A New Voice from the Middle East War of Cultures Hits the Airwaves

Arab TV news station Al-Jazeera has started an English language program with the aim of redressing what it calls an imbalance in global news reporting. Its news director wants to "reverse the North-South flow of information." The project could boost the self-esteem of a depressed cultural nation.

By in Doha, Qatar

Al-Jazeera International staff preparing to start broadcasting last week.

Al-Jazeera International staff preparing to start broadcasting last week.

A maze of corridors leads from the stone-cold Al-Jazeera newsroom to the sultry heat on the streets of Doha, the capital city of Qatar.

At every turn, there’s a little aphorism written on the wall. "A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom. Bob Dylan." Further down the hallway: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Mahatma Gandhi."

Across the street stands the television palace of Al-Jazeera International (AJI), the new English-language channel which went on air for the first time on Wednesday. The new construction is more elegant, intricate and more expensive than the old headquarters built to order by the emir a decade ago when the Arab station started broadcasting. His advisors even spared a thought for the smokers this time around. On the lawn adjacent to the entrance, a Bedouin tent complete with red Ottoman sofas and chrome ashtrays offers refuge to the news team, their smoke clouds despatched by the air conditioning which hums gently in the background.

Doha is home to the management and the first shift working on the round the clock, around the globe news channel.

But most of the international stars poached from competitors over the past few months obviously found the prospect of working for Al-Jazeera more attractive than the idea of moving to the Persian Gulf. David Frost, 67, the legendary BBC interviewer, will conduct his conversations with kings, presidents and superstars from the London studio. He claimed to be delighted at the prospect of participating in "the most exciting project in modern media history." The title of his program matches the temperature in the Al-Jazeera foyer: "Frost over the world."

After eleven hours of broadcasting from Doha and five from London, Washington picks up the baton. The appointment of one of the two anchormen, David Marash, formerly with ABC, has led to the type of controversy which has become the norm for the Al-Jazeera station. As a Jewish journalist, he has been criticized in the United States for working for an Arab network. Radical bloggers say Mossad has now assumed control of the chief organ of Arab nationalism.

700 million Muslims speak better English than Arabic

In Kuala Lumpur, Veronica Pedrosa, previously with CNN, is the prime-time face of Al-Jazeera for south and southeast Asia. The area between India and China not only has the most important oil customers of the future, but is also home to around 700 million Muslims who generally speak better English than Arabic. As AJI director Nigel Parsons points out: "We feel a natural empathy for the Asian Muslims."

How is this expected to dovetail? The cool businesslike manner of Anglo-Saxon journalists, perched on cream-colored office chairs, reporting on the day’s news -- and the infamous, openly anti-Western slant which has lent Al-Jazeera a mythological air as the most renowned brand name to emerge from the Arab world?

"We aim to reverse the North-South flow of information," states news director Steve Clark. "We want to establish a more evenly balanced perspective."

What he means by that becomes apparent on the first day of broadcasting in the form of unequivocal graphics -- "Great Britain: 400 atomic weapons, Israel: 150, North Korea: 1? Iran: 0? USA: 10,250." Images of Robert Mugabe, the controversial President of Zimbabwe, pop up on screen accompanied by catchwords: Dictator? Statesman? Fanatic? An African hero?

The management is paying particular attention to the newly enflamed debate on "Orientalism," a concept coined by the deceased Arab-American intellectual Edward Said and which suggests that the Middle East as portrayed in the Western media has more to do with the fears and prejudices of their audience than with reality. "Enough of stereotypes," says Parsons, "we do not want any more of these ad hoc experts jetting in to explain a world they do not understand."

The consequence: On the gallery above the Al-Jazeera International Studio, three rows of desks are occupied exclusively by Arab journalists. The experts on the "Middle East Desk" are there to ensure that every nuance in the new portrayal of the Middle East which Al-Jazeera International broadcasts into the anglophone world is accurate.

Three things anchor Al-Jazeera in the Arab world: technically professional television, a certain intransigence in the face of incumbent regimes and the proud conviction of belonging to a common nation that will ultimately challenge the West.

Should the Al-Jazeera International experiment be successful, it will do wonders for the self esteem of a depressed cultural nation. When the English channel’s departmental bosses head down the long hallway for the 9 a.m. conference with their Arab colleagues, they might read the words of the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi alongside those of Bob Dylan: "He who does not like to ascend mountains will live in ditches forever."


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