No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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continued: A Dialogue with Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali
Managing Director, Al-Jazeera
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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 Hadidi.

Just this 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 Lebanon.

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 your plans?

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 here?

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 operational costs.

Schleifer: Having these regional broadcasts will facilitate getting regional advertising, because you can target markets.

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.

Speaking of 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

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo