It was July 18th, 2008, the birthday of Samir Kuntar, and so Al Jazeera naturally had a birthday celebration. Fortuitously, Kuntar had been released just two days earlier from a near three-decade spell in Israeli prison. As a young member of the Palestinian Liberation Front in 1979, Kuntar snuck across the Lebanese border and proceeded to kill an Israeli policeman, 31-year-old Danny Haran, and Haran’s 4-year-old daughter, Einat. The last he killed by bashing a rock against her skull. Kuntar was also convicted by an Israeli court of indirectly killing Einat’s two-year-old sister Yael, who died of suffocation as her mother tried to silence her cries.
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Kuntar was released in return for the coffins of two Israeli soldiers, in one of a long line of patently inequitable “prisoner exchanges” in which captive Israeli soldiers (dead or alive), held under conditions of blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, are swapped for terrorists who breach every norm of warfare. On Al Jazeera, Kuntar was unrepentant about the murders he had committed, and the host was fulsome in praise of his guest. “Brother Samir, we would like to celebrate your birthday with you,” he gushed. “You deserve even more than this.”
Then Kuntar got a cake.
Such coverage is all too typical of Al Jazeera, and it is important to keep the above scene in mind as American liberals, so-called “media studies” experts, and other denizens of the global cosmopolitan class trip over themselves in praising the Arab Satellite network’s acquisition of Current TV, the poor man’s MSNBC owned in part by Al Gore. Al Jazeera plans to use Current TV as the foundation for a new, U.S.-based cable news channel, Al Jazeera America.
Al Jazeera’s fans romanticize the network - owned by the Emir of Qatar - as a refreshing new font of free expression in the Middle East. But what they really like about Al Jazeera is that it takes on the United States and its allies - not only Israel, but also the late Mubarak regime in Egypt and the House of Saud. For all its enthusiasm in covering the “Arab Spring,” Al Jazeera has little interest in the human rights abuses committed by Qatar or its ally Bahrain. And while Al Jazeera’s defenders say that there is a significant contrast between its Arabic and English networks, the gap is not so profound. According to a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the Universities of Arizona and Southern Illinois, apart from differences in the placement of news stories between the English- and Arabic-language Al-Jazeera websites, “Al-Jazeera online is an Arabic news organization that does not produce different news coverage to Arabic- and English-speaking consumers online [this contradicts the assertion that] Al-Jazeera sends entirely different messages to their English-speaking audience from those messages they send to their Arab-speaking audience.”
Indeed, vital to understanding Al Jazeera is acknowledging that it does have an ideology. This is something that many of its Western fan boys choose to ignore. Calling the network’s ethos an “ideology”, however, gives its modus operandi a little too much credit; the network, despite its protestations, is ultimately a tool of Qatari foreign policy. The network’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is invariably influenced by the fact that the Emir of Qatar has heaped hundreds of millions of dollars on Hamas. See, for instance, its highly manipulative and irresponsible presentation of the “Palestine Papers” two years ago, which emboldened the implacable terrorist organization while portraying the Palestinian Authority as feckless, Zionist collaborators. Al Jazeera’s standpoint is just as pronounced, if not more so, than that of Fox News.
When protests initially broke out against Syria’s Bashar Assad, the network barely noticed them. This was because Syria is part of the regional “resistance block” arrayed against the United States, one whose interests Qatar, as a tiny country with regional aspirations, has regularly promoted. Early in the Syrian revolution, Michael Young of the Beirut Daily Star observed that Al Jazeera was “profoundly reluctant to highlight the Syrian protests” because “to go after Bashar Assad means reversing years of Al-Jazeera coverage sympathetic to the Syrian leader.” Two years into the Syrian civil war, as most Arabs across the region have turned on Bashar, so has Al Jazeera, following the lead of its benefactor.
Americans – including Jewish leaders – critical of Al Jazeera’s entry into the U.S. market have been ridiculed as provincial rubes and nativists. Conceding that Time Warner, one of the country’s largest cable carriers, which pre-emptively announced that it will not carry the new network, “has the legal right to cut off Current,” the New York Times editorial board lamented that “the decision is unfortunate and could block access to an important news source.” Al Jazeera, the paper of record intoned, “could bring an important international perspective to American audiences” because it “often brings a nuance to international stories that can be lacking on American networks.”
One wonders what specific “nuance” the Times commends. Is it the musings of Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, who shares his thoughts on permissible spousal abuse to 60 million viewers via his program “Shariah and Life?” It was on Al Jazeera Arabic that Qaradawi, the most popular Sunni cleric in the world, declared that Adolf Hitler “managed to put [the Jews] in their place.” The Holocaust, he declared, “was divine punishment for them,” even though, of course, they “exaggerated” it.
But the most interesting, and sorry, aspect to this story is what it says about Al Gore. Never mind the hypocrisy of a man who preaches green while accepting another sort of green from oil sheiks. The former vice president of the United States refused to even entertain an offer by conservative media personality Glenn Beck to purchase Current. “The legacy of who the network goes to is important to us and we are sensitive to networks not aligned with our point of view,” an individual close to the negotiations told the Wall Street Journal.
And what is that “point of view” Gore so jealousy protects? As a Senator, Gore was one of the most hawkish of the erstwhile “New Democrats,” one of only a handful of members of his party to vote in favor of the First Gulf War. Today, he is the enabler and profiteer of the go-to-network for the late Osama bin Laden and Hassan Nasrallah.
James Kirchick is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.