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The Whole Truth

Laura Mills
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East
Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar
Westview Press, 2002

Al-Jazeera is a much-needed antidote to the censorship of the official Arab media. Al-Jazeera models itself after Western ideals of freedom of the press, and most of its journalists once worked for the BBC.

The station has become immensely popular in the Arab world and among Arab immigrants worldwide. For the price of a satellite dish, they can follow Middle East news from a new perspective. The station aims to represent all points of view and deals with many taboo issues, such as human rights, democracy, the rights of women, and Islamic fundamentalism.

The station began broadcasting in 1996, but became very popular with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. Arabs around the world came to see it as an indispensable source for finding out what was really happening in the Occupied Territories and the station showed Israeli brutality against the Palestinians in graphic detail.

The station has come under heavy criticism from both Arab and Western governments. Numerous Arab regimes have temporarily withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar to express their displeasure with the way they are portrayed on the station.

The U.S. has accused Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden. The station has been criticized from all points on the political spectrum, some saying it's a Zionist tool and others saying that it promotes Islamic fundamentalism.

On the other hand, the powers that be recognize the importance of the station and are eager to appear on its shows. After September 11th, several top U.S. officials went on the station to express the Bush administration's point of view to an Arab audience.

The book also tells how Al-Jazeera was the first TV station to do an interview with Osama bin Laden (in 1998) and how they scooped the world by airing a tape from bin Laden shortly after September 11th which was then re-broadcast by other media outlets.

Broadcasting live

The station was also the only TV station that broadcast from Afghanistan during the U.S. attack, right up until the U.S. bombed the Al-Jazeera building in Kabul. The book also exposes the hypocrisy of the Western governments; those who say they want more democracy in the Middle East, only to complain bitterly when an independent Arab station criticizes their policies, or shows graphic video of Afghan children killed by U.S. bombs.

The main drawback is its repetition. Basic information about the station is repeated throughout the book. The authors also seem to bend over backward not to offer their opinions until the epilogue. They say that if the U.S. put more of its officials on Al-Jazeera and better explained the U.S. government's policies to the Arab people, its image would improve.

This is hard to believe. Until the U.S. changes its policies, it won't be able to improve its image, no matter how good its public relations are. The authors make the excellent suggestion that Al-Jazeera should also broadcast in English so that people in the West would be exposed to Arab points of view and thus better understand what's really going on in the Middle East.