Despite its free press, Israel bans Al-Jazeera

Israel prides itself on its independent and open media in a region not known for its freedom of expression. So it was somewhat against the grain when Deputy Foreign Minister Majalli Whbee announced that Jerusalem would be clamping down on the activities of the Qatari-based network Al-Jazeera within Israel.

The timing of the boycott will be particularly uncomfortable for Al-Jazeera. It comes as the broadcaster is under pressure from the Arab League. The Observer’s James Robinson reports that the league has passed a new charter calling on Arab networks “to avoid insulting Arab leaders, respect Muslim values and uphold the cultural and social traditions of Muslim states”.

The broadcaster is also facing new competition. Amid much controversy, the BBC has entered the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East with the launch of BBC Arabic TV. The new network, part of the BBC World Service, will have a team of more than 200 people working for it including correspondents in Jerusalem, Cairo and Washington. The output, financed by a $40 million subvention from the Foreign Office, will be run from the Beeb’s broadcasting centre in London.

The birth of the service caused huge ructions within the BBC because of cutbacks in other World Service regions required to pay for it.

In Israel at least, BBC Arabic starts off with an advantage. Jerusalem will from now on refuse broadcast interviews with Al-Jazeera and deny visas to its staff because it regards the Arab network as “prioritising Palestinian suffering”.

In particular, Israel accuses the Arab broadcaster of having covered the recent incursions into Gaza, in which 120 Palestinians were killed, but not reporting on the rocket attacks on Sderot and Ashkelon in which five Israelis perished. Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Jerusalem has rejected the allegations, noting that his reporters fully covered the recent killings by an East Jerusalem Arab of eight yeshivah students within Israel.

“Israel is seeking to intimidate our coverage,” he charged. It is not, however, just Jerusalem which has complained about Al-Jazeera’s recent broadcasts of the conflict. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has also been critical, claiming it provides Hamas with more airtime than Fatah. One Palestinian law-maker accused the station of “fomenting conflict” by spreading “radical Islam to the world”.

Al-Jazeera has become something of a phenomenon across the Arab world.

Formed in 1996 from the remnants of the BBC’s co-owned Saudi Arabic-language station, it now has a family of channels and claims a worldwide Arab-language audience of 40-50 million viewers. Despite ambitions to be commercial, it is still subsidised by the Qatari ruling clan. Al-Jazeera in English, which is unaffected by the boycott, has an estimated reach of 100 million and includes among its broadcasters such luminaries as David Frost.

Across the region, Al-Jazeera almost wears as a badge of pride the fact that it has been variously banned from Algeria and Bahrain and been subject to self-censorship in Saudi Arabia. Israel might find itself somewhat uncomfortable as a bedfellow with states that have no real concept of what freedom of the press means.

As for BBC Arabic TV, it has been given only a lukewarm reception by Faisal Abbas, a media commentator writing on the BBC website. Reporting was not found to be “very engaging”. He wondered whether the network’s first exclusive interview with Arab League secretary Amr Mousa was very newsy when all he had to say was that Annapolis was a “failure three months on”.

BBC Arabic could perhaps recover lost ground by interviewing the Israeli ministers now banned from Al-Jazeera.

Last updated: 10:08am, June 3 2008