera bombing memo is an unpublished memorandum made within the British government which purports to be the minutes of a discussion between United States President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Daily Mirror published a story on its front page on November 22, 2005 claiming that the memo quotes Bush speculating about a U.S. bombing raid on Al Jazeera world headquarters in the Qatari capital Doha and other locations. The story claims that Blair persuaded Bush to take no action. 7
The five-page memorandum is said by the Mirror to be a record of the meeting between the two leaders which took place on April 16, 2004 at the height of Operation Vigilant Resolve, an assault on Fallujah by U.S. Marines and Iraqi security forces. Al Jazeera reporters were in the city providing video footage of the conflict. The day before the meeting Donald Rumsfeld described Al Jazeera's coverage as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.” Al Jazeera reporters defended their live broadcasts of the civilian casualties by stating “the pictures do not lie.” This is another supporting example of why Al Jazeera is important to the public sphere because it provides a clearer, more rounded picture of an event that is taking place and that citizens should know about.
The White House dismissed allegations made in the article. Given that Qatar is an ally of the United States and the United Kingdom in the Iraq War it would be unlikely for them to attack such a valuable ally. A White House official told CNN, “We are not going to dignify something so outlandish with a response,” and a Pentagon official called the Daily Mirror report “absolutely absurd.”
The complacency the U.S. media showed preceding the conflict was aptly put by Assistant Managing Editor of the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, a year later when he told Howard Kurtz, a columnist at the Washington Post, about the lack of substance the Bush Administration had been conveying to news agencies about what was really going on in Iraq, “We should have warned readers we had information that the basis for this was shakier.” That’s not to say that Al Jazeera had all the facts about Iraq but it did have a dominant media presence in the region before the war in comparison to western media stations. 8
Editor of the Nation Magazine, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, said more recently that this war is the “biggest foreign policy disaster America has ever been apart of.” However, the Bush Administration successfully sold the idea of an Iraq war around the assumption that Saddam Hussein’s regime was perfectly capable of producing weapons of mass destruction on a large scale and deploying them at a moments notice. Washington Post columnist, Howard Kurtz, insisted in a 2004 column that even within his own paper that the skeptical reporting on Iraq’s alleged nuclear arsenal was often relegated to the inside pages while assertions made by the Bush Administration landed on the front page. 9
Even still, after 3,280 Americans fatalities and, by some estimates, 61,000 Iraqi civilian deaths later the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with no easy exit strategy, reminiscent to that of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, the Allied military presence in Iraq has found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction and the U.S.’s image and reputability has been tarnished beyond repair on the international level.
The Ethics Involved
Kant states, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” 10 which lends itself to the moral proposition: If it were permissible to not tell the truth it would result in a contradiction of conceivability because the notion of lying presupposes the existence of true information when there is none. If the lying maxim were universalized under the ethical framework of Kant’s categorical imperative, central to the theme of duty-based ethics, any situation where lying prevailed over truth would lead then to no truth. A moral proposition where falsification is predominately prevalent will logically annihilate itself because action upon a false presupposition is inherently non-existent. A lie cannot sustain itself on its own. This ethical framework is important to consider along with the theory of the public sphere because if there were no truth being conveyed by the media then there would be a democracy where citizens would not know their rights or know how to pursue them effectively.
This is precisely why Al Jazeera plays a key role in the conveyance of the truth to the public. Applying Kant to this notion, news organizations have a duty to tell the truth. However, often times news agencies stray far from the actual truth and for whatever reason misconstrue the actual version of the truth. In doing so, news agencies may have either willingly or ignorantly misconstrued public opinion. However, if there is a second truth provided by Al Jazeera with different morals and different audience segmentation then there is at least something citizens can refer to. In this fashion, Al Jazeera coupled with other media outlets will serve to enhance the idea of the public sphere. 11
Arguably however when it comes to portraying news, Al Jazeera is no different than conservative leaning Fox News. Clifford Christians, a communications scholar at the University of Illinois, says however, “It is better to have one Arabic version of Fox News and one American version of Fox News to create a more rounded, less esoteric, view of
the world.” 12
Al Jazeera is not only beneficial as a secondary source for the world, but also as a primary source for the Middle East. The Middle East is estimated to have 65 million people who are unable to read and write, in effect making them unable to utilize written publication or gain access to the internet. Lack of education is a contributing factor to problems arising in these third world countries because the population is easily influenced and misled. Instances with Al-Qaeda have shown the group recruiting young, uneducated children and instilling radical religious beliefs that alter their outlook on the world to promote their own agenda. 13 The same has also occurred with warlords and rebel forces in Africa, using children to fight their wars and letting most of them perish in the process. It is important for these areas of the world where there is little to no access to daily news information that the news media tell the truth and become more accessible. This notion can flourish exponentially if there are more media outlets in these regions. However, for countries such as the U.S., England and Japan who have more access to technology and the communication capabilities it provides, it is important for citizens of first world nations to gain a different perspective on newsworthy events. Again, this reiterates Al Jazeera ’s importance on a global scale.
Other Factors Continued: National Security:
The dangers of relying on one source for news will lead only to society relying upon what media “gatekeepers” are feeding news reels and in a worst-case scenario, enabling governments to proceed with a slanted national agenda. This is occurring presently in our own country in relation to the war in Iraq and the initiative to remove weapons of mass destruction.
So where do we draw the line? The question residing is wherein do the media draw the line between the duty to represent the truth, a duty to respect it and the duty to enlighten society? In some cases it may be the same thing. In others, it is far from similar. For example, in 2003 during the “drive to Baghdad,” Geraldo Rivera was imbedded with a marine unit. While broadcasting he bent down and drew pictures in the sand of their “operations” tactics and approximate location. Directly endangering his own life and the lives of the marines. He was immediately removed from the unit and later made an official apology for his actions. In this situation, the line was not as “thin” as in most truth telling dilemmas. Rivera directly endangered the lives of American soldiers to enlighten the public as to where his unit of marines was located and in this instance the duty to enlighten citizens about their rights and how to pursue them effectively did not pertain to our armed forces locations in the Iraqi desert.
One thread that consistently winds though the argument for going to war in a democratic society is that its citizens must rely heavily upon the government being able to make informed decisions based off of available information. In an era of increasing classified material, these “informed decisions” are more difficult for the general population to make. By using other media outlets from different areas of the world towards the enhancement of the public sphere, citizens may not be able to directly affect foreign policy or domestic decision making on an executive level; however, they will be able to evaluate information and make implications or directives for the ones making the executive decisions.
Criticism of Al Jazeera:
Al Jazeera has often drawn extensive criticism for its news coverage that is thought to be by western journalistic standards to “contextually truthful” or “abrasive.” This was apparent from statements issued in direct relation to Al Jazeera by U.S. officials and its Allies. However during the Iraq war, Al Jazeera faced the same reporting and movement restrictions as other news-gathering organizations. Tayseer Allouni, a journalist for Al Jazeera, was expelled from Iraq for interviewing Osama Bin Laden. Reacting to this, Al Jazeera announced on April 2, 2003, that it would "temporarily freeze all coverage" of Iraq in protest of what Al Jazeera described as unreasonable interference from Iraqi officials. 14 All of these decisions were later reverted. In May 2003, the CIA, through the Iraqi National Congress, released documents purportedly showing that Al Jazeera had been infiltrated by Iraqi spies, and was regarded by Iraqi officials as part of their propaganda effort. As reported by the Sunday Times, the alleged spies were described by an Al Jazeera executive as having minor roles with no input on editorial decisions. During 2004, Al Jazeera broadcast several video tapes of various victims of kidnappings in Iraq, which had been sent to the network. The videos had been filmed by the kidnappers holding the hostages. The hostages were shown, often blindfolded, pleading for their release. They often appeared to be forced to read out prepared statements of their kidnappers. Al Jazeera has assisted authorities from the home countries of the victims in an attempt to secure the release of kidnapping victims. This included broadcasting pleas from family members and government officials.
The Future of Al Jazeera:
Al Jazeera currently operates several specialized television channels in addition to its primary news channel. Other channels include, Al Jazeera Sports, Al Jazeera Live, which broadcasts political conferences in real time without editing or commentary, and the Al Jazeera Children's Channel. Future products include an English-language channel, Al Jazeera International, a channel specializing in documentaries, a possible music channel and an international newspaper. Ironically, on July 4, 2005, Al Jazeera officially announced plans to launch a new English-language satellite service called Al Jazeera International, further diversifying its news base abroad. They announced this long-expected move in an attempt to provide news about the Arab world, especially Israel, from the Middle Eastern perspective. The new channel will have broadcast centers in Doha (current Al Jazeera headquarters and broadcast center), London, Kuala Lumpur, and Washington D.C., when the station launches in March 2006. The channel will be 24-hours 7-days a week news channel with 12 hours broadcasted from Doha and four hours from each of the bureaus in London, Kuala Lumpur, and Washington D.C. This continued expansion will help establish legitimacy for Al Jazeera in the diversity of the ever changing global news market.
Increasingly, Al Jazeera's exclusive interviews and other footage are being rebroadcast in American, British, and other western media outlets such as CNN and the BBC. In January 2003, the BBC announced that it had signed an agreement with Al Jazeera for sharing facilities and information, including news footage. As per such agreements with more established international news agencies, Al Jazeera is now considered a mainstream media network. Even the once reluctant U.S. is beginning to look to Al Jazeera for news in the Arab world.
In retrospect, as Edward R. Murrow said during the McCarthy era,
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” he said, in 1954. “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”
It is under this ethos that we arrive at our conclusions about the media and duty based ethics with regards to the war in Iraq and Al Jazeera. It is Kantian philosophy to universalize inherent humanistic qualities we wish to see in our societies. As such, the antipodal embodiment of this philosophy can be seen with how the U.S. government diminished the public sphere with the manipulation of information through U.S. media organizations in the war with Iraq. Keeping citizens apart from the communications systems that Murdock and Golding theorize as, “their only avenue for the broadest possible range of information, interpretation and debate on areas that involve political choices, and enable them to register dissent and propose alternatives.” In essence, duty based ethics coupled with the public sphere is enhanced by the availability of information from media outlets such as Al Jazeera, which in turn leads to a better informed citizenry and a more democratic society.
- William Wallis, “AL-JAZEERA: William Wallis reports on a television station that has shaken up broadcasting in the region,” Financial Times (London, England), May 18, 2005 Wednesday, FT REPORT - QATAR; Pg. 5
- Reed S. AL JAZEERA MEETS AMERICAN RESISTANCE. Business Week [serial online]. 2006;3978:42-42. Available from: Academic Search Premier,
Ipswich, MA. Accessed May 4, 2006.
- Julie Salamon, “Al Jazeera, Looking Like CNN on the Surface Only,” New York Times, May 14, 2002, Pg. E6
Hugh Miles, “Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West,” (U.S.: Random House, 2006), 5, 64, 153
- Hugh Miles, “Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenges America, ” (U.S.: Random House, 2006) 18, 21, 65, 109
- Peter Golding and Graham Murdock. Culture, Communications and, Political Economy. Pg. 18
- Amy Goodman. “Al Jazeera in the Crosshairs: Did Bush Really Want to Bomb the Arabic TV Network's Headquarters in 2004?” Democracy Now! Tuesday, November 29th, 2005. Date of Access, April 12th, 2007. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/11/29/1458240
- John Daniszewski, “2 Britons Accused in Leak of Bush-Al Jazeera Memo;" Los Angeles Times,
November 30, 2005 Wednesday, Foreign Desk; Part A; Pg. 3
- Michael Massing, Howard Kurtz. “Media Takes Critical Look at Prewar Intelligence Coverage.” Online News Hour. October 1 8th, 2006 Professor Michael Tracey class reading)
- Michael Massing, Howard Kurtz. “Media Takes Critical Look at Prewar Intelligence Coverage.” Online News Hour. October 1 8th, 2006 (Professor Michael Tracey class reading)
- Kant, Immanuel. Translated by James W. Ellington  (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Hackett, p30.
- AP-wire, “Why Al Jazeera Matters,” New York Times, March 30, 2003, Pg. WK12
- Clifford Christians, Clifford. British Studies Lecture Series, Norlin Library. March, 2007
- Fouad Ajami, “What the Muslim World Is Watching,” New York Times, November 18, 2001, Pg. SM148
- “IRAQ: Missing journalist's wife demands more information”
Al-Jazeera suspends Baghdad coverage; Iraqis fail to renew 50 journalists' credentials." www.cpj.org New York, April 3, 2003 Access: April 16, 2007, http://www.cpj.org/news/2003/Iraq03apr03na.html