WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- Al Jazeera is not anti-American, and U.S. officials are missing an opportunity by not getting their message out on the Qatar-based Arabic TV network, an Egyptian-born communications professor said.
The West is not using the 24-hour satellite channel as it should, said Stonehill College Professor Mohammed el-Nawawy in a phone interview from Easton, Mass.
Many Americans had never heard of Al Jazeera until after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Then, out of the blue, the network seemed to be a vehicle for Osama bin Laden to get his message out to the world through the broadcast of tapes. When the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, Al Jazeera provided the only continuous news feed from Taliban-controlled areas. Then Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-born director of the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in the Nov. 18, 2001, issue of The New York Times Magazine that the al Qaida leader was clearly the "star" of Al Jazeera, which portrayed bin Laden as "the brave knight of the Arab world."
But to think of Al Jazeera as a pro-Taliban, or even pro al Qaida outlet is "absolutely wrong," el-Nawawy said.
El-Nawawy is author, with Adel Iskandar, of "Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East," published in March. "People should know that Al Jazeera has really revolutionized the media scene in the Arab world," he told United Press International.
The professor said that before Sept. 11, U.S. officials had praised the network as an independent voice that provided balanced reporting. Its motto is, "Opinion, and other opinion." They always make it a point to cover all the sides, el-Nawawy said. He has a satellite dish and watches the station every night.
Other stations in the Arab world are government controlled, he said, but Al Jazeera covers sensitive issues Arabs are not used to seeing on their TV screens, such as polygamy in Islam and apostasy.
This deserves appreciation, he said, because "Arabs have always known that they are not getting the full picture from their own, government-controlled media," and the language barrier has prevented them from getting the news from Western outlets. (The British Broadcast Corp.'s Arabic service is an exception.)
El-Nawawy said that last spring, in response to Sept. 11, the United States launched Radio Sawa (Radio Together) to reach hearts and minds in the Arab world. But the professor believes this network is not very effective because it broadcasts mostly pop music with news at the half hour. Unlike the BBC, Sawa has not offered much critical analysis or in-depth reporting, he said.
"If there is a channel that is as credible and as popular as Al Jazeera, I think that American officials -- rather than investing in a new project -- need to make use of it to reach the Arab audiences with whatever messages they want to tell them." Arab audiences trust Al Jazeera, el-Nawawy said, and it is a particularly effective forum for Arabic-speaking U.S. officials.
El-Nawawy said Al Jazeera was founded in 1996 with a five-year loan from the emir of Qatar, which is a tiny island-nation on the Persian Gulf. "It was a very courageous and progressive idea on the emir's part," he told UPI. Al Jazeera claimed that the emir's support ended in November of 2001 and the channel is financially independent. "Whether that's true, I don't know," el-Nawawy said.
The network has been going through financial difficulties, the professor said, because in the Arab world advertising is not controlled by the market or by ratings but rather by the government. And governments of the Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have been putting pressure on their advertisers not to do business with the channel "as a way of pressuring Al Jazeera to stay away from criticizing the regimes."
Many people in the West are unaware of this, el-Nawawy said.
The professor was asked if the platform of Israel's Likud Party could get a respectful hearing on Al Jazeera.
"Of course," he replied. "The Israelis have been invited on several occasions to talk on Al Jazeera. That's another reason why it has been criticized. Some Arab journalists refuse even to be on the same program with an Israeli official or analyst."
El-Nawawy said Al Jazeera "has opened doors for Arab viewers" by introducing them to the idea of tolerance for opposing opinions and has reduced the power of conspiracy theories, such as the one that 4,000 Jews were tipped off not to go to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. "That rumor was a result of ignorance, a lack of communications," el-Nawawy said. Al Jazeera has exposed this conspiracy theory as untrue, he told UPI.
Stephanie Thomas, an assistant producer in Al Jazeera's Washington Bureau, said that although it's fair to say that the channel presents the Arab perspective, its coverage is not biased -- and certainly not hostile to the United States. "We are geared towards an Arab audience, we know what interests them, and we present what is of interest to them," she said. "But we also make tremendous effort to cover the other point of view.
"Certainly in Washington, we are covering (President) Bush more than many of the local networks cover him," Thomas said. "And this is not with virulent commentary following every Bush speech. It's balanced -- usually pundits and think tank people from Washington analyzing the speeches or whatever they are. Every day we have somebody coming from one of the think tanks to give a live interview for our nightly newscast." She said simultaneous translations are done from network headquarters in Doha.
Stephen Hess, senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said his dealings with the Washington bureau have been very positive and professional. He is asked to give his opinions on such matters as American politics, elections, and the presidency.
"The translation that I'm getting in my ear when I'm having a discussion with somebody is very fast and apparently accurate (judging) from the responses." Hess said, "Americans should take advantage of this. Frankly, I like to do it. I don't know any other way that my views as a fairly middle-of-the-road, patriotic ... person would be able to reach the Arab world. Nobody else is asking for my opinion.
"The questions that they ask are not slanted; they are the questions you would expect a journalist to ask on whatever subject you're talking about." Although discussants express views opposed to his own, Hess said: "No one has challenged me or has been hostile in any way."
UPI asked el-Nawawy about the emir's motivation.
"It's a PR tool for Qatar," he replied. "How many people had even heard of the country before Al Jazeera? The station has really put Qatar on the world map.
"The emir has been progressive in other ways," el-Nawawy added. "He is in the process of producing a new parliamentary system so his country will be a constitutional monarchy. He has given more liberties to women."
Part of the liberalization process has been the abolition of the Ministry of Information, by which Arab governments control the media. "Qatar is the only Arab country that I can think of that has no ministry of information," el-Nawawy said.
If anti-Americanism were the standard of success for an Arab station, el-Nawawy said, then the Lebanon-based Hezbollah channel Al Manar (The Lighthouse) would be leading the pack, and it's not.