Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) was mysteriously launched almost without a prior proper planning. It came on air by a stroke of pure fortune.
AJA’s birth has simply come about at the very moment of the death of another channel, namely the BBC Arabic Television.
For many, the latter was almost like a dream to the millions of Arab viewers as it brought with it an entirely fresh air into the heavily corroded world of broadcasting that filled the Arab sky.
It was Sunday, April 21, 1996, when the BBC Arabic TV, launched only few months earlier by the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, was totally killed off air after simply one hour notice by its funder, the Saudi giant company, the Mawarid Group.
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This came about after BBC Arabic put on air few days earlier a ‘Panaroma’ documentary, Death of a Princess, which was originally broadcast on the BBC national English Channel a month earlier.
Mawarid accused the BBC of failure to observe “cultural sensitivities” as stipulated in the partnership contract.
BBC Arabic TV was conceived and anxiously purchased after long negotiation that started early in 1993 with Mawarid’s subsidiary, Orbit Communication Corporation (OCC), before an agreement was finally signed on March 1994.
The idea was that a BBC Arabic TV beaming to millions of Arab viewers in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, was bound to attain a certain success based on the foundations and ethos of the BBC World Service Arabic radio, which was hugely respected and widely tuned in to across the region.
Additionally, the BBC World Service, of which Arabic was the leading service among almost 36 non-English languages, was desperately in need of new contract to cover its acute cash shortage resulting from the British Foreign Office reducing its annual grant to the BBC World Service.
Furthermore, long before the demise of the short-lived BBC Arabic TV, and following a palace coup in 1995 which brought the former ruler Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani to power, Qatar showed a great deal of interest in setting up its own satellite TV service.
In 1995, the then foreign affairs minister, Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Bin Jabr Al Thani, was entrusted with the mission to set up such a service.
In the summer of that year, he paid a courtesy visit to the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) in Battersea, South London, where he held a high-level meeting with its management.
As a pioneering satellite station with the most advanced high-tech gear of its time, MBC was the obvious destination to satisfy the curiosity of many.
This writer, as a director of communication and member of MBC’s ‘Quality Commission’, was present during the discussion.
A preliminary agreement was reached with MBC to provide the know-how, including a comprehensive staff training programme, and a joint committee was established to take this further in the few months to follow.
However, a few months later, the unfolding news of the BBC Arabic TV came through to the delight of the Qataris who immediately realised the golden opportunity and began to negotiate with the BBC to compensate the corporation for all its losses.
This is how the demise of the BBC Arabic TV led to the birth of AJA, which went on air at the beginning of November 1996, mainly ran by former staff of BBC Arabic TV.
The Arab viewers lost a channel that was uniquely prestigious and highly professional, only to have it replaced by contagiously loose-cannon channel that allows so many dangerous and contradictory agendas to be aired.
Muslim Brotherhood link
Under the chairmanship of the young Shaikh Hamad Bin Thamer Al Thani, AJA diverted its attention mostly to areas of great interest to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
In February 2002, it aired the first interview ever with the notorious Osama Bin Laden as he hailed the criminal act of attacking the two New York towers in September 2001.
The interview was given to an AJA correspondent in Afghanistan, Tayseer Alouni, known for his Muslim Brotherhood links, and tried and found guilty in Spain (as a Spanish citizen) in later years for conspiring with the Islamist Al Nusrah front.
In ten years up to 2011, Bin Laden, his second-in-command Ayman Al Zawahiri, and their allies regularly broadcast more than 60 statements or messages to the world, inciting the world’s Islamists.
They were all exclusively aired by AJA.
Furthermore, after the US invasion of March 2003 Iraq invasion, AJA restructured its staff abroad, as well as at its headquarters in Doha.
The main change was promoting its former correspondent in Afghanistan and Kurdish-controlled Iraq, Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian national from Jenin and known for his links with the Brotherhood, to the post of AJA managing director, replacing Qatari national, Mohammad Jasem Ali.
Three years later, the relatively young Khanfar (he was born in 1969) was appointed director-general of the overall Al Jazeera network, including Al Jazeera English (AJE).
Khanfar, on both occasions, replaced well-known secular-minded journalists.
A handful of AJA employees, who would remain anonymous, told this writer over the years how many were complaining at AJA about what they called “new Islamist trends” in the aftermath of Khanfar’s appointment.
Voice of the Brotherhood
One of them told me: “The newsroom is dominated now by Islamists who are replacing liberal, secular and Arab nationalist colleagues. The Islamist drift couldn’t be clearer”.
During his era at the helm until 2009, AJA had undoubtedly become the most powerful voice of the Brotherhood.
Despite his resignation from his post in 2009, after WikiLeaks cables disclosed the discussion he had had earlier that year with senior Washington officials agreeing to tone down the Iraq war coverage, AJA remained loyal to its contacts with the Brotherhood (Jama’a in Arabic).
This historic link is one of the 13 demands the four boycotting countries are calling on Qatar’s government to reconsider.
It is no secret how well-entrenched Al Jama’a is in Qatar.
Influential Egyptian cleric and long-resident of Qatar Yousuf Al Qaradawi recently revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood began to organise themselves in this tiny Gulf state in the 1970s.
In a series of long interviews with the chairman and editor-in-chief of the London-based Al Hiwar TV, repeated nightly during the month of Ramadan, Qaradawi said Al Jama’a started to establish itself in different forms and at different levels.
AJA has hosted the well known Islamist shaikh on its weekly programme ‘Al Sharia wa Al-Hayat’ (Sharia and Life), often presented by well-trained journalists that are also known for their links with Muslim Brotherhood.
In many of his episodes, he preaches violence and suicide bombings against civilians regardless of their background.
Al Qaradawi uses his forum in AJA to preach to Al Qaida, A Nusra and all terror recruits, as well as dangerously addressing schoolteachers and aspiring youth.
In contrast to AJA, its English sister AJE has successfully managed to maintain a highly professional editorial policy in a viciously competitive market worldwide.
Unlike AJA, it keeps away from controversy and provides its audience with valuable content.
Both AJA and AJE are financed by the same government, but while the first has unfortunately become a tool of agitation, the other struggles to behave as if it is publicly funded.
Mustapha Karkouti (@mustaphatache) is a former president of the Foreign Press Association, London.