Al Jazeera English is ready for broadcast in Canada thanks to a CRTC decision last November, which heralded the network's arrival as "increasing [the] diversity of editorial viewpoints in the Canadian broadcasting system." While the English network garners lavish praise, gay activists say its Arabic sister network does a poor job of reporting on queer issues.
Al Jazeera is based in Doha, Qatar — making it the only global news service with headquarters in the Middle East.
When Al Jazeera Arabic was started in 1996, it created a paradigm shift in news reporting in the region--what media analysts dubbed the "Al Jazeera effect." Hossein Alizadeh, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), says: "Before Middle Eastern media covered the news of dignitaries and courts. Al Jazeera revolutionized reporting by providing people on the street space to talk of more serious issues."
While Al Jazeera liberalized media in the Middle East by giving voice to the voiceless and providing an unprecedented grassroots perspectives on political, social and economic issues, it produced a different kind of "Al Jazeera effect" in the West. It distinguished itself with its fearless, independent coverage of wars and occupations in the Middle East. Instead of embedding with invading forces, as did most Western corporate media outlets, Al Jazeera offered an alternative perspective by covering wars from behind civilian lines. It provided a focus on civilian deaths in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the bombardment of Fallujah in Iraq, and what it called "the war on Gaza." To its credit, unlike North America's media, Al Jazeera did not act like a megaphone for the Bush Administration's call for war in Iraq.
In 2007, Al Jazeera added a sister channel, Al Jazeera English, to its network--the channel that is now unconditionally approved as an "eligible service" in Canada (Note that in 2004, Al Jazeera Arabic was approved to broadcast in Canada but the CRTC attached stringent conditions rendering it unattractive for cable companies to carry the Arabic news channel). Today, Al Jazeera English provides strong competition to CNN International and BBC World News with its global South perspective, something which is often missing in North American media.
"I feel Al Jazeera English is a reliable source of information, and I think what they are offering is a perspective from the Middle East region, but the professionalism of the reports, including on [lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans] topics, has global standards," says Alizadeh. "Al Jazeera English is competing in Europe with the BBC, CNN, and the Russia Today 24 news channel, yet it manages to stay competitive. It is offering something."
Asked what Canadians can learn from watching Al Jazeera English, El-Farouk Khaki, the grand marshall of Pride 2009 in Toronto, says it opens up perspectives we might not get otherwise. Khaki says, "a diversity of opinion is always important. Muslims are often seen as a monolith. Anything that diversifies that image is important." Khaki hopes Al Jazeera will further open up those diverse images within Canada and in geopolitical South.
A veil of secrecy also surrounds queer Muslim issues in the West, according to Khaki. "What we suffer from is invisibility in Canada within the larger Muslim community. Some of the more traditional, conservative groups do not recognize our existence."
With the opening of a Canadian bureau Khaki hopes AJE will help break the wall of silence and invisibility in the West. "It should not only cover queer issues ‘over there' in India, but also feminist and queer Muslim issues in the West."
Al Jazeera English regularly reports on gay issues. In recent months, its coverage included:
- segments about the gruesome murders of close to 100 gay men by al Mahdi Shi'ite militias in Iraq in 2009
- the killing of gay youths in a Tel Aviv club last summer, and
- India's court decision to decriminalize gay sex.
Extremist religious viewpoints are expressed on Al Jazeera Arabic's religious talk show 'Shariah and Life.' A number of participants who regularly contribute to Al Jazeera Arabic make negative comments about homosexuality but appear on the channel again and again, he says. This includes Yousef al-Qaradawi, a prominent scholar who is on every other week. While Alizadeh says the cleric has offered some progressive views such as "discouraging government monitoring of citizen behaviour, the right of people to commit sin and the right to privacy," he also promotes anti-gay views — in line with orthodox Islam.
"Al Jazeera and any other network operating in the region," says filmmaker Parvez Sharma, "are very uncomfortable talking about homosexuality in any honest and open way." Al Jazeera Arabic "offers an orthodox religious viewpoint which mirrors any Christian, evangelical website. Expect religious extremism in any religion to present viewpoints that are negative on gay people. What happens in the media is a mirror."
Alizadeh suggests that most Middle Eastern media use negative language in reports about homosexuality. For instance, media in the Middle East tend to frame it as a personal scandal if an actor is gay and claim that homosexuality is a Western conspiracy designed to undermine the social fabric of the Arab world.
Brian Whitaker, a Guardian reporter and the author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, writes in the book: "While clerics denounce it as a heinous sin, newspapers, reluctant to address it directly, talk cryptically of 'shameful acts' and 'deviant behaviour.'"
Whitaker says that when gay issues are mentioned in Middle Eastern newspapers, the focus is typically on same-sex marriage in the West. Moreover, the falsely framed "Western otherness" of homosexuality "can be readily exploited to whip up popular sentiment."
"Al Jazeera English is different," says Parvez. "Its mandate is to project a secular, modern image of the Arab world. In doing that it has a completely different management." The English channel has to compete for a global audience that is more tolerant of homosexuality than the current Middle East. Al Jazeera English, in all fairness, Alizadeh agrees, is a different entity. "They have a different viewership and a different editorial team. The only thing in common is the name and the financial sponsor."
But the Arabic and English channels share the Doha headquarters, and--at the end of the day--that is where the shots are called for issues that are controversial in the Middle East. The limitations in Al Jazeera English's coverage of the struggle for gay rights were in evidence in 2008 when the US bureau of Al Jazeera English wanted to do a show with Parvez Sharma on his documentary film Jihad for Love about the coexistence of Islam and homosexuality. The US bureau of Al Jazeera English tried to arrange an interview with Sharma on the popular Riz Khan show. Sharma says, "A lot of communication went back and forth between the Washington bureau and Doha. The management in Doha killed the story. It turned out to be too controversial for AJE to have my participation."
Al Jazeera English is the world seen through secular Arab eyes, but it nonetheless "draws lines," says Sharma. "There are degrees of comfort. Talking to me is too controversial because a) I'm gay and b) I'm Muslim. Talking about news events is okay because it comes under the rubric of news. I'm too controversial. If I was a news story. If something happened to me, then they would cover it."
"The idea of gay pride doesn't work in the Middle East. There's an absence of language [for homosexuality], and not much organizing around political identities. If there's gay sex, it is not to be discussed. Even talking about straight sex in public is frowned upon. There are lines around morality that are clearly drawn."
Interestingly Al Arabiya--a news service sponsored by Saudi Arabia--interviewed Sharma on his film Jihad for Love in Arabic. A US based Al Arabiya reporter did a positive story on homosexuality. Within a few hours 500 comments were posted on its website--mostly negative.
Both Alizadeh and Sharma say that Al Jazeera English will address the human rights angle and and broadcast news on LGBT issues only when it is a major news story of the day. Many Al Jazeera reporters used to work for the BBC, CNN, and CBC (including the current head of the global news service--Tony Burman). "They are professionals who do care about the issue. Their values may not be shared by many in the Arab public but they feel it is important to cover gay rights issues," Alizadeh says.
The persecution of Iraqi gay men became an important news story this year. The brutal torture and killing of gays began after the 2003 invasion--highlighting the disturbing relationship between American imperialism and the rise of religious extremism in the Middle East--when militias engaged in targeting killings and encouraged so-called "honour killings" by family members. For example, Human Rights Watch reported that a husband killed his lesbian wife with impunity. Under Saddam Hussein, LGBT people were basically left alone; the state was secular, and the regime did not tolerate extra-judicial killings.
Last year, the situation worsened for gay men, especially. In April, Al Arabiya (a network set up by Saudi Arabia to compete with Al Jazeera) broke the story and then it appeared on CNN and the BBC. Human Rights Watch released a harrowing report in August 2009 called They Want to Exterminate Us. Hossein Alizadeh says, "Nobody knew the depth of the atrocities. The current Iraqi government takes no measures against the militias and family members committing so-called 'honour' crimes. The government wants to walk away. International pressure forces them to investigate. There is a pattern: as soon as the government intervenes, the level of violence decreases. The interior ministry in Iraq was involved in the torture and killing of gay men."
Yanar Mohammed, a Canadian-Iraqi feminist leader and co-founder of the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq, was the person who blew the whistle on the persecution of gay men in Iraq. She is critical of the lack of coverage of feminist and queer issues on Al Jazeera Arabic. While the story on persecution of gays in Iraq was reported on Al Jazeera English, Mohammed says she did not see any coverage on Al Jazeera Arabic. Mohammed says the Arabic network has kept a distance from her and her organization since 2004 when she expressed concern about the demise of Iraq's secular state and the negative impacts of Islam on women's rights.
"They do not like to acknowledge there is a gay and lesbian issue in the Arab world," says Mohammed. The Al Jazeera Arabic channel is "based on Islamic ideology" and "reflects an Arab macho mentality," she says.
The US bureau of Al Jazeera English covered the story following the release of the Human Rights Watch report. To be fair, Alizadeh says Al Jazeera is banned from operating in Iraq [except the Kurdistan region]. Sharma argues, it covered the story "because it is a news event. It was covered by all media including mainstream media. Al Jazeera English couldn't ignore it."
Alizadeh concludes, that the introduction of Al Jazeera English in Canada is good news for media democracy. "We have to hear other voices. That conversation leads to democratic participation of people and draws attention to issues not discussed like homosexuality. With its coming availability in Canada, now Al Jazeera English reporters know that they have an additional audience and have to cover gay issues in a way that is appealing to their viewers in Canada. I hope the same opportunity offers itself to other outlets from the Middle East. Opening up the market allows them to compete. Hopefully, issues that are taboo will get discussed."
Alizadeh articulates a view that underlines the essential role of a free press in effecting democracy and tolerance towards sexual minorities. "There are elements of culture that can't be challenged overnight. With the free flow of information, eventually an environment is created where LGBT people will be able to talk about their issues."
[In an interview, Abdur-Rahim Fuqara, Al Jazeera Arabic's Washington bureau chief, said: "We here in the US, we never had to cover homosexuality from any angle. I'm not sure what the station's editorial line is.... What I can do is speak to the headquarters in Doha [to find out] and see how they have covered issues when they have covered it." Fuqara did not respond to a request for another interview.]