Matchbox’ that speaks volumes to 35m Arabs

IRAQ WAR
ARAB PERSPECTIVE

BASED in the emirate of Qatar, quite some distance south from where the war is exploding in Iraq, I found myself at the centre of a different sort of action yesterday – the battle for hearts and minds.

I visited a small office in an unassuming single-storey building 10 minutes’ drive from my hotel.

A debonair man clutching a prayer bead greeted me and introduced himself as Jihad Ali Ballout. Then I peered into what I realised was the epicentre of the force influencing not just the Arab-speaking world’s view of the war, but the West’s as well.

This was the newsroom of the famed Al-Jazeera television station, broadcasting to 35 million Arab-speaking viewers around the world and stirring up a hornet’s nest in Washington with harrowing pictures of child casualties and frightened US prisoners of war.

Talk about the mouse that roared. This place was tiny. Fifty-five computer terminals were squeezed into a rectangular area no larger than an HDB flat.

Thirty journalists banged away at keyboards with Arabic characters, reading their screens from right to left.

Some were in Western business suits, others wore traditional garb such as flowing white robes or, in the women’s case, headscarves.

Most were too busy to look up at the guy in navy blue from The Straits Times.

Those who did seemed sociable enough. I noticed that unlike my own newsroom, no one was eating, nor was there any food table in evidence.

Mr Ballout told me that Al-Jazeera employs 170 Muslim journalists.

While I wondered how they could all squeeze into that small newsroom, I recalled how an Al-Jazeera correspondent had once highlighted the diversity of the Arab world at the TV station: ‘Jordanian and Lebanese journalists, Moroccan producers, Syrian talk-show hosts, Iraqi translators, Algerian fixers, Sudanese librarians, Palestinian secretaries and Qatari executives all speak together in Arabic.’

Echoing that, 40 TV screens in the newsroom were tuned to stations across the Arab world – Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Abu Dhabi and the Beirut-based Al Manar – plus the West’s CNN and BBC.

At one end of the room were three broadcast studios from which voices burbled continuously as anchors read newscasts.

The cramped quarters were a contrast to the cavernous, multi-level media centre at Toa Payoh which houses The Straits Times.

When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Al-Jazeera several years ago, he asked: ‘All this noise comes from this matchbox?’

I ventured to ask Mr Ballout whether the ‘matchbox’ was lighting a flame to anger the Arab public rather than inform.

With the sigh of a man used to such questions – so many foreign correspondents are doing stories on Al-Jazeera that busy editors appointed him its spokesman – he spun his usual line: The TV station’s main aim was ‘to report and present the facts’.

Each story for broadcast was weighed in at least three editorial meetings every day, he said.

He acknowledged that there were different schools of thought about airing images of the dead. But he noted: ‘It is newsworthy. It is indicative of the way the conflict is taking shape.’

Also, if the channel failed to broadcast such images, it would be criticised for failing to portray the reality of war.

That drive to develop an Arab voice was reflected in a poster I saw in the newsroom.

It asked: ‘If everybody watches CNN, what does CNN watch?’

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