The untouchables

The Guardian (Media), Monday March 31, 2003

So farewell, then, Ammar Al-Sankari. For three years the Al-Jazeera reporter had been welcome at the New York Stock Exchange, but not any more. Last week, upon arriving to do his daily business report for the Arabic satellite news service, he was asked to hand over his press badge.

The NYSE claimed that Al-Jazeera's accreditation had been revoked as part of a general reorganisation of space for media outlets. "Investors look for business and financial news and unfortunately at this point that means we can't accommodate Al-Jazeera," said Ray Pellechia, an exchange spokesman. Curiously, though, Al-Jazeera was the only media outlet dropped, and sources indicated that the real reason for its demise was its coverage of the Iraq war.

The coverage, thus far, has not shied away from controversy. Al-Jazeera has broadcast pictures of a 12-year-old boy who had suffered terrible head injuries, as well as images of US soldiers either captured or killed, prompting condemnation for alleged breach of the Geneva Convention. US Lieutenant General John Abizaid said, "I regard the showing of these pictures as absolutely unacceptable." His words were echoed by Steve Anderson, controller of ITV News, who said of the more bloody images: "I would never put [them] on screen. There seems to be acceptance of images that I don't think would be acceptable here."

And yet, of course, the images are here. Seven-year-old Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, is available on the Sky platform, receivable here in the UK with just one telephone call. It has grown exponentially in its short life, with remarkable exclusives including taped broadcasts by Osama bin Laden, and claims to have added 4 million European subscribers since the start of the Iraq war. Overall, the station claims to reach up to 50 million viewers worldwide, with the bulk of its audience in the Middle East. A high-quality multivoice English dubbed version is expected within six months, with a full English language version planned for early next year.

Available via Sky, in the UK, albeit (for now) in Arabic surely Al-Jazeera is subject to Independent Television Commission (ITC) rules and regulations, requiring impartiality in news reporting, strictly post-watershed only broadcasts of violence, and consistent standards of taste and decency? Perhaps to the discreet satisfaction of Messrs Blair and Bush, couldn't the ITC step in and take the channel off-air? Well, no. The relevant law is contained in the 'Television without Frontiers' Directive (89/552/EEC), adopted initially in 1989 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and later amended in June 1997. The Directive sets out the legal framework for the free movement of television services in Europe, and says that a Member State's jurisdiction is determined principally by the location of a broadcaster's central administration and where management decisions concerning programming are taken.

In Al-Jazeera's case, this is Paris, where it was originally set up given the significant Arab audience it could expect in France. As such, its broadcasting licence was granted by the French equivalent of the ITC, the Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA), which remains the regulatory body for the station despite its numerous worldwide bureaux, including one with some 20 staff in London. As a spokesman at the ITC confirms, "Al-Jazeera is not subject to UK regulatory control. Only the CSA can make a judgment about the content of its programming."

It seems that in common with French foreign policy the CSA is not known for its interventionist stance. Al-Jazeera's Qatar-based press officer, Jihad Ballout, says that he has not heard of any proposed investigation, still less sanctions, by the CSA.

Ballout insists that Al-Jazeera satisfies itself of three criteria applied the world over by media organisations before broadcasting a news item. The station has to be persuaded of the authenticity of the material, its newsworthiness and relevance. But he agrees that there is "a cultural angle," saying that the violence and bloodshed to which the Middle East has been subject for decades may well have led to differing standards of tolerance than those of the West. In a region whose inhabitants have grown used to suicide bombings and guerrilla conflict, Ballout sees images of desperately injured children as mimetic, rather than sensationalistic. "We try to broadcast as comprehensive and balanced a picture as possible," he says, "but the fact is that war is full of violence, death and destruction. We realise though that some images might be disturbing and our sympathy goes out to anyone who lost a loved one in the war."

The Pentagon has written to Al-Jazeera, asking it to refrain from broadcasting 'sensitive' material until relevant military investigations have taken place. But short of revoking the accreditation of a financial journalist in New York, it appears that making polite requests in letter form are all anybody wishing to hinder Al-Jazeera's operation can do. In the meantime, Ballout and his colleagues will continue doing what they currently seem to be doing best "bringing the reality of the war to the world at large." Not to mention bumping up those subscriber numbers.