Over the years, the Arabic-language TV channel Al Jazeera has earned a reputation for challenging both the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world as well as the U.S. government. Its vivid documenting of Iraqi casualties during the 2003 U.S. invasion won it plaudits in the Middle East and howls of protest from some quarters in Washington, where many accused the channel of harboring an anti-American bias. That impression has stuck and led, in no small part, to the refusal of many U.S. cable operators to pick up Al Jazeera English, an international version of the network that was launched in 2006. Yet millions across the world, including many first-time viewers in the U.S., have marveled in recent weeks at Al Jazeera English's impressive coverage from the front lines of the protests currently shaking the Middle East. TIME spoke with Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for the Al Jazeera Arabic channel, about the channel's unique identity and why it deserves a greater American audience.
In the weeks surrounding the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the number of unique viewers watching Al Jazeera English's Internet stream from the U.S. soared. Has this been a watershed moment for the station?
For Americans, what happens in Egypt is of immense consequence to the U.S. and its interests in that part of the world. And it was really interesting to see all sorts of Americans, including the intelligence community, scratching their heads, trying to understand how this came about, what the ramifications were and how they'd deal with it. Simultaneously, you had this detailed coverage on Al Jazeera. I think our coverage of Egypt has been crucial in demonstrating to people that there are certain stories integral to world peace and stability that require access to a channel like Al Jazeera English. It has made the investment, has the presence, the perspective, the expertise and the knowledge to properly tell a story like Egypt.
So will this translate soon into more people in the U.S. being able to watch it on their televisions?
The amount of support we've received from Americans has been truly phenomenal. We're talking about more than 40,000 e-mails of support over the space of a week, which is testimony to the vibrancy and diversity of opinion in the U.S. The hope is that after what people have been able to see on Al Jazeera in its coverage of Egypt, that cable companies may not just see the material benefits of having Al Jazeera available, but also the wisdom.
Apart from having far greater resources in the region, what set apart Al Jazeera's reporting on Egypt from that of prominent U.S. networks?
Two things. First, if you compared the coverage of Al Jazeera with the coverage of many other networks, particularly in the U.S., the level of dialogue among Egyptians that we saw on Al Jazeera was really interesting. In many ways, that's what gave people watching Al Jazeera a better handle on the story. You had all sorts of political players talking in real time from their own standpoint about what was going on in Egypt. The second factor was simply [that we conveyed] a better sense of what was happening in Egypt. For example, all of a sudden we started hearing about these fears of the revolution in Egypt being led by the Muslim Brotherhood were they going to hijack this revolution? On Al Jazeera, we made it clear right from the start that this revolution, like the one in Tunisia, was not made in any significant way by any political party or movement. It was a spontaneous uprising led by young people who had just had enough socially, economically and politically. And that was much clearer on Al Jazeera.
On a broader scale, what would Al Jazeera English have to offer over its American competitors?
At a time when many U.S. news outlets are feeling strapped for cash and cutting down on foreign coverage, you have this channel which continues to invest in its international reporting. Not just in Egypt and the Middle East, but in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia. Not only are all these parts of the world very important in their own right, but it's also very important for Americans to know what goes on there. 9/11 showed us one thing: that a story you consider foreign and far away all of a sudden [can become] local. I think Egypt has given us the same lesson a story going on thousands of miles away from U.S. shores suddenly has real repercussions for the U.S.
Observers talk about the somewhat activist spirit of the station. How would you describe Al Jazeera English's editorial perspective?
It's focused on all parts of the world and therefore it has an eye on all sorts of different audiences. That's what gives it its unique identity. Of course, from one crisis to another you adjust the focus but the idea is that you're actually catering to all different parts of the world. There's a belief that we live in a global village, but a global village where until very recently information came down from the global north to the south. But now you've a channel that tries to reverse that movement from the south to the north.
There's also an awareness that we live in a world that is increasingly characterized by people's wishes to live in free and democratic systems. The notion is that you have to focus on people's grievances and aspirations because these are the people who are watching you and if those people themselves are increasingly imbued with a certain skepticism of government, well that has to reflect in a channel like Al Jazeera English.
How does that lens compare to the idea much vaunted in the U.S. of journalistic objectivity?
To be honest, I don't know what objective journalism means. The environment in which you broadcast obviously colors your coverage. If you are an American network broadcasting from the U.S., you will be broadcasting with a sensibility which may not look necessarily objective to an audience in another part of the world. And the same is true if you're a network like Al Jazeera Arabic, broadcasting out of the Middle East. But we have to go beyond that. We should agree on the necessity to provide information in a timely manner. We cannot live in a world where a story like Egypt which has consequences for the whole world is unfolding and your audience doesn't know anything about it or enough about it.
For all its internationalism, Al Jazeera is still funded by the government of Qatar. How has that affected the network's reporting?
If the government of Qatar funds Al Jazeera with hundreds of millions of dollars annually, obviously it's not a charity. It is an investment that has enhanced the prestige of their country. As far as my personal experience is concerned, I have been a bureau chief for Al Jazeera for about six years now and working for the company nine years. I do not recall one time in which somebody from the Qatari government picked up the phone to say we want you to do this or to do that. I would say that this is probably one of the most independent channels that we've seen in the Middle East.
If protests like the ones we're seeing now hit Qatar, would we see coverage on Al Jazeera?
It's an if. My sense tells me that if something like that happens, we would see coverage. We focus on Egypt, Iraq or the conflicts between Israelis and the Palestinians because these are the stories that have been at the forefront of public opinion in the Arab world for decades. They've been part of the 24-hour news cycle for a long, long time. The question is what happens in Qatar that would warrant attention 24 hours a day.
As an Al Jazeera journalist based in the U.S., what would you say is the biggest obstacle set between the U.S. and the Arab world?
Both sides don't really know each other. So much has happened in the history of the relationship between the two, and yet they continue to see each other in terms of stereotypes. Unfortunately Americans' views on Al Jazeera have been impacted by the way they see the Middle East as a whole. The hope with Egypt is that this will change, and it has. Americans have now seen those young people demonstrating in Tahrir Square: they're not demonstrating against the United States, they're not demonstrating against Israel, they're not demonstrating against the West. They are demonstrating for something a lot of Americans understand well, something Americans have understood for over 200 years. That is democracy. And my hope is that the light that came out of Cairo over those three weeks would change not just the Arab world and its views of America but also would change American views of the Arab world. Then we're getting somewhere.