Saturday, September 16, 2006
Pro-Israeli Editors Seek to Influence Al-Jazeera International English Satellite TV
September 15, 2006
By Khalid Amayreh
When the Qatar-based pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Satellite Television announced two years ago plans to launch Al-Jazeera International (AJI ), many people around the world hoped the new satellite channel would provide a genuine alternative to the notoriously biased western media, which often operate under a certain Zionist influence.
The new channel, the launching of which has been postponed several times for a variety of reasons, will provide both regional and global perspective to a potential audience of hundreds of millions of English speakers.
AJI is the world’s first English-language news channel to be headquartered in the Middle East, with news management rotating around broadcasting centers in Athens, Doha, London, Washington, D.C., and Kuala Lumpur.
AJI has already attracted a number of luminaries in the world of TV broadcasting, including such people as Sir David Frost and Riz Khan.
However, it seems that disappointment may be awaiting many of those who expect to see a world TV channel that is fair and objective and especially free from the usual Anglo-American (and Israeli) worldview.
In fact, there are already ominous signs showing that pro-Israeli sympathizers, some of them with a background in the BBC, are already trying to control the editorial policies of the new channel, all under the rubric of professionalism and journalistic standards.
This writer, who has been working for aljazeera.net/English (which has now been incorporated into AJI) has discovered by chance efforts by some senior western editors at AJI to minimize and avoid as much as possible the publication of articles, especially news and feature stories, portraying Israel in bad light and exposing Israeli occupation practices against the Palestinian people.
This trend has become quite conspicuous lately. Aljazeera.net/English, for example, failed to report important news worthy events from Israel such as the admission by an Israeli military officer that the Israeli air force dropped over a million cluster bomblets on Lebanon during the recent war with Hizbullah.
Similarly, a story quoting Eifi Eitam, head of a right-wing Israeli party, as calling for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, was left unreported, even after AJI was notified of the subject.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar examples, all showing that AJI is knowingly and deliberately avoiding serious coverage of the Palestinian plight, especially in its feature section which abounds with all kinds of stories covering various, including outlandish, subjects and events.
Earlier this year, one of the pro-Israeli editors contemptuously rejected a human feature story on a Palestinian college student from al-Najah University in Nablus who lost her right eye to an Israeli rubber bullet while on her way home from campus.
The senior editor, Vince Ryan, argued that the subject was not a priority and that aljazeera.net/English would prepare a more comprehensive coverage of similar cases later. Of course, the promised coverage never materialized.
Eventually, thanks to intensive pleading by this writer, the article, one of the best I’ve ever written, was posted(see “Rubber Bullets Menace West Bank, aljazeera.net/English”)[the original version and stronger version of Khalid's story is published here].
Ryan apparently never forgave me my “audacity” as evident from his subsequent behavior. In the third week of June this year, I submitted an article on Palestinian children and minors killed by the Israeli army and para-military Jewish settlers. The article was based on statistical information released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
However, instead of thanking me for the article, Ryan, upon seeing the article, and without giving it a second thought, wrote to me that I was lying and that the information contained in the article was false. His vindictive and nervous tone was very telling and spoke volumes.
Unable to reason with the man, who by the way never ever accepted even a single proposal for a feature article he viewed as “anti-Israeli” (I proposed numerous ideas for news and feature pieces), I turned to Russell Merryman, Editor-in-Chief for Web and News Media services at AJI, who is probably the most pro-Israeli operative in AJI today.
However, instead of treating the matter professionally, Merryman launched a tirade against me, accusing me of lacking professionalism and violating al-Jazeera’s professional ethics.
He argued that employing terms such as “martyrs” even within a quote was unprofessional (most Arab media employ the term in reference to Palestinians killed by the Israeli army). This is the same man who readily posts quotes by Israeli army spokespersons and Jewish leaders vilifying Palestinians as “terrorists, murderers and thugs.”
Finding out that he had no case against me, Merryman resorted to red-herring tactics, accusing me of creating confusion and turmoil at aljzeera.net (from the West Bank. I am even barred from leaving the West Bank by the Israeli occupation authorities). And after a brief email exchange, he told me I was fired.
I had written more than 300 pieces for aljazeera.net/English, probably more than anybody else, and never really encountered any problem with previous editors of aljazeera.net. Indeed, Merryman himself, when he started work with aljazeera.net in 2005, praised my professionalism and experience as a journalist.
I don’t know for sure why Merryman behaved the way he did. It is quite possible that he had been urged or cajoled by some of his Zionist friends to make sure that “anti-Israeli” articles are rejected.
But I have my suspicions which I am sure will be vindicated one day.
It may be that he wanted to make AJI coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a carbon copy of that of the BBC where he had spent several years as producer, presenter and news editor.
That would be a real disaster, indeed. It was due to the BBC accumulative coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, at least in part, that a majority of British youths came to think that Palestinians were “the settlers” and Jews were the victims of the “Palestinian settler violence,” as was revealed in a British opinion poll a few years ago. Yes, of course, it is important to be neutral and impartial when covering international conflicts. But it is even more important to be honest when dealing with asymmetrical conflicts where one side is occupied and oppressed and the other is occupier and oppressor.
Eventually, though somewhat belatedly, the Al-Jazeera administration became conscious (I don’t know to what extent) of the silent but real pro-Israeli lobby that was building-up quietly but steadily within AJI.
This build-up had two main expressions: neutralizing Palestinian correspondents from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and the intensive reliance on reports by the American News Agency, the Associated Press, viewed by many as Israel’s ultimate news agency.
Needless to say, reports by this agency, whose Jerusalem offices are staffed by extremely pro-Israeli American Jewish zealots, never miss a chance to remind readers that Hamas was a terrorist organization and that Palestinian resistance fighters were actually terrorists. AP never ever remembers that timeless maxim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and that Israel itself is also viewed by hundreds of millions of people around the world as a terrorist state par excellence.
Seeking to rectify the situation before it is too late, Al-jazeera’s top managers appointed Ibrahim Hilal, an able Egyptian journalist, to make sure that AJI didn’t drift too much away from the policies of the mother Arabic channel.
Hilal, under instructions from al-jazeera General Manager, Waddah Khanfar, asked Merryman to reinstate me as correspondent in Palestine. Merryman complied but only begrudgingly.
On 18 July, Merryman sent me a terse and condescending message, demanding that I apologize to him (I don’t know for what) and warning that my performance would be closely monitored. He said he would commission me to write some pieces, but that he and he alone would decide when and how. He actually never asked me to write a single piece, despite the numerous news worthy events taking place in Palestine.
I did propose to him that I should prepare some feature stories on the situation in Gaza, the power-struggle between Hamas and Fatah and how Israel was barring Palestinians from accessing food and work.
He wouldn’t even reply to these messages.
Last week, Merryman decided to change the entire rules governing the editorial policies of aljazeera.net/English. The new rules make sure that “undesirable stories,” e.g. stories that expose Israeli brutality and racism against the Palestinians or those portraying Israel as a Nazi-like entity, wouldn’t find their way to aljazeera.net.
Merryman has actually already put this policy into effect. For the past three or four months, not a single feature story about the Israeli persecution of Palestinians, which of late assumed nearly genocidal proportions, appeared on Al-jazeera’s English website. This is while the site abounds with all sorts of stories about Katrina victims and similar outlandish subjects.
Merryman claims he has received a full authorization from Al-jazeera General Director Waddah Khanfar granting him full authority to decide what is posted on Al-Jazeera’s English website.
I have sought to communicate my concerns about this grave trend now permeating through AJI to al-jazeera’s top officials, some of whom have openly voiced their frustration and exasperation in this regard.
One official intimated to me that “Merryman views with utter contempt the way the Arabic channel is run.”
Another told me that “this man and his friends want to turn al-jazeera into another Fox News or even another Jerusalem Post.” The latter is Israel’s main right-wing English newspaper which many liberals consider a mouthpiece of Jewish settlers.
I am sure that this article will sign me off from al-jazeera. However, I am willing to sacrifice my own personal interest and lose the bulk of my income in the hope that al-Jazeera officials, particularly Chairman Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani and Managing Director Waddah Khanfar will open their eyes and make sure that al-Jazeera International doesn’t become a new weapon in the hands of the enemies of Arabs and Muslims.
For God’s sake, don’t let them hijack Al-Jazeera under the disguise of journalistic ethics.
Is it gaining credibility in terms of its handling of the turmoil and tension in the Middle-East.