Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera’s Doha newsroom in 2005. Photo by AP
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"Al Jazeera is the enemy," charged former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Zvi Mazel, about the most widely viewed television channel in the Middle East whose pictures of the protests in Cairo have been seen all over. "Al Jazeera is serving Zionist interests and it invites Israeli representatives to its studios," claimed the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Quds al-Arabi, which is owned by the family of the Qatari ruler, some two years ago.

"Al Jazeera has decided to bring down the Palestinian Authority," moaned Israeli commentators while [Palestinian chief negotiator] Saeb Erekat complained that "Al Jazeera is waging a war against [Palestinian Authority head] Mahmoud Abbas."

It may be difficult to recall that until a week ago Al Jazeera was the hero of the media. It published documents from the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis and created a hard-to-understand storm in Israel and the PA. Because if indeed "there is nothing new" in the documents, as people here hastened to say, why did the media devote so much time to covering them? And if they do contain news, why should Al Jazeera be cursed? If this is a plot on the part of a TV station "that serves the interests of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas," where is the proof?

"It is worth noting the manner in which Al Jazeera promoted the publication of the documents," one commentator said. "Pay attention to the special music that accompanies the broadcast and the intonation of the announcers."

Indeed, the guilt is terrible. It is sufficient to see how the Israeli channels promote a nondescript serial or a half-baked investigative report in order to understand what kind of dramatic accompaniment, musical or otherwise, these exclusive documents would have received had they come into their hands. Would anyone have accused them of "an attempt to bring down Netanyahu's regime?" Of course not - the publication would have been considered an impressive journalistic achievement, of course.

Al Jazeera has quite a few imperfections. It has an agenda that is not popular in the West, or in the eyes of the authorities in most Arab countries and Israel. From time to time, its offices in Arab capitals are closed down in response to a report that "harms the good name of the country or its leaders," as those involved explain.

The channel's management was not prepared to sign a "treaty of journalistic respect" that was initiated more than two years ago by Arab information ministers, which stated that "a distinction must be made between terrorism and legitimate opposition to occupation ... religious values must not be harmed, nor must the good names of the rulers and the symbols of the regime; Arabic culture must be promoted (at least 20 percent of all broadcasts must be in Arabic )." In addition, the treaty stated that it was necessary to refrain from broadcasting "any matter that could harm Arab solidarity or that could assist globalization in harming the Arab identity." That is the kind of Arabic medium that is apparently popular with those who criticize Al Jazeera.

The authors of the treaty claimed that they were sick and tired of the culture that reaches the Arab public from two main sources: Lebanese TV that disseminates "a culture of corrupt nakedness" - that is, clips and films of young singers whose appearance is not in keeping with the customs of modesty, and competitions of the "A Star is Born" ilk, as well as private networks that broadcast religious preachers who bypass the official religious institutions in every country.

Creating a media revolution

Egypt received the most blows from Al Jazeera when the network led the campaign to document the suffering in Gaza and broadcast harsh interviews with residents of Gaza and citizens of other Arab countries, who attacked the Egyptians and Saudis for not doing more about the situation in Gaza. There are people in Egypt who attribute to Al Jazeera direct responsibility for the Egyptian peoples' sympathy for the people of Gaza and the protests in the streets of Cairo demanding that the wall between Egypt and Gaza be breached.

Egypt is also furious over the open forum given by Al Jazeera to representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, against whom the Egyptian authorities have declared a war to the death. "The satellite stations disseminate ignorance, nonsense and religious edicts that are opposed to Muslim religious law, by people who have not been religiously ordained for this," said the Egyptian information minister.

Al Jazeera has often taken an independent line in the past. One of the network's reporters was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment by a Spanish court for carrying a message from al-Qaida, after he interviewed Osama bin Laden following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the Unites States. (He was released due to ill health after serving one year ).

Al Jazeera was also the only Arab station during the war in Iraq that distributed information in an independent way, outside the American information system which embedded media representatives with various units. The Americans bombed its offices during the fighting and one reporter was killed in the attack.

Is Al Jazeera an Iranian agent that supports Hezbollah and encourages Hamas? The Arab leaders do not so much blame Al Jazeera of this, but they suspect the policies of the ruler of Qatar, who finances the network. In a few instances, Arab countries have recalled their ambassadors from Qatar or declared that diplomatic relations had been severed, as Saudi Arabia did, in response to broadcasts in which they were attacked. There is no doubt that the network is subject to the political dictates of its owner, who has become a major player in many of the Middle Eastern disputes and in several cases, such as in Lebanon, has pushed the Egyptians out of the scene.

But those who are impressed by the uprising in Tunisia or the strength of the public in Egypt, and those who follow the development of the public discourse in the Middle East, cannot but be impressed, at the same time, with the way the TV station has instigated a media revolution.