Why is America So Afraid of Al Jazeera?

On November 15 2006, a new name entered the realm of international news broadcasting. Al Jazeera International, an English language news station broadcasting around the clock from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar into some 80 million homes across the globe, entered service, ushering in what could be a new era in international news reporting. For the first time in history, an English language news broadcaster providing news, views and debates from around the world came into place from the Middle East, a region hitherto better known for it’s stifling censorship rather than unfettered discourse. For the first time, it seemed that the flow of information that traditionally passed from the global North to the Global South had, to a limited extent at least, reversed direction and the monopoly that the Western World had on global news broadcasting, had, slowly but surely been broken.

One country, however, was conspicuous by its absence among those that were able to hear and view this voice of the global South. The country was no dictatorship or rogue state, nor was it one renowned for it’s lack of free political culture. The country was, arguable the birthplace of contemporary democracy, a bastion of free expression and easily one of the freest, most open societies on earth –” the United States.

On the face of it, the failure of even a single cable company or satellite provider to agree to broadcast the English peer of the outspoken and often controversial Arabic language Al Jazeera seems to be totally incongruous with the oft touted American values of freedom of speech and artistic expression. Bar India, the United States boasts more newspapers than any other country and as even a casual visitor can confirm, the country also boasts almost innumerable national, regional and local television and radio stations. The press and media are lively, opinions on virtually every subject under the sun are discussed candidly and media outlets debate local, national and international issues with fervor that often puts the bland tone of the state controlled media in many Middle Eastern states to shame.

One cannot help wondering, why broadcasting an English language Middle Eastern newscaster is proving such a hot potato in a media culture, where, on the face of it, at least, everything goes. Certainly, Al Jazeera cannot be realistically expected to broadcast anything that reputed television stations like BBC or CNN International, already widely available across the US have not. Or can it? At a time when President Bush’s approval ratings have already sunk to all time lows, and nearly two thirds of people questioned say they now believe, in retrospect, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake, the English language counterpart of an Arab television station that found notoriety –” and respect, in almost equal measure with graphic images of the death and destruction caused by the US invasion need not ruffle too many feathers, one might think. And given the fact that today’s American public is probably hungrier than ever before for a fresh view of global issues that are of concern to all humankind, not just the developed or developing world, the arrival on stage of a foreign broadcaster with a perspective of world news from the South, more specifically the Middle East, should actually have been welcomed as a perhaps much needed break from the traditional sources of information for the average television viewer in America. But in a country where opinions are almost as abundant as water, and freedom of expression in all it’s manifestations is deemed a sacrosanct human right, there seems to be some hidden unwritten law of the land that Al Jazeera, or for that matter, al Jazeera International seems to have broken. How else does one explain that in a recent opinion poll 53 percent of Americans surveyed said they opposed allowing Al Jazeera broadcasts into the US, while 38 percent said they were "adamantly’" opposed to such broadcasts? During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lashed out against the Arabic language channel, calling it’s candid and frank coverage of the Iraq war, "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." Even worse, US aircraft, killing, bombed the station’s Baghdad headquarters, killing one journalist and inadvertently or otherwise elevating the television station’s popularity in the Arab world to almost cult like status.

As early as October 2001, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the Emir of Qatar, the station’s prime financier, to censor the news reports of Al Jazeera in response to the station’s broadcasting images of civilian casualties from the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan. And in November 2005, The Mirror, a left wing British tabloid noted for it’s anti war views, ran a story –” to date unconfirmed –” about President Bush revealing to Prime Minister Blair of Britain plans to bomb Al Jazeera’s main headquarters in Doha, Qatar, a US ally, that paradoxically enough hosts al Udeid Air Base –” one of the most important bases for the US military during the Iraq war. The British Prime Minister was, according to the story, able to talk the President out of his plans, mindful of the severe loss of lives and diplomatic repercussions that such a strike would almost inevitably entail, perhaps also aware of the inflamed anti war mood at home. The alleged conversation occurred in April of 2004 when the first siege of the rebellious Iraqi city of Fallujah was in full swing and reports of excesses by US forces broadcast openly on Al Jazeera helped enrage sentiments on the Arab street and the White House alike.

So, short of actually bombing al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, the Bush administration has thus far tried –” and failed – to silence Al Jazeera through means as diverse as verbal attacks, blanket condemnation, bombings, political pressure and diplomatic arm twisting. Perhaps the most credible challenge to Al Jazeera’s influence came in February 2004, when the US backed al Hurra television began operations from Virginia, with the purpose of promoting the US version of Middle Eastern events to public opinion in the region. Unlike Al Jazeera, which has faced restrictions, bans and expulsions in almost all Arab states, Al Hurra has faced few if any major hurdles, but with it’s reporting heavily slanted in favor of the Bush administration’s policies, has faded into relative obscurity, and with it’s poor ratings, was dismissed by one USA Today column by a prominent Middle Eastern media analyst as a "multimillion dollar failure."

Back to the original question –” why is America, not just the Bush administration, so afraid of Al Jazeera? Could it be the challenge Al Jazeera poses to the conventionally accepted wisdom regarding events in the Middle East that the Bush administration would like to remain unchallenged? Or could it be the public relations disaster caused by graphic broadcasts of dead Iraqis during the 2003 invasion? Could it be that many Americans feel distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of a television station from a part of the world where freedom of expression has until now been something of a rarity shaking up their view of the world? Or could the broadcasts of bin Laden tapes have convinced many that the television station is nothing more than a mouthpiece for Al Qaeda’s infamous leader, even if the man first shot to fame with a CNN, rather than Al Jazeera interview. Perhaps, an amalgam of reasons, but whatever the underlying reason for the almost unshakable paranoia that Al Jazeera evokes in all too many American minds, one thing is incontrovertible –” nothing can be as paradoxical as the Bush administration attempting to silence the most outspoken media outlet in a region of the world where it purports to be on a mission, at least ostensibly, to promote democracy.