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Riding the Olympic tide and taking advantage of growing ties between China and Middle Eastern countries, Al-Jazeera – the “Arab CNN” – is increasing its operations on the mainland. And the maverick Qatar-based network, which has raised the ire of western critics because of its coverage of the Iraq war and its airing of messages from Osama bin Laden, says it will take a similarly no-holdsbarred approach to issues perceived as sensitive in Beijing.
In the coming months, Al-Jazeera’s English channel will expand its Beijing bureau; it also plans to establish an office in Shanghai. Al-Jazeera English has four main broadcast headquarters – the Qatari capital Doha, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur.
Steve Clark, director of news for Al-Jazeera International, says the network almost chose Hong Kong as its Asia-Pacific regional headquarters in 2004, but eventually opted for Kuala Lumpur, though only for financial reasons. “We went to Hong Kong, we spent several days there meeting all kinds of officials, we looked at studios, we looked at property, we looked at offices. We left Hong Kong on the flight to Kuala Lumpur, almost decided that it would be the place.”
The government was eager to attract Al-Jazeera, he adds. Talks with Hong Kong officials lasted several days, and the network looked at possible premises. Mr Clark says Kuala Lumpur was
eventually chosen because rents were much cheaper rather than because of fears about the future of press freedom in Hong Kong, as was reported at the time.
Al-Jazeera first launched as an Arabic news channel in 1996, backed and funded by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and made its name as an independent voice in a region where many nations strictly controlled their media.
In the ensuing decade, the “Arab CNN” gained popularity and notoriety in equal measure with its unflinching coverage of Middle Eastern issues, not least its exclusive broadcasts of tapes released by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures.
This has prompted accusations from western critics that Al-Jazeera is no more than a mouthpiece for terrorists. Mr Clark denies this, saying bin Laden approached the network not because it was proterrorist but because it was the most popular news channel in the Middle East.
Another argument Al-Jazeera raises is that it does not broadcast all the messages released by bin Laden; they are shown only if the news value warrants it. “In the early days, bin Laden would release a tape and it would be handed to Al-Jazeera Arabic,” says Mr Clark. “Al-Jazeera Arabic would look at this tape and judge the news value. They didn’t use all the tapes they received. There are many that weren’t used because they didn’t say anything [newsworthy].”
Nowadays, al-Qaeda prefers to get its messages out via the internet and no news channel, Al-Jazeera included, has had a tape directly from bin Laden since 2004.
Al-Jazeera is no longer focused on just the Middle East – its English-language service was launched last year, and with China’s increasing importance – not least because of the Olympics, which will put the mainland in the world spotlight like never before – the network is responding with more coverage.
As with western networks, Al-Jazeera’s television news is blocked on the mainland. But despite the limited press freedom, channel bosses say they have not faced difficulties in covering sensitive topics, nor any interference from officials.
This year, Al-Jazeera covered politically sensitive issues like Uygur demands for independence in Xinjiang and the Dalai Lama’s concerns about his Tibetan homeland. “We – like everybody else in China, like the BBC and CNN – we report every day, and we have never been stopped from reporting a story,” Mr Clark says.
“In fact, we occasionally repeat the halfhour interview with the Dalai Lama. We’ve shown it several times. I don’t know whether they like our story or dislike our story, but we have [also] covered the issue of the Uygur people. We have been dealing with the Chinese government now for one year. We dealt with the Chinese government before we launched. We have had no problems.”
Although Al-Jazeera has covered topics considered taboo in Beijing, it has had no negative effect on relations between the two countries. China’s ambassador in Qatar even visited the network’s Doha headquarters two months ago and left a message of goodwill in the VIP book.
Certainly, energy-hungry Beijing has no wish to fall out with Qatar. The Persian Gulf state has the world’s third-largest reserves of natural gas, and business ties are close. Chinese companies are increasing their presence and plenty of Chinese people work there.
Human rights on the mainland remains a sensitive topic which gets plenty of play in western media, but Mr Clark is guarded about the approach Al-Jazeera will take. “We will report any stories which interest the world audience, anything new which hasn’t already been done by the
western channels,” he says.
He refers to the Darfur crisis as an example, saying that only Al-Jazeera broadcasts stories regularly on the warravaged Sudanese region, and hints that it would adopt a similar approach where mainland news is concerned.
Al-Jazeera’s English channel now employs 300 reporters, but intends to hire more to cover China. “We are about to employ 64 more journalists around the world,” he says. “Imagine covering world news is just like a chessboard; you have to decide where the best position is for your people. So yes, we will have extra people in Beijing.”