Interview with Jamil Azar, Al Jazeera Senior Anchor

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This interview was conducted as part of "24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio.

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Jamil Azar is an editor, senior anchor, and chief language monitor for the Arabic language, satellite news network Al Jazeera. Azar spent 31 years working for the BBC before moving to Al Jazeera. He spoke with Keith Porter and Kristin McHugh at a Stanley Foundation conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Q: The first thing I said we wanted to ask you about is the [Al Jazeera] slogan, "The opinion and the other opinion." Where did that come from?

Jamil Azar: That came actually from the notion that Al Jazeera is going to project all points of view in its coverage—not only in the news, in its programs, different programs. And when I was asked to think of a slogan for Al Jazeera, I thought that this would require some time. Although they wanted it immediately, I said, "No, you can't have it before three days." And three days were given. And I suggested a couple [slogans], but I indicated the preference. And the preference was, "The opinion and the other opinion."

Q: What does it mean? What are you hoping that people who hear it come away with? What idea do you want to plant in their head?

Azar: Well, in fact, because of the realities at the time—the realities of the media in Arab countries—there was mainly only the point of view of the government, the official state point of view. And the opposition, the other parties to developments, were not there. And if Al Jazeera, I think, did not address this anomaly, I think Al Jazeera would have failed its mission, if you like. Therefore, this was a very important principle on which Al Jazeera worked. And we did that, I think, successfully.

Q: So you were able to set yourself apart from the others by saying, "We're not just the opinion."

Azar: Well, this is what made Al Jazeera a phenomenon when it started, you see. It became something different, different from what the public used to have. And [became] sources of information, and that is the Arab sources of information. And we have distinguished ourselves and acquired credibility with the audience, with viewers. And we proved that we can be a match for Western media. Because we provided a service, what I would call a service of giving information to the audience with the same standard of reliability and objectivity.

Q: Tell me your Yasser Arafat story, because I think that illustrates your point of "the opinion and the other opinion."

Azar: Yes, we interviewed many presidents and many high-ranking officials in Arab countries and so forth. Now, this used to be very rare if it happened at all in Arab media before the emergence of Al Jazeera. Now the audience—the public—started to see this president, Yasser Arafat, or the Yemeni president, or a king, or one of those influential people being interviewed with challenging questions, with openness, as if they are held to account. I'm sure the individual started to look at them as normal human beings. And they can be challenged about their policies, about their faults, about their, I mean, even corruption. I remember I challenged Yasser Arafat, I told him that the Palestinian people at that time were complaining there is corruption in his administration, in his government, in his regime. You see, obviously he wasn't very happy about it. And this is only an example. I'm sure this must have been a turning point in the relationship between the individual and the state and the regime. I believe also that it has not come to fruition fully. Because this needs time to take root, as it were. And it is a positive way forward in advancing something of the democratic process in Arab countries.

Q: You heard a lot today about Al Jazeera and how Americans may or may not perceive Al Jazeera. How do you respond to the criticism? Does it affect the decisions that you make on a daily basis in terms of the way that you put together your newscast and what you say?

Azar: I'm afraid we think not of this [as] criticism here on us from different quarters, including the United States of America—not as long as we feel we are doing our job professionally. And because of the fact that Al Jazeera has no position or no policy towards any subject, I mean we deal with news of the Intifada, for instance, or the Palestinian uprising, and so on. But we don't make judgment about it. We present our audience with the facts as we see them. We present them, we tell them that this is happening. This is what is happening, and it is up to them to make their own decision. Based on these sort of principles if you like. I don't think we need to keep on saying, "Ah, now because the Egyptian government criticized us, or the Jordanian, or the Algerian, or the Libyan, or the Sudanese, and so forth, we need to adjust the way we work." That is not our method, because if we do so that means we are toeing the line of the official government and policies and so on. And we would have lost some of our principles as it were. And this [is] not the style of Al Jazeera.

Q: It seems interesting to me, and I think a lot of Americans don't realize, that Al Jazeera has been banned from operating in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Sometimes Americans tend to think of the Arab world as sort of monolithic. There's the Arab world, and they're all the same and they're unified, but in fact there are lots of fault lines and cracks and fissure in the Arab world. Why are you banned in all these different countries?

Azar: Well, in fact, I spent 31 years working for the BBC Arabic service in London. First for the radio and then the TV operation. And we realized that at times when passion is high, at times of crisis, we find that people's sensitivity becomes very heightened. And whenever there is a problem, if we report that problem, you will find that one side of the issue is criticizing us and the other side is criticizing us. And therefore, we say always that we are doing well, actually, because we are antagonizing both sides of the argument. And this applies to Al Jazeera. Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Iran, we were banned in other Arab countries. For a while in Jordan, for instance, they closed down our office. But then they allowed us to go back and operate on the air. In Kuwait, only a few months ago, we were told that we can go back operating, which we do now in Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia we are still banned. In Iraq we can operate, but it isn't yet made official. These are different people, are all different countries and government and regimes with different philosophies—and sometimes opposing each other. And that tells us the same story—that we are doing good.

Q: Just because you're banned from operating there, doesn't necessarily mean that the public doesn't see you.

Azar: No, not at all. And they realize it. Because we can rely on agencies—agency reports. And we put the pictures with what other TV operations put out as well. This makes us a little bit uneasy because we do not have our own pictures, you see. This is not what we like to do—not rely on agency pictures to give to the audience—because they can see these pictures on other screens. But if our people are there, they get their own pictures, and they are on the spot, and it's is more reliable and more comforting for us as well.

Q: But even if you're banned in those countries, do the people in those countries still see Al Jazeera?

Azar: Yeah, of course. Al Jazeera is free to the Arab region and most countries all over the world if you have the technical equipment. If you have the satellite dishes and receivers, you can receive Al Jazeera perfectly all right. Even if we are not operating there.

"24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media" is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. The full program includes segments on Arab broadcast media, the regional perspectives on the rise of Arab media, Washington perspectives on the shifting Arab media landscape, and an essay by David Brancaccio on the influence of satellite television on Arab society. Exclusive interviews with Al Jazeera senior anchor Jamil Azar, US Central Command's Media Engagement Team, senior CNN correspondent Jane Arraf, and Professor Ramez Maluf of the Lebanese American University are also available.