Criticized by many of the world's governments and misunderstood by much of the American public, the relatively independent voice of the Arab world was defended vigorously last Monday night at the International House.
Hafez Al-Mirazi, Al Jazeera's Washington bureau chief, drew a near-capacity crowd for his discussion, "Reflecting or Shaping Perceptions in the Arab World?," which touched on the Iraq war and September 11 as formative moments for the satellite network, launched in 1996.
"After 9/11, Al Jazeera got a bad name in the U.S. for including the anti-American perspective," Al-Mirazi said. "This was what had been happening [to us] for years in the Arab world for its pro-Western perspective."
Al-Mirazi asserted that the difference between the American media and Al Jazeerawhich translates to "the island" from Arabicis its target audience of 40 million, mostly in the Middle East. When an American news agency covers an international bombing, Al-Mirazi said, it focuses disproportionately on the Americans maimed and killed. "Your audience will want to know more about John, Jack and Barbara than the 500 others who died," he said, explaining how the Arab press similarly focuses on the elements pertinent to its audience.
During the Iraq conflict, this tendency to cater to the audience resulted in three distinctly different flavors of war reporting: British, Arabic, and American.
"It depends where you sit," Al-Mirazi said. "If you're sitting in the Arab capitol, you care about the two missiles that were not that smart [and hit civilian targets]. You want to know how many civilians were killed, what the neighborhood was, what damage was done."
But for the American public, the main topic of interest has been how the war effort has progressed "and how your children in battle are doing."
Al-Mirazi rejected the commonly held idea that news coverage favorable to the Arab world is detrimental to the U.S., saying the competing news sources do not form a zero sum game. "If you don't want others to have the right to mourn for their lost, then you see in black and white," he said.
Many Americans have misconceptions about Al Jazeera, Al-Mirazi said, which he attributes to the fact that the mainstream American news sources cite the Arab network mostly for its scoops on "a bombing tape or disasteror something wrong with the Middle East."
Al-Mirazi railed against this misunderstanding of Al Jazeera, saying that the network airs 20 times as much coverage of pro-Western perspectivesincluding Pentagon press conferences, hearing confirmations, and extensive coverage of the presidential raceas it does of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.
Al-Mirazi said the Washington Bureau of Al Jazeera has mushroomed since September 11, 2001, growing from a staff of four to 20. "If anyone who is going to bring bad news is going to be labeled anti' then we can't help," he said. "We've already been labeled anti' in the Arab world."
Al-Mirazi said Al Jazeera has transformed the role of the fourth estate (journalism) in the Middle East, placing pressure on governments to reform. "The time is over when the government is the custodian for what should be said," said Al-Mirazi, who has lived in the Washington area for more than 20 years, and has worked there for the BBC Arabic/World service and the Voice of America. "You let the juryand that's the audiencedecide."
Despite Al Jazeera's relative freedom compared to state news services, Al-Mirazi conceded that the satellite news network has not yet turned a profit, and that it is funded by Qatar.