Cover Story

All that Al Jazeera voice for freedom?

As independent as it gets in the Middle East, Qatari news organization's impressive list of detractors is evidence that journalists who don't fear authoritarians have the opportunity to play a positive role in a post-Saddam Arab world

Issue: "Portable Pentagon," March 1, 2003

According to the whispers, it will come sometime this month. After millions of dollars, months of planning, and a massive buildup, the invasion is now just days away.

No, not an attack on Saddam Hussein, though that could happen around the same time. By design or not, just as the United States prepares to launch its forces against Iraq, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar is launching an offensive of its own-against CNN and the BBC, against what it perceives as Western ignorance and stereotyping. The United States may or may not reach Baghdad and Tikrit, but the Arabs are definitely coming to Boise and Tampa.

The Al Jazeera news channel has already conquered the Arabian Gulf, bringing critical, Western-style reporting to a region long known for its fawning, state-run media. Nearly every sheikh, king, and president in the Middle East has banned or boycotted the channel at some point in its brief, seven-year history, and President George W. Bush would gladly have joined that list, if he could. Yet despite-or perhaps because of-the opposition, Al Jazeera has quickly established itself as the No. 1 news source in the Arab world, as ubiquitous and influential in the Middle East as CNN is throughout Europe and the Americas.

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Now it wants to bring its avowedly Arab point of view to American audiences. With the March launch of its new English-language website, Al Jazeera could revolutionize the news business, writing the "first rough draft of history" through the eyes of the vanquished, not the victors. That, in turn, could push some Americans to reconsider their assumptions about the war-and, perhaps more importantly, the whole concept of media "objectivity."

From the outside, the nondescript, four-story office building in the Qatari capital of Doha doesn't look like much of a command center in this media revolution. Indeed, it's largely abandoned for Eid Al Adha, one of the most important religious festivals in the Muslim calendar. All across Qatar, the faithful have packed into their local mosques for morning sermons, then headed to the slaughterhouse for the ritual sacrifice of thousands of sheep.

In the third-floor offices of Al Jazeera Net, however, employees are sacrificing something else: their day off. Though some have rushed from morning prayers still wearing their traditional white robes, or thoub, they're now at their battle stations, banging away at computer keyboards or reading through stacks of newspapers in various languages. They have only a few weeks to get the site up and running, and they feel the weight of the world-the Arab world, at least-on their shoulders.

Then there's Nathan Wilson, who's not doing much of anything yet. Still jet-lagged from his 24-hour trip to Doha, he's trying mostly to figure out the e-mail system and learn his way around the office. The 22-year-old journalism grad from Franklin College in Indiana signed on just last night as Al Jazeera Net's latest reporter, making this his first day on the job. He admits it's a career choice many of his friends don't understand.

"Some of them had to be educated," he says with a laugh. "I know there's a stigma associated with Al Jazeera, and some of my friends were concerned for my safety. They come from small towns with lots of stereotypes-one image of the entire Arab culture. You have a different perspective when you live in the States your whole life. You don't realize how sensational and one-sided the American media can be in their coverage of the Arab world."

Mr. Wilson's own view of the Arab world was shaped at much closer range. He grew up in America, but he spent his high-school years in Qatar after his father, a chemical engineer, accepted a position at the local university. He figures his cross-cultural experience and his contacts in the American expatriate community will help gain him access at Western embassies and military bases in Qatar. His goal, he says, is to "reach out to the West and present Al Jazeera as an option for people who want a more rounded perspective."

Yet even among Muslim nations in the Middle East, Al Jazeera's perspective has been criticized as anything but well-rounded. Saddam Hussein complained that the station was anti-Iraqi after it reported on the huge expenses for his lavish birthday party. In neighboring Kuwait, officials accuse Al Jazeera of being pro-Saddam, while the ruler of tiny Bahrain banned the station for being pro-Israel. Saudi Arabia organized a devastating advertising boycott to protest unflattering coverage of the kingdom's tyrannical ruling family, and Yasser Arafat blasted the channel for allegedly favoring Hamas over the PLO. All told, the Qatari government has received more than 400 official complaints from other Arab nations regarding stories broadcast on Al Jazeera. (Although both the station and the website are independent of the government, Al Jazeera received $140 million in seed money from the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.)


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