Al Jazeera comes to Australia

ABC Radio: The World Today

– Tuesday, 15 August, 2006 12:30:00
Reporter: Eleanor Hall

ELEANOR HALL: Later this year, Australians will be able to get access to a new and often controversial media perspective on events in the Middle East when Al Jazeera launches its English speaking channel here in November.

The Arab news station rose to prominence internationally after the September 11th attacks when it broadcast announcements from Osama Bin Laden and the Bush administration accused it of being a peddler of Islamist propaganda.

Al Jazeera’s management counters that the station is free of any form of censorship and Government control and that it’s offered its audiences in the Arab world an independent view.

So will Al Jazeera give Australians a new perspective on the Middle East?

Joining us now in Sydney to discuss this is Media analyst Dr Adel Iskander who is visiting from the American University in Washington to talk about his latest book, one of the first studies of Al Jazeera, “How the Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East”.

Also in Sydney, Dr Colin Rubinstein from the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Committee, who has been critical of Al Jazeera saying it maintains a consistent anti-Israeli bias in its broadcasts.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

First to you, Dr Iskander. What will Australians see with Al Jazeera that they don’t see now?

ADEL ISKANDER: Well, I think it… we have to draw a distinction here between the Al Jazeera English language broadcast and the Al Jazeera that broadcasts in the Arab world.

I think the Al Jazeera English language station, which is due to launch at the end of… towards the end of this year is going to be a completely different network. It’s not going to be an Arab-based network.

For the most part, it’s going to be a transnational station with bureaus practically all over the world and in many ways, will appeal to Australian audiences in a different light than the Arab network altogether.

So I’m not sure that it’s going to present an Arab perspective on the news as we’ve expected from the Arab station.

ELEANOR HALL: In what way will it be different, though? I mean what will Australians see, for example, in terms of the recent Lebanon conflict. How would it cover that differently?

ADEL ISKANDER: It’s hard to tell until they actually go to air, but I think one of the more obvious sort of news formulas that Al Jazeera has sort of made a brand for itself on is the sort of humanitarian side of war, so the… the humanitarian impact of war and how it affects civilians in terms of casualties and whatnot.

So I think the battlefield is going to change, at least the way it’s delivered into people’s living rooms and I think they have to find their niche compared to some of the western broadcasters. But none of this is particularly clear at this point.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Rubenstein, the way that it sounds at the moment, giving a different view on perspectives like the conflict in Lebanon. Is this a useful addition to media outlets available to Australians?

COLIN RUBENSTEIN: Well, I think the guiding spirit for Al Jazeera, obviously, will be the Arab language service and that service I think can be fairly said to provide a completely sort of misleading analysis of the Middle East.

It’s often called a weapon of mass deception, frankly, because of the way in which it has misrepresented activities and developments in Iraq, the way in which its coverage of the Palestinian intifada, for example, is often regarded as unbalanced incitements. It foments anti-western, not just anti-Israel sentiment.

Of course, you get a lot of that sharp edge already in Australian media, you know, SBS and even ABC use a lot of BBC coverage, which I think in many ways is quite one-sided.

But this would be a very unwelcome addition, because Al Jazeera has come under steady attack from a variety of sources over recent years, as almost purveyors of enemy propaganda.

I mean, for example, it’s the favoured mouthpiece and platform for al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, there’s no doubt about that, and of course there’s allegations of not just coverage in a neutral, unbiased sense, but a degree of sympathy.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Iskander, I mean Al Jazeera has come in for criticism from the United States, it also has a much more graphic and disturbing coverage of events like bombings. Is there an argument that Al Jazeera shows too much blood and gore?

ADEL ISKANDER: I don’t think so. I think that the focus on the humanitarian impact of war is something that is quite redeemable. I mean, there are lots of stations out there that are taking footage directly from Al Jazeera, the sort of graphic, grizzly images of war and transmitting them on their airwaves. It’s just an issue of some sensibility, I must say.

But I want to go back to this issue of Al Jazeera being, you know, a voice for Bin Laden and what have you. I mean looking back at some of the major commentators, you know, the New York Times columnist Thomas Reedman described Al Jazeera as the only possibility for democracy in the Arab world before September 11th, not to mention the fact that it’s the only station in the Arab world that initiated contact with Israeli officials.

Israeli officials were absent from Arab consciousness, completely. So really, I think what we’re falling into is… are the trappings of accusing Al Jazeera of being Al Manar, the Hezbollah station, or some of the other more radical voices in the region.

ELEANOR HALL: Coming back to you, Dr Rubenstein, I mean, does the western media shy away too much from the real impact of events like the war? I mean, Dr Iskander is saying that it’s not about biased political perspective, it’s about showing events as they really happen?

COLIN RUBENSTEIN: Well, it’s not Al Manar, and that is an essentially banned organisation in the West and effectively in this country too, because it is the ultimate in extreme stereotyping.

But Al Jazeera, it’s true, has had on Israeli officials, it’s regularly had on American officials, but what we’re talking about is whether they’re real tokens or whether you have a genuine debate and unbiased coverage.

And in the latter, I would say the answer is clearly no. There is unbalanced incitement. It’s true you’ve got to look at the humanitarian issues, but I’m waiting to see a full analysis of the use of civilians as shields, not only by the Palestinians, but by Hezbollah and Lebanon.

It’s not just the pictures, it’s the context and an explanation of what those pictures represent.

And the Iraqi war, for example, is presented often as a series of deliberate massacres of civilians by the US and British forces as indeed has been the Lebanon war, when we all know that of course Hezbollah deliberately has the tactics of shielding behind civilians. This is a matter of the way it fights its battles and the same way that Hamas has done.

ELEANOR HALL: So just very briefly to both of you, will this change the way Australians see the Middle East? Firstly, to you Dr Iskander?

ADEL ISKANDER: I think it will, indefinitely. I think that it’ll impact the way we perceive not just the Middle East and the conflict in the Middle East, but also the way we perceive war in general and how war unfolds. So I think it will affect Australian audiences, not just the diasporic Arabs, but also beyond that.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Rubenstein?

COLIN RUBENSTEIN: Well, look, I think Australians will see the way in which Al Jazeera promotes a very extreme anti-western, anti-Australian view and there’s no harm in having that so long as it comes under sustained criticism and analysis, which I’m sure it will do.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Colin Rubenstein from the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Committee and Dr Adel Iskander from the American University in Washington, thanks very much to you both for joining us.