“Hello, this is Al Jazeera”

When the TV news channel Al Jazeera was launched in 1996, Arab potentates were shocked and the people in the streets were thrilled. Today, Al Jazeera is playing in the same league as the BBC and CNN. Its Doha headquarters employs journalists from more than 60 countries, and thanks to petrodollars they work under conditions that others can only dream about.

Text: Peter Hossli Photos: Katarina Premfors

carlos_van_meekIt is cold in the desert. Carlos Van Meek uses a scarf to protect himself against the raw chill of the air from the a/c. «London, are you there?» are his opening words at this meeting. His accent is American. «We have two bombs in Beirut, whoever is responsible is pure speculation.»

It is 1 p.m. on the outskirts of Doha in the Emirate of Qatar on the Persian Gulf. The day’s managing editor, Van Meek, 45, keeps a tight rein on the midday meeting at the news channel Al Jazeera English. Taking part via videoconference are colleagues from London and Sarajevo. The  meeting’s pace is as fast as the concentration level is high. Van Meek quickly reports the known facts. Beirut: Twenty-two dead, including Iran’s cultural attaché; probably car bombs.

And here’s how the story is supposed to run: «Zena is on the ground in Beirut, Soraya reports from Teheran. We need reactions from the Saudis, the Qataris, from the entire region.»

It is an important story, he says, and relates why: «The civil war in Syria is spilling over into Lebanon.» A female colleague interrupts: «All this is very complex, how do we explain it?» Van Meek knows how: «Slowly, carefully, in clear and simple English.»

He is an American from Miami, who has been working for Al Jazeera since 2006. «Because we still want to explain the world,» he says. «Hardly anybody else is doing this today.»

aljaeera3Al Jazeera was launched in 1996, at first only in Arabic. It was to be an objective voice in a world full of censorship, providing a forum for all opinions.

Today, Al Jazeera – in English: «The Island» – is considered «the most successful Arab project in the past twenty years,» says Mostefa Souag, Al Jazeera’s Director General. 220 million households in more than 100 countries receive the channel. Journalists and producers from more than 60 countries work in Doha alone. In 2006 Al Jazeera Arabic was joined on the air by Al Jazeera English. In summer of 2013 Al Jazeera America was launched in New York.

The traffic in the wide yet congested streets of Doha is trudging ahead at a leisurely pace. Wind is blowing up desert sands. The city appears to be one huge building site. Some quarters looks as derelict as Beirut, others glitter like Dubai.

The neighborhood surrounding Al Jazeera’s headquarters, far from the glassy skyscrapers of the city center, feels inhospitable. Behind the heavily guarded gates lies a parking lot, covered with flysheets to keep cars cool in the blistering summer heat. Satellite dishes powdered with fine sand loom against the sky behind high fences. Two nondescript buildings stand across from each other: one of them houses Al Jazeera Arabic, the other Al Jazeera English – two worlds that belong together, yet are very different.

aljazeera_arabicThe offices of the English-language channel feel tidy and quiet, their Arabic counterparts lively and loud. The English cafeteria serves better food, they say, but the Arabs crack smarter jokes. On both sides journalists turn up to work in jeans or suits, there are men wearing dishdashas, the traditional white garment, and women with their hair covered.

It is shortly before 10 a.m. The middle of the brightly lit newsroom of Al Jazeera English is occupied by the news anchors’ desk, close to the team of managing editor Van Meek. Sue Turton takes a final peek into the mirror, adjusts her hair and make-up and checks the text on the teleprompter. At her back is a moving map of the world. «Quiet, please!» a female producer calls, «we go live in twenty seconds.» Clocks show the time in Washington and London, in Doha and Kuala Lumpur.

Five, four, three, two, one. The red light is on. «Hello, this is Al Jazeera, I’m Sue Turnton, and this is today’s news.» With British precision she announces reports from Chile and Russia, from the Philippines and the U.S.A.

al_ansteyWhat feels as big as a basketball arena is actually the office of Al Anstey. The walls are hung with monitors. All of them are showing news. For three years now this stately Briton has been managing director of Al Jazeera English. He raves about his editorial staff. «No other network is as international as we are.» He sprawls in his comfy leather sofa. «Diversity is our strength. For each story we have somebody in Doha who relates to it.» While all other media are cutting back, Al Jazeera is still expanding. « We can still afford to go out there and tell each story that matters.»

This is the main reason why Anstey left the British channel ITN to join Al Jazeera. He explains how he once was in Bangladesh filming a catastrophic flood which left hundreds dead. No-one at ITN in London was interested, however, «because there was no connection to England.» Al Jazeera is different. « We have a more global approach, and we don’t care where a story happens, if it’s good, we do it.»

He is driven by skepticism, as are his journalists. «Here, we question everything.» Still, a certain stigma attaches to the channel. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Al Jazeera fell into disrepute. Arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden sent video messages to Doha. Al Jazeera broadcast them.

During the war in Iraq in 2003 Al Jazeera showed stray U.S. missiles killing Iraqi civilians. «Al Jazeera promotes terrorism,» U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld raged.

aljazeera1Today, such reservations have disappeared, managing director Anstey maintains. Only recently, Hillary Clinton praised Al Jazeera for broadcasting «real news» – unlike U.S. channels. Within the Arab world, the channel was in fact «king», the U.S. Secretary of State claimed.

That is a sensitive issue in Doha, especially since the Arab world has fallen into turmoil. Al Jazeera is said to have helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. «The Arab spring obviously is a massive story,» says Anstey. « We didn’t start it, but we influenced the debate about it in the entire world.»

After the 2011 uprising in Tunisia, some 50,000 Egyptians spoke out against Mubarak on Facebook. Journalists in Doha saw this – and reported it. They also broadcast reactions to these stories from people all over the Arab world. «We highlighted a dynamic that was already there.»

You need to cross the street to get to the newsroom of Al Jazeera Arabic. Men in dishdashas are sitting in the control room. Editorial offices and newsspeakers’ desk are separate, as it would be too loud to have everyone in the same room. Arab journalists are animatedly discussing politics. «Politicis is much more important to our lives than to people in the West,» says Rawan Al-Damen, 34. She runs Al Jazeera Arabic’s documentary film department. «The question of who is minister of education will decide whether your kids may go to school or not. In the West everyone goes to school.»

rawan_damenShe shares her windowless office with six colleagues – from Morocco and Iraq, Jordan and Great Britain, including Muslims and Christians. «I’m a Palestinian,» says Al-Damen. She came to Doha in 2006, «because I always wanted to work for a pan-Arabic network.»

Only when she got here did she discover the secret of Al Jazeera. «Nobody interferes, you have total control, and they have a high budget for documentaries.» She says something that Western journalists hardly ever say about their employers anymore: «Al Jazeera is successful because of its high editorial level and its budget. If you lose one of them, there will be no Al Jazeera.»

Just how independently can she work, though? Critics dub Al Jazeera a Muslim mouthpiece with which the Emir of Qatar spreads his own political views. «Those prejudices are wrong,» says Al-Damen. «I never in my life got a single phone call from my boss to interview somebody. At the moment this will happen I will resign.»

aljazeera_tvWorking under such privileged conditions brings a great responsibility, she feels. Al-Damen cites the example of coverage of the politically fraught conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Her trick is to let Israeli historians who are critical of Israel’s settlement policies speak.

A solution to the eternal conflict in the Middle East is hardly imaginable for her, not least because of the Arab media. «We need to change the reporting, the let’s-cry-together-about-Palestine,» Al-Damen says. « Let’s have the success story, and the happy story about Palestine.»

Can she assert herself in her job? «Females are anchors, and normally not field directors,» she admits; Al Jazeera works like many other TV stations around the world in this respect. «As a woman, as a filmmaker, you need to work three times as hard than others.»

Adrian Finighan, 49, lounges in his chair. This Al Jazeera English news anchor won’t be going on the air for another five hours. He spent seventeen years as a presenter with the BBC, five with CNN. He did a bit of PR work, and then the offer from Doha came in. «No presenter in their right mind would turn it down,» says this Brit.

adrian_finighan«CNN is putting less money in its programming, the BBC has limited funds, we don’t have the same commercial constraints.» For any story, reporters can hop on a plane. Three teams covered the typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Like everyone else, Finighan works for four days and then has four days off. He is not the only TV star to come to Al Jazeera from a big U.S. broadcaster. High salaries lure experienced journalists to Doha. They don’t pay any taxes. On the other hand they are a bit lonely. Like many Western journalists, Finighan lives in Qatar, but his wife and children don’t. «We couldn’t find the right schools,» he says. He often flies to London, home to his family.

The money for Al Jazeera comes from the earth. Qatar is a peninsula on the Persian Gulf and at 4,500 square miles covers roughly a quarter of the surface of Switzerland. After World War II it had a population of barely 20,000, only few of whom could read or write. Today there are 200,000 Qataris – and 1,9 million foreign workers. There is plenty of oil beneath the sand and a lot of natural gas under the ocean floor. These natural resources have made the Emir of Qatar one of the richest men in the world. His sovereign wealth fund has invested more than 100 billion dollars abroad, in Volkswagen, for example, in London’s Heathrow Airport and in Credit Suisse.

sue_turtonHow much he actually spends on Al Jazeera is a closely guarded secret. Does he who pays the piper call the tune? Finighan demurs. «If Al Jazeera was biased I wouldn’t be here,» the presenter says. «I have a reputation to protect.»

The money is a curse as well as a blessing. «Not needing to make a profit is nice for journalists,» he says. «But it’s also dangerous that we don’t have the pressure to chase an audience. Sometimes, necessary changes are delayed.» On the visual level, the channel urgently needs to be made over and rejuvenated. The studio is too big, especially since people increasingly watch the channel on their smartphones. «It’s hard to see the presenter on a smartphone.»

This is is now supposed to be changed by Ramzan Al Naimi, Manager of the Creative Department. «2014 will be the creative year at Al Jazeera,» he says. Al Naimi, 33, is sitting in one of the few offices flooded with daylight, wearing a dishdasha, whose headdress he frequently adjusts with nervous gestures. On his desk is an Apple monitor; the walls are hung with portraits of Steve Jobs, Einstein and Matisse.

ramzan_al_naimiA Qatari, he has been with Al Jazeera for fourteen years, previously having studied in Cairo. He started out operating the teleprompter. Today he is in charge of 140 employees, from Hungary and England, the U.S. and Singapore, Malaysia and Palestine. One graphic designer is from Sudan. «Many of our talents used to be journalists,» he explains. «They know the news business.» They develop and refine the look of Al Jazeera, phrasing headlines, choosing pictures, choosing the anchors’ outfits, their make-up and hairstyles.

As yet, Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic look quite different. Al Naimi wants them to move closer together and adopt the modern look of Al Jazeera America. «The design should be clear, clean and simple.» His model? Apple.

The midday meeting is coming to a close. The final topic is sports. «We could focus on France’s Soccer World Cup qualifying game tonight,» says managing editor Van Meek. «Should France not make it, we’ll go big,» he laughs.

He has no cause for glee, however. France wins and goes on to play in the World Cup. Al Jazeera merely reports the score.

Interview with Al Jazeera’s general director Mostefa Souag.


azad_essaTell Africa’s stories

Azad Essa, 31, has been with Al Jazeera for three years. He grew up in South Africa.

Azad Essa writes for the English-language website. Originally from Durban, he will wear jeans and a sweater one day and an ankle-length caftan the next.

He couldn’t establish himself as a journalist in his own country. «Everybody wanted the same stories over and over again. I couldn’t do that.»

Essa wanted to go further, to dig deeper in terms of content and to broaden his horizons. He started his own blog, blending journalism with sociology. His texts grew popular. A selection of his blogs was published in book form. That was the moment he applied to Al Jazeera – and got a job.

Here in Doha he found a media company for which he can report on all of Africa. «They send me wherever I want to go.» From Somalia and Kenya he sent texts about the famines, from Congo he wrote about the civil war; he went to Senegal to cover the elections, and from Namibia he reported on a disastrous drought: «Nobody else was interested in that.»

aljazeera4Sitting at a computer on the second floor of Al Jazeera English’s editorial offices in Doha, he is teaching the ropes to two new employees, a man and a woman from Canada. His other colleagues are from Iran and the U.S., from Somalia, Pakistan and India, from England and Georgia. A great advantage, says Essa. «At Al Jazeera people are coming from those places, you can’t be talking about a story as an outsider.»

This is a huge help to him as a journalist. «All your misconceptions about foreign countries are always being challenged. You can’t get away with anything,» says Essa. «Before Al Jazeera puts it on the air, somebody is bound to challenge it.»

For Essa, Doha is «a strange place, a cultureless place, just money, it requires a lot of effort to dig into the society.» He is mainly here to recuperate from his assignments. « For people like me it’s a place to rest and recharge, and then leave again.»

In any case, he will want to go back to South Africa one day. «I want to take what I have learned here, the experience at Al Jazeera, and go back home.»