The TV network’s reputation for candor is belied by its own set of compromises.Qatari diplomats are accustomed to receiving protests about al-Jazeera, their quirky in-house television network. Among the most regular complaints are those from Syria, Iran and Iraq who accuse the independent network of seeking to undermine their regimes. But it is not only hard-line regimes that are leery of al-Jazeeran impudence. Even moderate Arab regimes are finding things to dislike. In May 2000 Tunisia’s ambassador complained to Qatar’s foreign ministry about a program that accused his government of human rights violations. Lebanon, which is accustomed to a relatively free wheeling press, grew cantankerous when the network conducted a story on Eli Hbeika, the mastermind of the 1982 attacks on the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila. This apparent aggravation leads many hopeful observers to believe that al-Jazeera is capable of prodding the democratic nerve that twitches so resistantly in the Arab world.
But don’t count on it. An investigative reporter in the Arab world can be compared to a man strapped to a raft, caught in the eye of a hurricane, who watches helplessly as a 100-foot wall of water bears down on him. The scale of corruption and human degradation in the Arab world is so unfathomable and so beyond restraint that it can never be properly understood or documented. Reporters daring to lift the lid on this seething cauldron are likely to be scalded, as are the media agencies they represent. An Italian film crew learned this lesson painfully in October 2000 when it dared to film the brutal lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah. Death threats to the cameramen and the banning of the agency by Yasser Arafat ensured that the film was eventually destroyed. No one should therefore be surprised at al-Jazeera’s irritation when it defends broadcasts of Bin Laden speeches. It merely conforms to the age-old adage that “if you must shake the branch, then be sure not to uproot the tree.”
Currying political favor might well explain al-Jazeera’s fast-diminishing reputation for objectivity. In a recent article, Amir Taheri, a London-based Iranian journalist pointed out that there are significant taboo areas within the network such as criticism of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Qatar itself. For all their hype, al-Jazeera talk shows, which form the backbone of its programming, gravitate towards radical Islamists, giving them far greater exposure than Arab moderates. This is beyond its already well-known operation as Osama bin Laden’s de facto public relations agency, beaming his carefully prepared diatribes against the West to millions of Arab homes.
Letting out your sails in order to avoid the onset of tempestuous political winds might well be the cost for doing business in the Arab world, but it should never be confused with moderation or balance. The Arab press, much like the political apparatus that supports it, is not free and despite such attempts as al-Jazeera to prove otherwise, there is little evidence in any Arab country that change is on the way. In fact, the reverse is true. The swelling tide of Islamic fundamentalism has Arab political leaders scurrying to produce their Islamic credentials. The result is that nowhere in the Middle East are Arabs given access to open debate on the most important issues central to either their own or their children’s future.
Nowhere that is, except Israel. Here close to one million Arab Israeli citizens produce their own newspapers, own their own radio stations and receive Arab television programming from both within and without Israel. The reporting of their papers is not censored and their freedom from monitoring and censorship – save for national security matters – is, in fact, guaranteed by Israel’s Basic Laws.
The foreign press in Israel also has little reason for complaint. There are few places in the world where journalists are given as broad access to events as in Israel. Freedom House, a Washington-based non-partisan organization that conducts a regular ranking of freedom around the world, sets Israel in the top 10 percent for press freedom and has done so for years. Most Arab countries wallow in the lowest 10 percent of the same ranking.
When the 19th-century press baron Joseph Pulitzer spoke of a free press as “the guardian of democracy,” he wasn’t talking in a vacuum. He understood that when operating responsibly, the press represents the conscience of the people and can therefore become a vehicle for significant democratic change. For years, the champions of democratization in the Arab world have presented al-Jazeera and its massive popularity as the first signal of that change. They have it all wrong. It is a free press that follows from democracy, not the other way around. Most analysts now recognize that the clash between peoples, religions and cultures in the Middle East is unlikely to ever produce a perfect democracy. But history will at least record that when democracy came knocking, only one country in that vast region ever had the courage to answer its call.