Hafez al-Mirazi Discusses Al-Jazeera Television and its Place in the Middle East

Al Jazeera (Ammar Abd Rabbo/Flickr)

Hafez al-Mirazi is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Jazeera Television. Previously, he was correspondent for the BBC Arabic World Service in Washington and talk show host for the Arab News Network and Arab network of America in Washington.

Mr Mirazi has also held positions as writer, editor, and broadcaster for Voice of America in Washington. He started his career as a radio journalist and broadcaster with Voice of the Arabs (Sawot Al-Arab) on Cairo Radio in Egypt in 1980.

In this interview with The Asia Society, Mr Mirazi discusses, among other things, the origins of Al-Jazeera, recent antagonism against the network, the implications of the current "War on Terror", possible motives behind the war in Iraq, and the relative stability of non-democratic regimes in the Middle East.

Can you please provide some background information about Al-Jazeera (when it was founded, from where it gets its funding, how large the organization is, etc.)?

Al-Jazeera was launched in 1996. It was actually founded after a brief attempt by the BBC Arabic Service to launch its own television station in Arabic in partnership with a Saudi satellite company called Orbit. Eventually, the Saudis put an end to the station because the BBC was insisting on full editorial control, despite the Saudi government's objections. Interviews with Arab dissidents were common, as was broadcasting news stories that were objected to by the Saudis. So after only eight months of cooperation, more than 250 staffers - some of them veterans of BBC radio, others who were very good broadcasters from other international news agencies and Arab stations - found themselves on the street.

This happened, coincidentally, at the same time that the new Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad b. Khalifa, took over power from his father and started to modernize the country in an attempt to put Qatar on the map. He came up with the idea of asking some of these now unemployed BBC veterans to launch a new Arabic satellite news network, not in partnership with any international broadcasters and to be based in an Arab capital (namely Doha, Qatar).

Prior to this, the norm in Arab media had been that if a newspaper or TV station wanted a margin of freedom - even if it was financed by government or semi-government parties - it would be launched in Europe, or at least from somewhere outside the Arab world. The BBC Arabic service was based in London, and MBC, Middle East Broadcasting Center (which was the first Arab satellite station), was also launched in London, where it was based until last year.

So the new Emir of Qatar took the brave step of starting the station, giving the team there full editorial control, having an independent board of directors to decide on the expansion and structure of the station, and limiting their role to a government grant for the first five years. He had hoped that after this period the station would be able to sustain its operations with revenues from commercials, licensing footage and other services.

Al-Jazeera has been very successful. People started to take notice of it as the first news network of its kind in the region. But it was not 24 hours. It started, as I said, in late-1996, and for the initial two years it ran for 6 hours a day, then later grew to 8, and eventually to 12. It was only the events in Iraq in December 1998 - the operation called "Desert Fox" - that prompted the expansion of the network to 24-hour transmission. It was then also that Al-Jazeera received international attention: it was during this operation that CNN relied partially on footage from Al-Jazeera in their coverage. In fact some people say that Desert Fox did not last more than three or four days because of the reaction throughout the Arab world, which was made possible only because of Al-Jazeera's coverage. For the first time, people were watching the continual bombing of an Arab capital live on their television screens. As it happened, then, with the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, the US administration decided immediately to stop the operation.

The station continues to run 24 hours a day. The initial five-year funding period has lapsed but we are unfortunately still in the red largely because of the opposition we have faced from Arab governments. Initially these governments expressed their displeasure at our coverage by either severing their ties with the Qatari government or removing our reporters from their capitals. They found, however, that this had little effect on our coverage. So the only option they were left with was to intimidate their tiny private sectors - since most economies in the Arab world are largely public-sector oriented - into not advertising with Al-Jazeera. As it is, of course, the main source of advertising in many, if not most, of these countries is in fact the public sector. As a result, if the public sector is not advertising on your airwaves, regardless of how many viewers you have, you cannot make it commercially. If we had received advertising without such constraints, we would be making more money perhaps than any US or Arab networks.

So we are still relying on grants from the government of Qatar. We feel that if the BBC continues to rely on public monies this is not so much of a problem. As long as we stick to our mandate and continue to be true to our motto of always reporting both sides of the story, that is what is most important.

It is a very difficult position that Al-Jazeera occupies: on the one hand, there is a perception in some of the Euro-American media that Al-Jazeera is just a mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda. The arrest of Al-Jazeera reporter, Tayseer Alouni, in Spain for alleged links to Muslim terrorists testifies to this. On the other hand, Arab governments seem also to be suspicious of Al-Jazeera and attempt to put pressure on the organization to alter its news reportage of certain issues.

First of all, our reporter, Tayseer Alouni, who exclusively covered the war in Afghanistan, has been detained in Spain on baseless charges. The kind of accusations against him could equally be leveled against John Miller, the former ABC freelancer and journalist who interviewed Bin Laden in Afghanistan while Bin Laden was wanted by the US, or Peter Bergen, or any number of serious and respectable journalists working in the Western media.

This brings us to the unfortunate problem that Al-Jazeera and its reporters continually have to confront. As far as the West is concerned - domestic Arab and regional criticism is a different matter which I will return to - the attacks against us certainly seem to be mixed with an undercurrent of anti-Arab and/or anti-Muslim sentiment. One really has to wonder whether such criticism and suspicion would have been possible were we not an Arab or Muslim media outlet that achieved the kind of prominence we did, and were we not so extraordinarily successful in our coverage of topical international events. I am not at all sure that we would have been facing the same kind of suspicion if this were not the case. So we are obviously also dealing with racial profiling to a certain extent. People who are instinctively against anything related to Arabs and Muslims by default consider Al-Jazeera an enemy and a suspicious source.

The second point is that there has been, especially in Washington, D.C., a kind of loss of media control. The media has been very intimidated in the US - especially during the last ten years - by feelings of patriotism, and particularly so after 9/11. However media outlets such as ours cannot be intimidated in the same way since we are neither reliant on advertising revenue from the same sources nor do we target the same US audience. Journalists who work in such media outlets feel they have a certain kind of professional freedom and can therefore easily cover both sides of the story.

Al-Jazeera has of course experienced this kind of intimidation before in the Arab and Muslim world. We are the most criticized of all Arab media because we have covered the most unsavory aspects of the governments and states in the region. We have been told that we should not cover anything that is about national security. National security has been used in order to censor almost everything that the government does not want its citizens to know about.

Of course more recently we have had the same critique from the US government: for instance, that Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are bad and ugly, and the American people do not need to hear from them, that it is enough to see what they are doing. This was precisely the argument we were presented with in the Arab world regarding our coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict and our insistence on inviting Israelis to speak regardless of how our audience feels about them. We continue to be criticized for inviting Israelis and for simultaneously airing footage that contradicts their statements. Conspiracy theories flourish in the Arab world: people call, and protest and they launch all sorts of accusations against us, that we are pro-Israel, that we are a front for the CIA and the Mossad, that they are the real force behind us. What else, they argue, can account for the success of Al-Jazeera, its modern outlook and the short period it took for the channel to achieve such prominence?

At the same time, it is in fact really sad that when we are eventually able to understand exactly what the objection is to Al-Jazeera from the US media, or US government sources - most of whom remain anonymous apart from the Pentagon, whose spokespersons come out and criticize us quite bluntly - it becomes clear that the two things for which Al-Jazeera is most vilified are the same that the US government can be accused of, particularly the Department of Defense.

The first one is airing the Bin Laden tapes. The US government says these tapes promote and foster hatred, while at the same time allowing Bin Laden and his cohorts to appear as heroes. We found out during the war in Afghanistan - a few weeks after we had aired the first tape of Bin Laden - that the Pentagon itself, at the expense of US taxpayers, was going to air a tape of Bin Laden that they said they had found in a house in Kandahar. They were going to include English sub-titles and broadcast the tape in its entirety, with no censorship or editing of any kind. This tape had more hatred than any tape that Al-Jazeera would have broadcast previously of Bin Laden. In the tape, Bin Laden evokes very strong religious and Muslim imagery while bragging about the tragic events of September 11. I would argue that it even affected relations between Christians and Muslims in the US and in the West in general. And if it is true that Bin Laden ought not to be broadcast for fear of fostering this kind of hatred, why was this tape broadcast? The justification provided by the Pentagon was that they wanted to prove to the Arab and Muslim world that Bin Laden was unequivocally responsible for what happened here on September 11, 2001, and him bragging about it on tape demonstrated that like nothing else could.

So it seems clear that rather than have a uniform position on this, it is a matter of political convenience: if your interests are likely to be served, then you publish such material. Well, we are not in that business. We are involved in serious media journalism and we feel that if there is another point of view than the one commonly held, then people ought to know about it. This was presumably the logic by which the New York Times published the manifesto of the Unabomber. They were obviously not promoting the Unabomber, but were simply making their audience aware of what his argument had been and what his perspective was.

The second issue for which we have been criticized by the American administration is for broadcasting footage of US soldiers, POWs and corpses during the Iraq war. Later, of course, we found that the same Defense Department and the same US government that had criticized us was releasing and sanctioning the dissemination of pictures of corpses that were graphic and violent, of the maimed and mutilated bodies of the two sons of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis made the footage of US soldiers' bodies available to Al- Jazeera in order to convince people that they had indeed killed American soldiers. Well, we heard the same argument from the Pentagon: that they were publishing these pictures of Saddam Hussein's sons to convince the Iraqis that they had in fact killed Uday and Qusay Hussein. This continued to be the argument even when it was clear that they had far exceeded their stated intention: these pictures were broadcast day and night, hour after hour - and they were extraordinarily gruesome pictures - on practically every major news network.

So I feel this is really about the double standards that Al-Jazeera is confronted with, whether in the foreign policies of the US towards the region or in the policies and attitudes of the US media towards us as an Arab-Muslim media outlet.

You said a little bit about how people in the Arab world have responded to Al-Jazeera but I would like you to elaborate a little more on that. The general impression seems to be that whereas Arab governments may put pressure on the channel, in the public sphere Al-Jazeera has been quite well received because it provides access to the kind of information that was not previously available from within the Arab world, from an Arab source. Do you have a sense of what the public reaction has been to Al-Jazeera, particularly in the last two years since September 11th?

Well, fortunately, because we broadcast in Arabic, and because Al-Jazeera is the first Arab news network of its kind, the majority of our viewers respect and admire us. It is clear that as far as news is concerned, Al-Jazeera is the most popular source in the Arab world.

People here in America - the majority of whom unfortunately do not speak the language and as a result are not able to judge for themselves - rely on other sources for information about the news we present. These sources filter the message because they have their own agenda, and it is much the same in the Arab world. People who know about Al-Jazeera but who do not watch it themselves - although they are a minority - are influenced by what the government-controlled media say about the network. Some of them have a very bad, negative perspective on Al-Jazeera.

The Arab governments initially began by accusing Al-Jazeera of being pro-fundamentalist. Then they learned that this does not hold once people actually watch the station, and see programs such as Al-Ittijah al-Mu'akis which has a Crossfire-type format, in which various taboo topics, for instance, polygamy in the Arab world, sex education, and similar issues, are covered. It does not make any sense to say that we are "fundamentalist". None of our anchorwomen are covered, many of our anchors are not Muslims and so on.

We do not make a big fuss about it because Al-Jazeera is a professional media outlet and we should not have to count how many Christians or Arabs or Muslims we have working with us. But unfortunately the outside world is unable to discern the mosaic that we have in the Arab world, whether in our media or in our society.

Subsequently, Arab governments resorted to taking potshots at us by accusing Al-Jazeera of having sympathies with Israel or the Zionists or the CIA. They succeeded somehow in making some people believe this, especially those who already felt threatened by the presence of this news network. How is it, they thought, that Al-Jazeera achieved such success without support? In the aftermath of September 11th, we had increased access to US government officials who found that the only way to try to counter Al-Jazeera (since they could not stifle it), was to appear on it and present their point of view. Some of our Arab audience considered this proof that we have some kind of illicit, behind-the-scenes relationship with Washington and this explained the access we were able to get.

There were also some in the Administration who heard criticism both from Arab governments and from people here along the lines that by appearing on Al-Jazeera, US government officials were providing legitimacy to the network. In response, US officials withheld access for a while, but then found that their absence made not the slightest difference to Al-Jazeera; if anything, having fewer American officials appear on the station gave Al-Jazeera greater credibility with some of its audience. So the government officials came back, thinking it might eventually have some effect. But Al-Jazeera made it very clear from the beginning: we were not going to be intimidated or manipulated, we will continue to report both sides of the story.

Some Arab governments learned this the hard way: they thought they would treat Al-Jazeera as a necessary evil because they found that if they boycotted the station, opposition members and dissidents took advantage of their absence and appeared in greater numbers. Other governments said they would not deal with Al-Jazeera at all, they would not even allow their correspondents to be based in their capitals or even to enter the country.

As far as our audience is concerned, we have about 35-40 million viewers worldwide, almost all of them in the Arab world. We have about 4 million Arab viewers in Europe. The station is now starting to develop an English language station, which started with the new Al-Jazeera website. Hopefully we will do that with a satellite channel. In the US, we mainly broadcast through Dish Network which has a package of Arabic programming, of which Al-Jazeera is a part.

I would now like to turn to the war in Iraq. There has been speculation in certain sections of the media and academy that the motive for the war in Iraq lies in the first Bush Administration when Dick Cheney - then Defense Secretary - came up with a doctrine of American dominance in which control of the Middle East was considered absolutely essential to maintaining American hegemony. What is the perception in the Arab world as to why the Americans waged this war?

We hear all sorts of reasons from the Arab world. There are people who consider it a personal vendetta on the part of the president for his father since he himself once said, "Saddam Hussein tried to kill my dad." Also, some feel that getting rid of Saddam Hussein, or confronting the "unfinished business" of the first Gulf War, as some people refer to it, would strengthen the legacy of Bush.

Also, since everyone in the Arab world is affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict, there are some who say this war occurred because of what they consider pro-Israel elements (the neo-cons) in the US government, who are very influential in the present administration. Some of these neo-cons are more interested in what is best for Israel than what might be best for the US and, indeed, what is best for their own agenda of, as you suggested, ensuring a dominant and perpetual US military presence in the region in order to maintain their empire.

There are so many reasons for the war, but I really cannot claim to know which reason took precedence over the others, or in fact, if that even happened. I can say though that in general it is sad to see what we are getting into now. We hope for a quick and speedy recovery for Iraq, for everybody's sake. It is really not helpful for either the Arabs or Americans if this kind of instability continues for very long.

There are American soldiers being killed everyday in Iraq. Who is responsible for these killings and what are the implications of this for long-term American military occupation of Iraq? Will a more multinational military presence in Iraq be more palatable to those who violently oppose the American occupation?

I am not sure because just a few weeks ago, the UN headquarters was bombed and this clearly seems to suggest that the UN itself is not welcome in Iraq by some elements. A large segment of the Iraqi people condemned this criminal act but the people responsible for killing American soldiers and bombing the UN would likely not change their minds, whether there was a more multinational force there or not.

In addition, the number of multinational troops that the president is inviting - based on what he said himself and what Secretary Powell reiterated - is not more than a division of 10,000-16,000 soldiers. When there are about 14 US divisions and one British and one Polish, one more multinational division comprised of a few thousand troops is not likely to qualitatively change the complexion of the military occupation. I think the request and possible presence of other troops is a symbolic gesture, a compromise within the administration in order not to anger the people in the Defense Department who orchestrated the whole operation and who would like to stay in control. It will also allow the State Department to be more convincing in getting political support and collecting donations.

The donors' conference next month in Madrid will be crucial for Iraq, but it is clear that the Americans cannot expect to have their cake and eat it too. They cannot have Bremer as the main political administrator, US troops as the dominant presence, and then ask people to contribute financially and politically in a disproportionate way as if all parties have an equal stake in the operation.

Do you think the recent attacks on the UN in Iraq suggest that people in the Middle East (or at the very least in Iraq) see the US and the UN as indistinguishable, or the latter as an extension of various US foreign policy instruments?

I think this Iraq war gave more credibility to the UN as an organization than the first Gulf War. In the 1991 war, people really saw no difference between the UN and the US. The UN was seen as merely rubber-stamping whatever the first Bush administration wanted; perhaps it was just that the first Bush administration had people who were very knowledgeable about how to deal with the rest of the world. They were just coming out of the last days of the Cold War and they were still humble enough to feel the need to compromise with others. But ten years after the Cold War, I think the second Bush administration does not feel there is anybody they should care about or get advice from or even spend time trying to convince of their perspective. This apparent unilateral approach made them pay a price with the UN this time, and helped somehow paint an image of the UN as an at least semi-independent entity.

But there is a great deal of cynicism in the Arab world, not only because of the perception that the UN reflects only the will of the US, but also because of the lack of freedom and democracy in the Arab world itself. Although the lack of full cooperation from the UN with the US in this latest war did sometimes help the image of the UN as a semi-independent entity, people still suspect that the intentions of the other four permanent members of the Security Council who hold the veto power are mainly selfish and interested in serving their own national interests rather than the interests of the international community.

There was a great deal of concern during the time leading up to the war that if the Americans were to invade, there would be demonstrations throughout the Arab world and the region would be severely destabilized. This has not yet happened, and many people have concluded that this concern was due to excessive paranoia on the part of some commentators. Do you think this is true, or that it might still be too early to tell?

We heard this also after the 1991 war. President George Herbert Walker Bush, the father, even laughed about it and ridiculed those people who talked about the "Arab street" that would explode, and nothing happened. But then just look at what happened. Of course something did happen: not in 1991 or in 1992, but ten years later; in 2001, we witnessed September 11th. It did not happen in the same way that people had anticipated - the toppling of Arab regimes or whatever - but we found that people had enough grievances to blow themselves and innocent people up in the middle of Washington and New York.

Actually if you go back to the records, you will see that prior to the first Iraq war, there were virtually no incidents of Arab terrorism on US soil. Before that time, we witnessed Puerto Rican or Jewish militancy on US soil (and in the latter case, sometimes directed against the Soviet Union's immigration policies), but you would rarely see an Arab or Muslim terrorist attack on US soil, but two years after the first Iraq war, we witnessed the first attack on the World Trade Center.

It is in fact sad to conclude that nothing has happened in all this time. If nothing else, there have been other terrorist events on American soil that have had a direct link with the first Gulf War. The Oklahoma bombing was committed by a veteran of the Gulf War, Timothy McVeigh, who said in his memoir that he killed so many people in Iraq that human life no longer mattered to him. Also, of course, the Washington sniper was a veteran of the Gulf War.

So on both sides, the Arab and the American, these kinds of interventions radicalize people and bring the worst out in them. And I think what we are already witnessing in this war is terrible.

There has been much speculation about the fragility of non-democratic states in the Arab world (Saudi Arabia, for instance, to name only the most prominent example). How much dissent and opposition is there in non-democratic Arab states, and will these regimes be able to withstand this dissent as they have done in the past?

Since I have been in Washington for the last 20 years I am not really in a position to make a judgment on this aspect of political life in the Arab world, especially not in those countries that are relatively closed and difficult to get access to from the outside. In general, what we hear from Washington makes one really wonder if democracy and freedom and human rights are really things Washington is interested in promoting in the Middle East. It is very hard to believe this when you hear US officials--from President Bush on down to his underlings-talk about what they call "democratic reform" and then mention the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan! They then go on to name policies of these governments and their leaders as examples of democracy taking place from the Gulf to the Atlantic. It makes one quite cynical in fact.

Nothing is going to stay the same now, of that I am certain. I think the changes that are taking place, especially in Iraq, some of them unintended, will no doubt have their own long-term effects on the Arab world.

The establishment of the interim Government Council in Iraq - a very diverse group, although there is a negative view of them because they are US-installed - will also have repercussions in the future. People see the diversity among them - they have different backgrounds, different religions, some of them were political prisoners during the previous regime - and will wonder why they are being deprived of similar representation in their own countries (most of which are under dictatorships).

I think all of this will have effects, so that when the US is faced with another situation in the area like Iraq, Washington will be encouraged to support democratic reform in a more aggressive way.

Do you think the Arab world should now prepare itself for a very long-term US military occupation?

Well, I hope the Arab world prepares itself for every eventuality. I think at the moment people are suffering fatigue and they are tired and they are just watching events around them. They feel defeated and despairing, and this is the most dangerous thing. These kinds of sentiments really make people feel that their own life is not worth living, is worth nothing, and as a result, they are prepared to do anything.

As for an American occupation, I think what we have witnessed in the relatively short period since the beginning of the war is a good indication of its efficacy. The US cannot stay there for a long time; it is not in the best interests of the US, and I think the people in the Arab world, as well as people here in the US, are not in favor of it. "Cool-headed" people, as they are called, should prevail and try to find a way to shorten this crisis. They will have to make real compromises in order to rehabilitate Iraq and to make it a sovereign nation, and hopefully a democratic one.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.