Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Al Jazeera

Foreign Policy: Think Again: Al Jazeera: "It is vilified as a propaganda machine and Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece. In truth, though, Al Jazeera is as hated in the palaces of Riyadh as it is in the White House. But, as millions of loyal viewers already know, Al Jazeera promotes a level of free speech and dissent rarely seen in the Arab world. With plans to go global, it might just become your network of choice."

“Al Jazeera Is Spreading Political Freedom”

Wishful thinking. It’s true that Al Jazeera established the tradition of investigative reporting in the Arab world and rolled back the boundaries of debate within Arab families, breaking all kinds of taboos about what could be discussed on television. Improving upon the sycophantic Arab news channels that existed prior to 1996, Al Jazeera better informs the Arab public about their leadership and provides Arabs with a forum through which they can more easily ask of their rulers, “Why are we in this mess?”

In fact, Al Jazeera’s programs about Western politics have done more to inform Arabs about democracy than any nation or station. After 9/11, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau started two weekly talk shows to illuminate American democracy for a foreign audience: From Washington, in which the bureau chief interviewed U.S. politicians, including members of the Bush administration; and U.S. Presidential Race, which covered the U.S. elections in great depth, including most of the major primaries.

However, to assume satellite television will transform Arab societies into transparent, just, and equal democracies is to presume that the current state of affairs in the Arab world results from an information deficit, which is not true. Except in the most authoritarian Arab countries, news has long been available to determined citizens via the BBC or Voice of America radio, and neither one of those remade the region.

Al Jazeera encourages free speech in the Middle East, but that is no substitute for real political reform. Just because a woman in Saudi Arabia can now see a debate on TV, and can even contribute in real time, doesn’t mean she can go out and vote in an election or join a political party. Arab autocrats have come to realize that even if information on satellite TV cannot be packaged and manipulated the way it was with state-run media, Al Jazeera may not be as deadly a threat to their regimes as they first feared. They can still ban Al Jazeera from opening a bureau, as has happened in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, or evoke emergency laws to confiscate equipment or arrest journalists, as happens in Egypt. Arab press unions, like Arab opposition political parties, are still prevented from growing strong."

Hugh Miles is the author of Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that Is Challenging the West (New York: Grove Press, 2005).

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