Robert Fisk: Al Jazeera - 15 years in the headlines

From small beginnings, the Qatar-based channel has become the world's best-known – and most influential – source of news from the Middle East

Robert Fisk
Wednesday 02 November 2011 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The Mubarak family still believe it was Al Jazeera wot did it. Without the Qatari satellite channel's constant live coverage of Tahrir Square last January and February, so the story goes, the Emperor Hosni would still be on Egypt's throne, his hair as dyed as his pronouncements, his satraps still slobbering over his wisdom, his regime still producing fake news and fake ministries and fake elections for his people. It was when the aircrew of Tunisian Emperor Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia – glancing at Al Jazeera Arabic's news reports in the VIP suite at Riyadh airport – suddenly realised what was going on and filed a flight plan home and left the old man behind. It was George W Bush who wanted to bomb Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha – scarcely 20 miles from America's largest airbase in the Middle East.

Now, poor old Al Jazeera – or very wealthy Al Jazeera, which is closer to the truth – is the hateful channel undermining the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. "They lie – Al Jazeera is trying to kill Syria," a young Syrian government official insisted to me in Damascus last week. "They take these YouTube pictures which are lies and they are trying to destroy us all." I often appear on Al Jazeera myself. Dangerous friend. It even lets me speak my mind; say what I like; make jokes; poke fun at the pompous. Can it be that bad?

Its 15th anniversary was held under a rather dark shadow. Wadah Khanfar, its brave and imaginative CEO, resigned just over a month ago, days after WikiLeaks' purloined US diplomatic archives revealed that he had "done deals" with US embassy staff to mute stories which upset the Americans – the actual US reports did not suggest he acted as unofficial censor, but the conversations should never have taken place (not, at least, from any journalist's point of view) and I felt deeply sorry for my old friend. In Iraq, where the Americans managed to bomb Al Jazeera's office and kill its bureau chief during the 2003 invasion – deliberately, in my view, since Qatar had given the US embassy in Doha precise map locations for the Baghdad bureau to spare it from attack – Khanfar came under constant verbal sniping from the US authorities. I checked out Al Jazeera's stories at the time and found that, with one exception – Khanfar admitted the error of suggesting US forces had tied up a man before killing him, a mistake made in good faith – Al Jazeera had abided by the highest journalistic standards (I'm talking about the Western version of "standards", of course) and Khanfar behaved with as much integrity as he did courage.

He himself says that he had been planning his retirement and that the WikiLeaks reports had nothing to do with his departure. I would like to think this was true. Hmmm.

But his creation – which was really the creation of Qatar's mischievous, outrageously intelligent, dangerous Emir – was phenomenal. The Americans bombed its offices in Kabul in 2001, just as they did in Baghdad two years later, just as Bush planned to do in Doha until dissuaded by Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, who later told Al Jazeera newsroom staff (who naturally wanted to know if Bush had really intended to murder them) that "it's time to move on". You bet it was. For once, Blair actually saved lives. For the Emir, Al Jazeera was already a symbol of power. Qatar's huge natural gas wealth was now balanced by a television station – or stations, if you realise the extent of its offshoots – with matching power.

Now, don't get the impression that it's all squeaky clean. While the English channel was broadcasting live from the Bahrain revolution-that-wasn't, its Arabic twin was staying mum; studiously avoiding any coverage of the King of Bahrain's suppression of majority Shia protests in the streets of Manama. Osama bin Laden could broadcast unedited on Al Jazeera.

When Blair was put on air, he was subjected (quite rightly, in journalistic terms) to a real tub-thumping by the channel's London reporter.

Lots of staff came across to Doha when the original BBC Arabic folded under Saudi pressure, but they've largely shaken off the football-match-fairness which now runs like a cancer through the BBC when it has to confront crimes against humanity, US foreign policy and Israeli brutality. Muslim prelates, the channel's critics say, get far too much airtime. I rather think the critics are right. But if Al Jazeera picks up 50 million or more viewers (there are no official opinion polls in the Muslim world, so who knows?), it's also true that Islam and its power have more and more come to form the historical narrative of the Middle East.

If Al Jazeera can't reflect this, then it will slip down to the standards of CNN/BBC/PBS slurry. Unappreciated by Middle Easterners, perhaps – and by the West – is the degree to which Al Jazeera has taken African stories so seriously and Asian stories outside the China-the-Great economics reports. If a flood kills thousands in Africa, bet that Al Jazeera will get there first. Needless to say, when it all began, Al Jazeera was praised to the heavens by all the usual suspects – American politicians, Tony Blair and the rest – and the moment it showed itself a bit pesky rather than a beacon of free speech, democracy, liberty, etc., it became a "terrorist" channel encouraging the murder of those brave US soldiers trying to protect the good people of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this sense, it grew up; matured. It was no longer a sixth-form newspaper, but a fully-fledged, credible teller-of-uncomfortable-truths, unless these happened to be Qatari truths, in which case they simply didn't quite make it on to the screen. But there you have it. Lobby groups in the US and Canada – don't ask me which ones, for we all know – are still doing their best to keep Al Jazeera out of US living rooms. I can see why. They will ultimately fail, just as Mubarak couldn't close down modern technology when faced with the end.

He once visited Doha and saw the channel's tiny HQ. "All this trouble from a matchbox like this?" he asked.

Some trouble! Some matchbox!

As seen on screen: The events that shaped a channel

1 November, 1996: Al Jazeera launches

Thanks to a $140m grant from the emir of Qatar, the channel airs for the first time from its base in Doha.

1 January, 1999: Expands to 24-hour service

With global audience figures hitting an estimated 50 million, Al Jazeera expands its broadcast operation from six hours to 24 hours a day.

7 October, 2001: Osama bin Laden broadcast

Two hours after US-led air strikes against Afghanistan begin, Al-Jazeera broadcasts a statement from Osama bin Laden, in which he describes former US President George Bush as the "head of the infidels" and says the US has declared war on Islam.

13 November, 2001: Kabul office destroyed

A US missile hits Al Jazeera's Kabul office. No one is hurt. BBC and AP news operations in the city also hit.

15 December, 2001: Cameraman sent to Guantanamo Bay

Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Hajj is arrested in Pakistan after working for Al Jazeera in Afghanistan. US forces later flew him to Guantanamo Bay, partly to interrogate him on the workings of the Arabic news network, according to a Wikileaks cable published this year. He was eventually released in May 2008.

10 May, 2002: Bahrain bans Al Jazeera

The Gulf state bans the TV channel for two years after accusing it of presenting a "Zionist bias". It is among a number of Middle Eastern nations to have censored the channel since its debut.

8 April, 2003: US missile kills journalist

An American air strike hits Al Jazeera's Baghdad office in Iraq, killing Palestinian reporter, Tareq Ayyoub, who had been working for the network.

20 January, 2004: Accused of airing extremist propaganda

Then-United States President George W Bush accuses Al Jazeera of being a source of "hateful propaganda" from the Arab world.

15 November, 2006: Launches English channel

Al Jazeera English launches and broadcasts from Kuala Lumpur, with Sir David Frost among its cast of news presenters.

6 December, 2010: Cable claim s Qatari influence

US Embassy cables published by Wikileaks claim the network promotes Qatar's diplomatic agenda.

20 September, 2011: Boss steps down

Al Jazeera head, Wadah Khanfar, is replaced by a Qatari royal, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, after eight years in the post.

Enjoli Liston

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