Five Months of Al-Jazeera in English 'Non-American Doesn't Mean Anti-American'

Is Al-Jazeera International more anti-American than its sister station? The company's English-language operation is one of the most talked-about broadcasters in the world right now. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, US media expert Mohammed el-Nawawy discusses its strengths and weaknesses.

Chief Al-Jazeera Washington anchor Dave Marash (left): "a wise move"

Chief Al-Jazeera Washington anchor Dave Marash (left): "a wise move"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Nawawy, it's been five months since Al-Jazeera launched its English-language news channel. Is there any difference between tuning in to Al-Jazeera or CNN?

Nawawy: Yes, absolutely. Many people asked why we need another global English network if we already have CNN? But I think there are major differences. Al-Jazeera International is the first non-Western network to challenge the Western networks' control over the global news flow. It offers a fresh perspective in reporting on world affairs, it has reversed the flow. Instead of the information coming from the West to the rest of the world, it has established a platform from which they can appeal to people in other parts in the world. That's also what they are claiming: We are giving a voice to the voiceless.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al-Jazeera International, promised a "decidedly different tone than on established Western channels." Has that promise been kept?

Nawawy: Yes. They are, for example, covering parts of the world that have traditionally been neglected by the Western media -- not necessarily in the Arab or Muslim world, but also Latin America and Africa. Nor do they relay as much on headline journalism. They have reduced the number of news stories and increased in-depth coverage at a time when Western channels are more focused on soundbite culture.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does Al-Jazeera International deal with the most sensitive issues? What wording do they use, for example, to describe suicide bombers?

Nawawy: What they do supports my concept of "contextual objectivity," which means that different networks have to appeal to their target audiences. And that's what Al-Jazeera International is doing. It is not using a term like "martyrs" in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They are using "suicide bombers." Al-Jazeera International understands that they have to appeal to a non-Arab target audience as well.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So there are differences between Al-Jazeera International and the Arab original?

Nawawy: Absolutely. It's the same company, but they have a totally different editorial board.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you say that Al-Jazeera International provides quality journalism? Or are there severe shortcomings?

Nawawy: There are always shortcomings, there is no perfect channel. But the nice thing about Al-Jazeera is its spirit of self-reflection. They criticize themselves even before anybody else does. But there are areas that have been neglected -- and perhaps they have run more documentaries than they needed to. Still, they have only been broadcasting for five months now. We need to wait a bit longer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does Al-Jazeera International have religious programs like its Arabic sister channel?

Nawawy: Recently they had a documentary on women in Hezbollah. But the Arabic channel really only has one religious program, "Sharia and Life." But again you can see here that the two channels are targeting different audiences.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some people have said they found Al-Jazeera International to be more anti-American than the original. Is that true?

Nawawy: I don't think so. The problem starts with the framing of Al-Jazeera by the US Administration after 9/11 in very negative terms. People need to understand that because a channel is non-American it doesn't mean it has to be anti-American. Why would Al-Jazeera by anti-American? In the Middle East there are very anti-American channels like al-Manar, but are they as successful as Al-Jazeera? No. Besides, Al-Jazeera International isn't really anti-American.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Al-Jazeera has been branded as a mouthpiece for Al-Qaida for broadcasting Osama Bin Laden's tapes. How does Al-Jazeera International deal with this topic?

Nawawy: I think their coverage is more comprehensive. They don't focus on this issue as much as Al-Jazeera Arabic does.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How are the prominent Western-trained journalists fairing who have been hired by Al-Jazeera International, like former BBC correspondent Rageh Omar and former CNN anchor Riz Khan?

Nawawy: And also David Marash (the network's chief Washington anchor). I think Al-Jazeera made a wise move. I used to question this, but I think this way they achieved more of a balance. They need to address the Western mentality as well. And the fact that they hired big shots from the Western journalism world makes sense because people listen to them. It gives Al-Jazeera credibility.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Al-Jazeera International is said to have a strong viewership in Europe, Australia, parts of Asia and even Israel. Still, no major satellite or cable provider in the United States carries it. Why?

Nawawy: Many providers do not want to alienate their viewers. They don't want to be framed as the carrier that offers a "terrorist network." That is narrow-minded. People have a right to be exposed to different perspectives. When I taught a class in Middle Eastern media last semester, I let them watch Al-Jazeera and many subscribed to it because they found it interesting.

SPIEGEL: Can the success of Al-Jazeera International be quantified?

Nawawy: It is currently hard to quantify its success among viewers, especially given that the Arab world does not have specialized rating companies like America's AC Nielsen and Arbitron.

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash.


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