Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940 - 959)


Mr Mostefa Souag, Mr Mohammed Chebarro and Mr Ian Richardson

  Q940  Chairman: 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.

  Q941  Chairman: You do not regard yourself as an instrument of propaganda?

  Mr Souag: Absolutely not; actually it is exactly the opposite.

  Q942  Chairman: 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.

  Q943  Chairman: 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.

  Q944  Chairman: Do you not have an editorial policy of any kind on, say, the coverage of Iraq?

  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 the people.

  Q951  Chairman: You do not think you are doing the terrorists' work by showing this?

  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 Israel?

  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.

  Q957  Chairman: 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 that?

  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 soon.

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