continued: A Dialogue with Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali
Managing Director, Al-Jazeera
Page 3 of 3. To page 1, page 2
Schleifer: You've had your share of awards for a station that's only been
broadcasting a few years. Could you tell us about each one?
Al-Ali: The first were when we
took part in the Egyptian TV festival in 1998. Our experience there,
though, was that it wasn't fair enough. There are categories for different
types of programs—drama, music, etc.—and we joined in two categories:
reporting and talk shows. They said to me, one first prize is enough for
you; we know you have good programs, but one is enough. This year we're
taking part in the festival marketplace, but not in the competition.
We also won a
first-place award from the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam, for increasing
freedom of the press in the developing world. We won an award from
the Ibn Rushd Center in Berlin, which is run by the Arab community in
Europe. They're supporting independent media, and selected Al-Jazeera.
These two awards are very important for us, and push us to do more.
Part of the
importance of the Adham Center award is that it's coming from here in the
Arab world. [Editor's note: Mr. Al-Ali was appointed an Associate,
or honorary faculty member, of the Adham Center for Television Journalism,
publisher of TBS, at the American University in Cairo on June 12, 2000, by
AUC Provost Dr. Tim Sullivan.] Prince Claus and Ibn Rushd are from outside,
and they call us, pursue us; but here in the region we have to chase people
down. The Adham Center recognition is also significant because we have
several graduates that have joined Al-Jazeera: [investigative correspondent
and London bureau chief] Yosri Fouda and [business correspondent] Lamees El
spring we received the award, along with CNN, for best coverage of the
Israeli pullout of southern Lebanon by the National Council for Media in
Schleifer: It's significant, a
breakthrough, that it comes from Lebanon, which has the longest tradition
in the region of a semi-independent press.
A short while
ago the chairman of your board was here to make a deal, making Al-Jazeera
the first station to sign up to do production in Cairo's Media Free Zone.
And now you're here receiving an award from the Adham Center. Do these
events foretell more active involvement of Al-Jazeera in Cairo? What are
Al-Ali: We've been expanding in
Cairo, with more freedom to operate here in the country. It used to be
blocked out; if you wanted to film you needed permission, you needed to
write letters, you were denied permission. Until our recent problems they'd
been making it easier, not censoring the programs, and it's easier to move
about. The cost of media production is also dropping, especially if we
build our own facilities here and link directly to the home office in Doha.
Which makes things much easier—you don't need to have a satellite booking.
Schleifer: Will you build studios
Al-Ali: We'll rent from the
6th of October City. We'll be using them for talk shows, for discussion
shows, and to produce a program from there. Cairo is one of the most
important cities in the Arab world, both because of the large population
and because it's central to many different fields like politics and
economics. Our plan for the future is to present part of the news from
Cairo, in addition to Beirut, London, and so on. Globalizing has the
additional advantage of making use of different peak times; the peak time
for viewers in the Gulf is different than for viewers in Europe or Africa
or America. As I said, it'll reduce our costs—as you know we are
independent editorially; within five years we'll be private financially as
well. So we're thinking more and more of how we can make money to cover
Schleifer: Having these regional
broadcasts will facilitate getting regional advertising, because you can
Al-Ali: That's correct. There
are two areas to consider: how you can gain freedom of reporting and news,
and at the same time, how you can get advertising.
Schleifer: You've got an
extraordinary number of viewers, but you don't have the advertising that
your share of audience justifies and could support. I'm sure advertisers
were nervous at first, because they were afraid you were going to make
enemies. Which in a certain sense you did. Is that changing? Are you
getting more advertising?
Al-Ali: This is our strategy;
we need to change the mentality of the businessman here in the region.
Usually when you have a large audience, all the advertising companies come
to you. Here, all the advertising businesses are impacted by political
considerations; they think about the political side rather than business
side. I think this will change, just like the freedom of the press has
changed on the editorial side. The commercial side will change too.
Schleifer: The fact that the
Egyptian government has been so happy to have you here in the Media Free
Zone should send a positive message.
Al-Ali: And that message is
that they have a good free zone area, and that's why we're here. In the
beginning when we launched we had problems with the governments, but now we
are getting invitations from the Arab governments to open offices there. We
should soon have independent offices in Yemen, the Sudan, Kuwait. Even the
reaction of government television--news is now becoming more important,
talk shows are becoming more important. Many Arab TV stations are copying
our programs, our style, our graphics style. They're putting us under
pressure too, to upgrade our services. We're under a bit of competition,
and we don't want to just stay put but to continue moving forward.
Schleifer: In many Arab countries
there are huge numbers of English-speaking expatriates—especially in Dubai
and Cairo. These people are interested in the Arab world, but most have a
very limited understanding of Arabic. Have you considered doing the reverse
of what BBC did? They took their English service and turned it around into
Arabic. Have you considered, given the demographics and given the fact that
you have the material and resources, doing an English-language channel?
Al-Ali: The difference between
Al-Jazeera and the Western media is that we concentrate on Arab news and
Arab issues. CNN and BBC may cover news here, but through their own angle.
We come from an Arab perspective rather than a global perspective. We want
to concentrate on Arabic services. We will certainly expand channels—a
documentaries channel, for example. The technology will enable us to serve
an English-speaking audience, though—it's easy to add subtitles, or add an
audio channel in English. And the technology will reduce the costs of these
services. We certainly are interested in the audience you mentioned,
English-speakers living in the Arab world.
channel expansion, I think things will change very much in the next three
or four years. As you know, Arabsat is now free-to-air with the C-band
transponders. If the consumer has those channels, that's enough—why should
he buy a digital decoder? When the C-band channels run out, it'll be a good
business. Then the Arab audience will have the decoders—and you can't
survive with one channel. You need a network, a package of channels, and
your own decoder on the universal system with a smart card. We need to be
ready. We're studying future prospects very carefully.
Schleifer: You've been kept out
of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ABSU) because according to ASBU you
didn't respect their code of honor, which means not broadcasting material
critical of any Arab head of state. Of course given the media wars between
Arab states in the past, one could say that keeping only Al-Jazeera out was
rather selective. Any development on that?
Al-Ali: We tried to join in
the beginning. We would be an addition to them as much as they could be a
support to us. We are not losing anything by not being part, though;
there's no advantage for us. They are the ones losing by keeping us out.
Nothing really practical comes out; it's more of a professional club. Our
work with Western television is just as important. We have good contacts
with them, they contact us and ask about our coverage of the Arab and
Islamic world, because they know we are very strong. They ask us to help,
and we do. TBS