The Al Jazeera cable channel in Qatar has led an existence filled with severe ups and downs. It has simultaneously become the most popular TV channel among Arabs living along the Persian Gulf, while being reviled by many of the governments in the region, along with the U.S. government. While showing a much more gruesome and hyper-realistic side of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (including dead soldiers on both sides), Al Jazeera has also come under attack by American forces in both conflicts, with cameraman Tarek Ayoud losing his life in a U.S. bombing on the Baghdad office.
If that's not enough conflict and turmoil, consider the station's adjunct Web site. During the war in Iraq, Al Jazeera's preliminary English-language site was hit with more traffic than it could handle along with hacker attacks, while losing its hosting service from Akamai -- while also being the most searched-for site on the Web, according to Lycos.
The channel was founded in 1996 with $100 million-plus from the government of Qatar, but fancies itself as an independent voice in Arab countries dominated by government-run outlets that often pull their punches. But American officials play up the station's alleged connections to Al Qaeda and its airing of tapes from Osama bin Laden.
While it has been accused of an anti-American or anti-Western bias -- and running little critical coverage of pro-U.S. Qatar -- the channel's spokesmen often say it gives both sides of every issue, giving time to Israeli or American officials. That hasn't stopped its foes from trying to silence it. The new governing council in Iraq -- appointed by the U.S. -- recently announced a temporary ban on Al Jazeera in the country. That follows in the footsteps of other countries such as Tunisia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that have banned the channel. The New York Stock Exchange banned its reporters from the trading floor.
Al Jazeera has apparently been blackballed online as well. The channel's attempts to buy promotional ads on Yahoo and AOL were refused. Google News did not include the site in its index until today (Sept. 30). A Google spokesman said the site had not been indexed for technical reasons.
After months of service problems, the English-language Al Jazeera site finally came back online again on September 1. While the site's look does ape the BBC's news site to some extent, a quick check of its top news stories showed a 50-50 split of original and wire stories. And some original stories are single-sourced, or taken largely from other outlets. The site might not practice the most balanced reporting, but that doesn't excuse countries that promote freedom of press from trying to silence it.
I recently spoke with Ahmed al-Sheikh, the site's new managing editor, who replaced Joanne Tucker. Al-Sheikh previously served as editor in chief of the Arabic Al Jazeera site, and has a background at the BBC Arabic service. Al-Sheikh spoke without irony when asked about a possible bias. "We report objectively," al-Sheikh says. "We leave it to the reader to decide." At times, he sounded eerily like the Fox News' motto: "We report. You decide."
Following is an edited transcript of a question and answer OJR conducted with al-Sheikh over the telephone.
OJR: Tell me about your background in journalism.
Ahmed Al-Sheikh: I studied English in Jordan. I graduated from the University of Jordan 31 years ago, and then I worked in various countries. In 1990, I moved to London, where I worked for the BBC, the Arabic service. From there, I joined Al Jazeera back in 1996, and I'm still with them. At Al Jazeera, I was the assistant editor in chief of Al Jazeera news and then I was editor in chief of the Arabic news site. And now I'm here as managing editor of this new news site.
OJR: How did the relaunch of your English site go?
AAS: I think it's doing well. We are getting some very good feedback from different parts of the world, from almost every country in the world. This morning, for example, I'm reading the feedback report [for the Web site] and we have feedback from Brazil, from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, U.S., Australia. Some are in favor, some are criticisms. Every morning we get that report, and I think we're doing well, to start with.
OJR: How is your audience online different from your TV audience? Are you reaching more people online?
AAS: I think so. I think we are reaching more people. Judging from the feedback that we receive, I think we're reaching a wider sector of the audience than the [TV] channel. We're talking to a different audience and we realize that. So what we publish in the English site is totally and completely different than what we publish in the Arabic site. The way we handle the stories, the way we write them is a little bit different in order to suit the special need of our audience in the States and Britain and the rest of the world.
OJR: So you would change the way you wrote a story on the Arabic site when running it on the English site? Can you give me an example of a story that was different?
AAS: The basic principles are usually the same. Our editorial policy focuses on what we think we should report objectively. We can never interfere in any news story. We leave it to the reader to decide. We carry the news, we never interfere in that. We report objectively, then it is not up to us how the audience will interpret that or understand it. It's up to him to make his own decision, to understand the way he wants, to interpret the evidence as he understands it. We never interfere in this. We believe that news is sacred, it has a sanctity, we cannot touch that, we cannot interfere with that. This is our editorial policy, this is the focus of our editorial policy.
OJR: When you said you take a different view on the English site....
AAS: The stories that we choose, the stories that we lead with. For example, today, when the Labor Party conference opens in Bournemouth, in England, we will be leading with that story. But on the Arabic site, we are not planning to lead with that. You see what I mean? Yesterday, for example, we put a [U.S. President George] Bush meeting high up in our running order [of stories], but it wasn't as high on the Arabic site. This is how we choose the stories. We take into consideration that we have a different audience.
OJR: How many people work on your Web site?
AAS: Up to now, we have 17 journalists, including the senior editors and the writers and staff journalists. We have 17 people but we are recruiting 12 more, and we are in the process of recruiting those people within the next month or 45 days. Once we finish all these formalities from the passport department and all these things.
OJR: Will they all work in Qatar or in other places?
AAS: This is the number that will be working in the newsroom. But all over the world, we have now 20 correspondents and stringers. We are planning to increase that number to cover more countries. So we have 20 correspondents and stringers who write features for us. In many cases, they also write news stories from the field.
OJR: How many stories do you do for the Web site vs. stories for TV and the Web?
AAS: Because the number of journalists we have is not enough so far, we produce now almost 35 to 40 stories every 24 hours. But this number is increasing as more journalists arrive in the newsroom, and as more correspondents are recruited around the world. As far as the channel is concerned, we have nothing to do with it. We are independent from the channel. We have a separate newsroom, and if they have something special, something exclusive, we take it from them, we translate it, and put it on our site.
OJR: So you report 35 to 40 original stories per day?
AAS: Not original. We are a mainstream news site, so our sources are the wires and our correspondents all over the world. So all in all, these stories are including the ones we get from our correspondents, and stringers, including the feature stories that we prepare here, which is original content for our site, and the stories that we take from Reuters, AP and similar wire stuff.
OJR: You had a problem getting someone to host the Web site when Akamai pulled out.
AAS: I'm not aware of that because I was not in this place when it happened. I'm sorry, I know nothing about that. But I think that problem now is solved, and the host is there.
OJR: In the U.S., Web hosts have the option of dropping a client for whatever reason. Do you think that's fair?
AAS: I think that this is something that really curtails the freedom of journalism, including Web sites. We have always been told that the United States has always been a bastion for freedom of speech and expression, and I think that this is the sort of interference that will reflect negatively on the ability of journalists to move around and to carry that message to the audience. I think that would limit the scope of movement for journalists around the world.
OJR: There are probably a lot of other sites in a similar situation with controversial content, that want to get a Web host, but can't get someone. What advice would you give them?
AAS: I have no idea, but they should never give up. They should keep looking to get that host. We shouldn't allow anyone to curtail us whatever the cost is.
OJR: A lot of people in the West and in the United States say that Al Jazeera has a particular viewpoint that is anti-American. How do you prove that you're objective in the work that you do?
AAS: We leave it to the people to look at our content and decide from that. Our content is the only proof of our objectivity. Read our content, and if you find something that's not objective, why don't you just give us a call or write to us. Then we will talk about it. We are an Arab Web site, but not that it makes limits for us.
We do interviews with Israeli officials, with anyone, we have no objection to talking to them. That's one proof that we are really objective and we give everyone, every party, the opportunity to express their point of view -- even if we disagree with them. After all, our content is the only proof we can offer to the audience to prove that we are objective.
OJR: Do you have a way for readers to participate on your Web site? Is there a forum where they can give their opinion as well?
AAS: I think so. As I said before, we are receiving e-mails from them. And in the future, we are planning a sort of forum on the site for our audience to express their points of view. But this is coming down the pipeline in three or four months, when it will be available for them. We are planning to make the site more interactive with the audience, for the public, and even more proactive. We do not think that the audience is just another person at the end of the line. We are planning to make them part of the newsmaking process for this site.
OJR: With your history of being a target of hackers, did you have to put a lot of security in place for the site's relaunch?
AAS: I think so. I think we are well protected right now. But those hackers sometimes find ways and ways of attacking you, and if this happens we are ready to face it. We were affected by a virus a month ago, which curtailed our publishing for almost 12 hours before we could overcome it.
OJR: This happened after you relaunched the site?
AAS: This is the virus that affected almost the entire world. ...The SoBig virus.
OJR: You haven't been hacked recently?
AAS: No, we haven't been hacked recently.
OJR: Are there other independent Middle Eastern news sites in English that you can think of for people who want to find objective journalism?
AAS: Other than this site? Well I don't remember. I think we are the only Arab English-speaking mainstream news Web site.
OJR: There are no others that aren't financed by an Arab government...
AAS: No, no, no. We are financed by the Qatari government but they never interfere with us.
OJR: Is the site profitable? Or do you lose money?
AAS: I think we are generating some revenue from our SMS service. We have that service in South Asia to companies; here in the Gulf and in Qatar we are generating some money. And we have some ad impressions on the site, you see ads there. But I don't think this is covering the whole operation.
OJR: So the government covers what you don't make?
AAS: Yes, the government does. It's part of the Al Jazeera organization, so we are covered by the budget of Al Jazeera.
OJR: Are you seeing Internet access coming back in Iraq?
AAS: I think so. We got some feedback from [people in Iraq]. We ran a story about the American "green card" soldiers in the American Army and it caused a lot of fuss among the American officials in Iraq right now. They were quite angry about that. That gives me the impression that they can get into the site from there and monitor it.
OJR: What do you do to take precautions at your offices after the attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is it difficult for you to operate in these countries?
AAS: In Iraq, we have one correspondent for the Web site, but the channel has tens of people working there. But I can't really speak for them. Our correspondent hasn't faced any problems so far. She's an American, Chinese-American, she works there and isn't facing any problems.