Free speech for sale in the Middle East
After 9/11, an obscure TV station based in Qatar became essential viewing. Jason Nissé meets the marketing director of Al Jazeera
[The Independent - 27 October 2002]:
lt's in the job description of a marketing director to talk up his product. But the pitch of Ali Mohammed Kamal, whose role is to promote the commercial side of Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel best known in the West for carrying exclusive taped broadcasts by Osama bin Laden, is unique: "I think that if Al Jazeera had been available 15 years ago, there would have been no 11 September."
It beats "Daz washes whiter" or "Heineken reaches the parts other beers cannot reach". But Kamal, emphasising that this is his personal view, not the official stance of Al Jazeera or its owner, the Emir of Qatar, backs up the statement logically. In the six years since Al Jazeera launched on satellite television, delivering uncensored, unbiased news to a region not used to the unfettered truth, it has brought about a revolution in attitudes in the Middle East. Though its reporters have at times been banned by Kuwait, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq, and despite Saudi Arabia's recent withdrawal of its ambassador from Qatar in protest at a supposedly "pro-Israeli bias", the governments of the region can't stop people watching it.
Lately, the influence of Al Jazeera has been detected in the more mainstream Arabic media, with occasional quotes from Israeli ministers or non-official sources creeping into news coverage. "We are bringing a revolution within the Arab media," argues Kamal.
Talking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday, Kamal argues that the censorship in the Arab world has been one of the factors behind the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Bin Laden and many of the active members of his al-Qa'ida network grew up in the media-unfriendly and oppressive environment of Saudi Arabia.
Arguably, though, if the Saudi regime were not so hostile to free speech, Al Jazeera would not exist. The station, whose name means "peninsula" or "island" in reference to its home in Qatar, was launched in 1996 a few months after the BBC's Arabic television service closed down when the Beeb's joint venture partner, a Saudi company, tried to censor a documentary hostile to the Saudi regime. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the British-educated Emir of Saudi's small neighbour Qatar, decided he would fund an independent, unbiased Arabic channel to fill the void. The ethos was to "promote a dialog between civilisations". The Emir put $150m (£97m) of his own money into the venture and said he expected it to be self-funding by 2001. At first available for six hours a day, the channel went 24 hours in 1999.
Sheikh Hamad has been as good as his word in allowing Al Jazeera editorial freedom. It was the first Arabic station to interview an Israeli minister live and uncensored; it allowed Saudi dissidents to comment on political announcements; and its managing director, Mohammed Jasim al-Ali, even invited Bahraini critics of the Qatar government to speak on it.
All of this would have gone unnoticed in the West had Al Jazeera not carried the taped broadcasts from Osama bin Laden which emerged in the months following 9/11. The bin Laden tapes and Al Jazeera's coverage of the Afghan war were roundly attacked by – among others – Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair.
"We are used to criticism from the Arab world but not from the West," says Kamal. "It is not fair that the Western world that is used to democracy and freedom can criticise Al Jazeera for showing a similar freedom."
But things soon changed. "For the first week after we showed the tape, the politicians did not know the nature of Al Jazeera or the vision of Al Jazeera or that we were unbiased. After the tape went out, our London office received a call from Mr Blair saying did we want an interview?"
Rice and Rumsfeld soon followed. Though they used the interviews to attack Al Jazeera, their appearance gave the station a credibility to rank with that of CNN or the BBC. "If everybody watches CNN, who does CNN watch?" asks Kamal.
Though few can doubt that Al Jazeera has fulfilled all the Emir's editorial requirements, financially it has struggled. Maintaining a staff of 600 journalists operating in all the Arab capitals (apart from the ones where they are banned) plus London, Paris, Washington, New York and, of course, Kabul, is not cheap. Advertising revenues are also well below expectations.
Kamal blames the advertising recession for some of this shortfall, but the main reason is politics. "A lot of multinational and local companies are instructed not to advertise on Al Jazeera," he claims.
Al Jazeera says it has a regular audience touching 35 million, and is available to 99 per cent of the world's 310 million Arabic speakers (including nearly 6.7 million in Europe). No other Arabic station has its reach.
To bridge the financial gap, Al Jazeera is looking for other ways to generate income. The sale of footage – particularly after the bin Laden exclusive – has helped. The channel has signed agreements with CNN, ZDF in Germany and NHK in Japan, as well as selling to the BBC and ITN in the UK. Another source of income will be a new dubbed English language service. "We want to position ourselves as a global channel," says Kamal.
And then there is licensing and merchandising. Kamal is attempting to promote Al Jazeera as a lifestyle brand, with T-shirts, watches and even cosmetics.
After the initial $150m ran out, the Emir of Qatar agreed to continue funding Al Jazeera on a year-by-year basis. This year, this commitment will cost Sheikh Hamad $30m. Even for a wealthy man, this is a burden. Unless the money starts rolling in soon from other sources, the Emir will have to decide how much he is willing to cough up to bring free speech to the Arab world.