Al Jazeera: A Reality Show for the Arab World

'Everyone has complaints about us,' says the network chief correspondent for Israel.

Asaf Carmel
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It isn't simple to be a journalist in this region, says Walid al-Umari, the chief correspondent for the Al Jazeera network in Israel and the territories. "Take last week: On Sunday the Fatah issued a threatening statement against us saying that we are serving Hamas, on Monday Hamas sent out a statement against us saying the opposite and on Tuesday the Israeli Foreign Ministry was angry at us.They complained that in a broadcast, I was described as 'the network's correspondent in Palestine.' In fact, I usually present myself as 'the head of the Al Jazeera office in Jerusalem,' but sometimes the broadcasters in the studio in Qatar get confused."

Although he is not well-known to the general public in Israel, al-Umari is apparently the best-known Israeli Arab in the Arab world. The Qatari Al Jazeera satellite network is the most popular media source in the Arab countries, and al-Umari's face is shown to about 70 million viewers every day. In this context he stands out for his profound acquaintance with Israel and his relatively balanced coverage.

Al Jazeera's line is definitely anti-Israeli, but al-Umari refrains from the incendiary reporting that characterizes other correspondents. Thanks to him, viewers from Morocco to Iraq see Israel and its citizens, perhaps for the first time, in an almost unmediated way.

"Al Jazeera's motto is 'the opinion and the other opinion,'" he explains. "For 50 years the Arabs heard the Israeli opinion through a third party, their regimes. We make a point of interviewing as many Israelis as possible, because we respect the viewer's intelligence. Let him be the judge. We don't dictate anything to anyone," he says.

Quite a few Israeli politicians are regularly interviewed on Al Jazeera, among them Deputy Premier Shimon Peres, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra and former minister Silvan Shalom, now an MK.

"[Knesset Speaker] Dalia Itzik and [Kadima MK] Haim Ramon refuse to appear on the network," he says, "as does [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, who in his previous capacities was interviewed quite a lot on Al Jazeera, but for now he is refusing."

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was also supposed to have given an interview to Al Jazeera. 'We were already sitting there in his office," al-Umari recalls, "but the Shin Bet [security service] people objected to us putting an earphone on him. We solved the matter, and then they asked that there not be a microphone, but rather that someone would sit across from him and ask the questions. I sat down to mediate between him and the broadcaster in the studio, but then one of the advisers demanded that I also do the interviewing. I said to the adviser, 'What do you think about working for us as chief editor?' and the interview was canceled."

Al-Umari, 49, was born in the village of Sandala in the Jezreel Valley. While studying international relations at the Hebrew University, he went to work for a Palestinian news agency in East Jerusalem. After that he worked at the French Radio Orient, and when Al Jazeera was established, about a decade ago, he joined its ranks. He divides his time between Jerusalem and Ramallah, where his wife and daughter live. He has published three books, one of them about the Russian immigrants' effect on Israel.

"I cover everything that is important on the Israeli side," he says. "Along with the reports on matters of state, I've done reports on the social situation, the crisis in the local authorities and also on the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. Not long ago I did a report on universities in Israel, and afterward there was a discussion by experts in the studio on whether the universities in the Arab world are backward relative to them.

He who fails blames the media

Three weeks ago Al Jazeera editor-in-chief Ahmad al-Sheikh was interviewed for the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoch. Among other things, al-Sheikh said Israel had intentionally bombarded the civilians at Beit Hanoun in the incident in which 19 people were killed, adding that the day Israel was founded is the basis for all the problems of the Arab nation. Al-Umari really doesn't want to relate to his boss' prejudices. "Don't bother me with politics - I just deal with the media."

Do al-Sheikh's statements faithfully represent the network's basic anti-Israeli line?

"Al Jazeera is an Arab medium that broadcasts to an Arab audience, and in this audience Israel is perceived as an enemy. When one side is living under an occupation and the other side is the occupier, it's clear that what is reported is negative. How could it be otherwise?"

Al-Umari heads a team of 55 employees, of whom only the 13 Israeli citizens can move freely between Israel and the West Bank.

"At the time of the disengagement, when Israel wanted the media, all of the workers received press cards and moved between Ramallah and Gaza," he relates. "However, during the last war they even hassled me, although I am a recognized journalist and hold a blue identity card."

Al-Umari was arrested twice during the war on suspicion of censorship violations. "I revealed the terrible secret," he laughs, "that Kfar Yassif is located east of Akko. It of course ended in nothing. Israel did not achieve its aims and Hezbollah continued to fire rockets, so they started to go after the journalists."

At a symposium that the Channel 2 franchisee Reshet held in Umm al-Fahm a month ago, al-Umari criticized the functioning of the Israeli media during the war. "Some of the media," he argued, "sounded just like the chief of staff."

Al Jazeera's broadcasts from Lebanon were biased in favor of Hezbollah. Did they make you uncomfortable the way the reports on the Israeli channels did?

"No network was able to move freely in Lebanon during the war, and I can't say that Al Jazeera gave full coverage from there. I can say that our coverage from here was balanced. Every day we broadcast two reports - one on the diplomatic-security situation and the other on the suffering of civilians - Jewish or Arab. In addition, we broadcast live every press conference by senior Israeli officials."

Despite his criticism of its functioning during the war, al-Umari is full of praise for how the Israeli press functions in peacetime. "This is an investigative and critical press that has already toppled governments. To my regret, the Arab media hasn't yet reached this stage."

Al-Umari feels safer working inside the Green Line (pre-Six-Day War border) than beyond it, "because in Israel there is, in the end, the law but in the territories, there is no law and no judge. Senior people incite against us, a former director burned our cars, and it has already happened that armed men have come to our office in Ramallah. Maybe some day we'll have to close the office, but that won't prevent us from continuing to provide coverage. In Iraq, too, we don't have an office but nevertheless our coverage from there is the best."

Senior Fatah people, for example Mahmoud Dahlan, claim Al Jazeera is serving Hamas.

"That is not true. Up until a year ago the Palestinian Authority was in the hands of Fatah, and that is what was reflected from our reports. But after the Hamas victory in the elections, a new situation developed, and therefore the senior officials in the movement are getting a lot of airtime. Listen, everyone has complaints about us: the Israelis, the Americans - who say that we are working for Osama bin Laden and who claimed that we served Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War - and also the Jordanians, who are complaining that we are working for the Peres Center for Peace. If, despite all the accusations, the network is still so popular, apparently we are working well." Al-Umari relates proudly, "Al Jazeera has led a big change in the Arab media and has very much expanded freedom of expression. Until we went on the air, no one heard the opposition in the various countries, because there were only official sources."

Despite Al Jazeera's activity, however, the Arab world is still very far from democracy. "This isn't Al Jazeera's problem; it's a problem of the regimes, most of which are dictatorships. The transition to democracy will take a lot more time, and it isn't an easy process. I would like us to be like Europe, but we're in the Arab world."

Perhaps Al Jazeera doesn't really preach democracy and reform but rather mainly serves the interests of its landlords, the rulers of Qatar?

"I don't think so. Qatar is a small country. I don't even know what its interests are in the Palestinian issue apart from basic support. I don't know of any intervention by Qatari officials in an attempt to influence the network's way of covering things. If I have an important report, I will transmit it. Al Jazeera is far more balanced than most of the media in the region. Do you think that in the Arab world they like to see Israeli officers talking on the network? Then they curse us and call for shutting down the network, but nevertheless we are considered the most reliable medium. The last thing that worries us is pleasing politicians."

Is Al Jazeera helping to establish Israel's existence in the Arab mind?

"Why is Israel worrying all the time about whether the Arabs recognize its existence or not? The Arab countries don't constitute a threat - it is a thousand times stronger than they are. To the question itself, the answer is no, this isn't our role. Al Jazeera shows the existing situation, for example in Iraq or the poverty in Arab countries, but this doesn't mean that it is pleased with this. It transmits the reality because that's what there is."