A Voice as Powerful as Countries: Can Al-Jazeera Topple Governments?

By and Yassin Musharbash

Part 2: 'We Don't Wish to Take Any Sides'

Photo Gallery: Voice of the Arab World Photos
REUTERS

The Al-Jazeera newsroom, the nerve center of the network, where all editorial decisions are made, could not offer a greater contrast to the feverish nature of the news broadcasts. The journalists greet each quietly when they arrive at work, and they walk slowly across the pale green carpet. No one here runs or shouts.

It is 10:35 a.m. and 45 seconds when Mustafa Souag walks into his office. The tall man is wearing a light green suit, and he carefully hangs his jacket onto a coat hanger. Souag is the director of news at Al-Jazeera's mother ship, its Arabic-language station. This is also the center of power, where decisions are made on what is important in the Arab world. In contrast, Al-Jazeera's English-language station is more relaxed and aloof, more like CNN or the BBC.

Souag uses a pen with the network's logo on it, and the logo is also printed on a package of tissues on his desk. Al-Jazeera is Souag's life. He seems modest at first, when asked whether his TV news machine has political power and whether it can topple regimes.

The question amuses him. "Lotfi Hajji is not some kind of Superman who can cover all of Tunisia for us by himself!" But how much influence did the station have on the revolt in Tunisia? Souag dodges the question to a certain degree. "Academics should look into that. We are not politicians. And we don't wish to take any sides. Instead, our goal is diligent reporting -- and I believe that's enough."

Multiple Perspectives

Souag is a native Algerian and an intellectual. He once taught literature at university, and later worked for NBC and the BBC. He is intimately familiar with the standards Western critics apply to evaluate his network, and he believes that Al-Jazeera meets those standards. "We believe in the right of citizens to information, and we show our audience what freedom of opinion means every day," he says. "Sometimes we are accused of not being balanced. But when we ask for evidence (of the alleged bias), we don't get much in response. After all, we are constantly showing various perspectives and standpoints."

Al-Jazeera has been accused of everything since it was founded in 1996. And for every claim that is targeted at the station, there is invariably someone else who accuses it of the exact opposite. Some people say it is too tolerant of Islamists, while others claim it treats them unfairly. Some say it allows itself to be influenced by Arab autocrats, while others accuse it of not respecting them. Some say it only portrays the side of Arab victims, while others disagree completely, saying that it talks with Israelis far too much. Al-Jazeera seems to be the network that no one likes but everyone watches.

Does Al-Jazeera really take its motto ("the one opinion -- and the other") seriously? It is unquestionably true that, unlike the state-controlled media in the Arab world, where censorship is standard, Al-Jazeera does not ignore other opinions. But it's also clear that the network has obvious biases.

For example, the network's sympathy for the protesters was clear in its reporting on the revolution in Tunisia and the current uprising in Egypt. When regime supporters attacked regime opponents in Cairo on Thursday of last week, a message periodically appeared at the bottom of the Al-Jazeera screen stating that the demonstrators had asked the army for "protection against a massacre."

But those who criticize Al-Jazeera for being too emotional and biased often forget that Western media are not immune from such things either: At about the same time Souag was talking, CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman sent out a Twitter message that a "government-sanctioned mass lynch" was "underway" in Tahrir Square.

'Special Responsibility'

People from more than 60 countries work at Al-Jazeera in Doha. "We have men and women, people on the right and the left, Islamists, pan-Arabists and nationalists," says Souag. He is proud of this diversity. Perhaps it is also a means of protection against too much partisanship at the network.

At Al-Jazeera the management decrees how the network is to refer to specific crises, as an "uprising," "intifada," "revolt" or "revolution." The current policy for the events in Egypt is to call them "popular protests". Of course this is discussed, says the news chief, "but then everyone drinks coffee together." He calls this the "spirit of Al-Jazeera."

Whether the network will have an impact on the Egyptian revolts similar to that in Tunisia is hard to say. It is clear, however, that as long as it assigns top priority to the protests, the Arab world as a whole will remain caught up in the excitement. Al-Jazeera shows Arabs what other Arabs are saying, without translation, without filters, unabbreviated and raw.

People throw themselves at the Al-Jazeera cameras and weep uncontrollably, curse, scream and beg their Arab brothers and sisters for help. "The fact that we have influence isn't a problem," Souag says, nonchalantly. "It just means that we have a special responsibility."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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