Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940
WEDNESDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2005
Mr Mostefa Souag, Mr Mohammed Chebarro and Mr Ian
You model yourself on the BBC, do you think?
Mr Souag: I think so. From my own experience
in the BBC, we had the independence that we were hoping for, as
Arab journalists, we were looking for the freedom really to do
the job that, as professionals, we like to do, we found it there.
My experience with Al-Jazeera, which is about four years, I did
not start with Al-Jazeera from the beginning, is there is practically
more freedom and independence than the BBC itself.
You do not regard yourself as an instrument of propaganda?
Mr Souag: Absolutely not; actually it is exactly
Why do so many people disagree with you and feel so strongly about
Al-Jazeera, including the President of the United States, we gather?
Mr Souag: I hope he only disagrees and it stops
there and does not go beyond that. The point is that up till 2001
and even the beginning of 2002 Al-Jazeera was hailed as a beacon
of freedom of speech, of promoting freedom of the media and democracy
and all these things in the Middle East by the Americans. It was
mentioned even in some official speeches, here in England, in
the West, in general. The people we had a problem with were not
the western governments or the western media, whatever, we had
problems with Middle Eastern governments, with the Saudis, the
Egyptians, the Tunisians, etc., our offices were closed and some
places would not allow Al-Jazeera to operate.
Rather like Mr Richardson, in a different way?
Mr Souag: Yes, exactly, in a different way.
We had almost the same kinds of pressures, but Al-Jazeera could
support itself financially if the Saudis, for example, did not
prevent all the companies that have any connection to the Saudis
advertising on Al-Jazeera. We have big millions and millions of
possible sources cut from us just because of that. The problem
was with the Middle Eastern governments and that is because of
the freedom that Al-Jazeera provided as a platform for political
discussion, with the opposition as well as government people.
After what happened on 9/11 in particular, then in Afghanistan
and Iraq, etc., Al-Jazeera continued the same line, there has
been no change whatsoever, in its editorial stance, they were
still reporting the same thing: facts. Unfortunately, the Americans,
and maybe some other western governments, did not like that, they
wanted things to be hidden and Al-Jazeera was not going to obey
that kind of line, and therefore we got into this problem. When
you hear the President of the United States or the Secretary of
Defense, or whatever, saying that Al-Jazeera is provocative, is
this and that, of course a lot of people follow the same model
without even understanding what is going on in Al-Jazeera, without
even watching Al-Jazeera.
Do you not have an editorial policy of any kind on, say, the coverage
Mr Souag: We have an editorial policy. I am
sure that it is the same editorial policy that you will find in
the BBC, or whatever. I think we are a little bit more independent
than the BBC. Personally, I have noticed lately, in the last year
or so, that the BBC is not reporting everything that should be
reported. Al-Jazeera, for example, was reporting from Fallujah
when it was being bombed by the Americans, and it happened that
our reporter was inside and we were reporting from the inside
and the Americans were very angry specifically about that particular
thing. Most of the BBC people cannot actually go out and report,
I understand, it is a very difficult situation, or if you go out
and you go with the military, or guarded, embedded, you are not
going to report really what is going on, you are going to be one-sided,
in one way or another. I am not saying that the BBC does not want
to report what is going on there, it is just that there are limitations.
I think Al-Jazeera was doing a better job and that is the reason
why Al-Jazeera's offices were closed in Iraq and for about a year
and a half, or so, we were not allowed to work in Iraq.
Q945 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Are any of your bureaus closed at the moment?
Mr Souag: Many are not open. In Iraq we have
the office open again but very limited. In northern Iraq, for
example, in the area of Kurdistan, our offices were never closed,
so it was a question of covering the war, not covering Iraq, because
in that area it was fine with them. We do not have an office in
Algeria, for example. We had an office and it was closed because
of just one programme which criticised some of the ongoing policies
there. In Tunisia we are trying to establish a correspondent.
We had one reporting sports only, no politics. In many other places,
in Saudi Arabia, we do not have one. In Kuwait, lately, we were
allowed to open an office and in Bahrain just in the last six
months, or so.
Q946 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Have Saudi decided a position?
Mr Souag: No opening, not even for El Hajj pilgrimage,
we were not allowed to go there to cover that.
Q947 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Would you expect the BBC, if you think you are following an independent
and objective reporting policy, will suffer the same problem?
Mr Souag: It depends. If the BBC was going to
be as bold as Al-Jazeera in dealing with the issues that are there
and the problems that are there, probably the Saudis would take
some kind of action. I do not know how severe an action they would
take. They might deal with a British institution in a different
way than with a Qatari institution. There is competition there.
Qatar is a small country beside this huge country, there are the
politics beyond just the media that would be taken into consideration
by Saudi Arabia.
Q948 Lord King of Bridgwater:
The difficulty of having an objective, I am not quite sure what
your footprint is but Arab worldwide coverage is pretty real and
yours is only very partial coverage, is that right?
Mr Souag: I think it is, yes.
Q949 Lord King of Bridgwater:
You would not accept propaganda from governments, at Al-Jazeera,
would you, if they put out propaganda material?
Mr Souag: No. We have people probably who do
some propaganda but these are our guests. They can do and they
do propaganda but there are always people to respond to them.
In Al-Jazeera we have the opinion and the other opinion and we
try to bring more than one opinion.
Q950 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Obviously, it is very fresh in people's minds, because you have
accepted terrorist propaganda, yesterday, in publishing the pictures
of the kidnap victims taken by terrorists. Also you said you sell
footage to other companies. That has now been broadcast by other
broadcasters. Do you sell that footage to other broadcasters?
Mr Souag: There are two different issues here.
We have footage that can be seen in another television station.
If you find a buyer you can sell it. When it comes to what you
call this terrorist propaganda it is a different story. Most of
this so-called terrorist propaganda does not come only to Al-Jazeera.
Al-Jazeera put it on because we think that people have the right
to know and to see what these people are as they are. I think
people are intelligent enough to judge for themselves. If they
see somebody holding a gun against a hostage, you are presenting
that propaganda, you are giving them a platform, it is true, but
people understand a different thing from what they are saying.
They see what they are doing, the violence that they are doing,
so I think people are intelligent enough to understand. Our interference,
I believe, does harm the information that we strive to bring to
You do not think you are doing the terrorists' work by showing
Mr Souag: No. Actually, we think we are doing
exactly the opposite. By presenting them, you are giving people
the chance to see what is going on, what these people do and to
judge for themselves and they think they are wise enough and intelligent
enough to do that. We do not have to judge for them.
Q952 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Why do you think the terrorists give you the tapes?
Mr Souag: They do not give the tapes only to
us, they give other stations tapes.
Q953 Lord King of Bridgwater:
It does not matter how many stations they give them to, why do
you think they give them to you? Do you think they give them to
you because they want people to have an objective view of what
is going on, or they have a message that they want to convey which
they think is effective?
Mr Souag: I do not know what the reason is.
Again, if we go back to the beginning of this whole issue of broadcasting
tapes from terrorists, we know that CNN and other stations broadcast
bin Laden before we did. There were instances in which we felt
that parts, at least, of their tapes perhaps were not suitable
because maybe they were trying to say something and we tried not
to broadcast it, but later on we found out that CNN was broadcasting
it over there in America, in more than one case.
Q954 Lord Kalms:
Is it possible, do you think, for a broadcaster in the Middle
East to give an unbiased, balanced view of the Israeli/Palestinian
problem? Do you have an office in Israel, or Jerusalem, and can
any organisation, because it is not your organisation we are concerned
about, it is the BBC, give a balanced reportage of the conflict?
Mr Souag: I think, in every situation like the
Palestinian/Israeli issue, it would be very difficult to find
anybody who would be completely neutral. We are human beings,
we have our feelings and everybody has to bring in some of these
feelings, regardless of how objective you want to be. However,
as a television channel that strives to bring an objective picture
of what is going on, we do something different, actually we do
what the BBC does, we bring more than one party to talk about
the issue. For the first time, clearly after the BBC Arabic Television,
an Arab television station brings Israelis to speak, to be interviewed
directly on Al-Jazeera. When we brought these people, everybody
said that Al-Jazeera was created by Mossad, by the CIA, etc.,
because we brought in these people directly. We were talking about
the propaganda, talking about bringing bin Laden, or other people,
Saddam Hussein, or whoever, in the old days; at the same time
we bring George Bush 10 times more than we do other people. George
Bush has been on Al-Jazeera for full-length speeches for hundreds
and hundreds of hours, because that is what we do. We try to bring
to the people what is going on, translated instantly, more than
in CNN, by the way.
Lord Maxton: That is the equivalent of putting
the terrorists on.
Q955 Lord Kalms:
Do you have an office in Israel; do you have representation in
Mr Souag: Yes, we have, in Jerusalem, in Romallah,
in Gaza, and we have four or five offices there and they work
with the Israelis.
Q956 Lord Kalms:
With no restrictions?
Mr Souag: There have been some restrictions
by the Israelis on the movement of our reporters now and then.
Quite often our reporters were seriously harassed or frightened
or threatened. At one time, one of our reporters was told by an
Israeli soldier "If you don't move away I will make you urgent
news on Al-Jazeera, because that's what we do, urgent news, you
know, that means we will kill you." It happened more than
one time, but still, more or less, they can move and they can
report as much as can be done in that kind of very fragile situation.
Mr Chebarro, you have been sitting there very patiently for the
last half-hour and we are going to bring you in at this particular
point. Before we leave Al-Jazeera, could I ask just one factual
question, what are your audience figures, how do you estimate
Mr Souag: I do not take seriously statistics
from the Middle East, to tell you the truth, that is why I do
not want you to take them seriously, but the figures that are
usually stated are between 50 million and 75 million, most people
stick with about 50, 55 million.
Q958 Lord Kalms:
For which countries?
Mr Souag: The Middle East, in the Arab areas,
North Africa and even in the West, the Arabs, the people who can
actually understand Arabic and watch Al-Jazeera.
Q959 Lord Maxton:
You did mention briefly that in one country you were allowed to
show only sport, is that right? Does that mean you have got more
than one channel; you have got several?
Mr Souag: Yes. Now we have Al-Jazeera News Channel,
news and programmes, we have Al-Jazeera Sports 24 hours, we have
Al-Jazeera Children and we are going to have Al-Jazeera English