[On the one hand I am pleased that my unit at UCLA provided a platform for distinguished journalist Omar Al-Issawi to present Al Jazeera's viewpoint in the United States, a fairly rare event only two years after 9-11, in a period when George W. Bush had threatened to bomb Al Jazeera's Qatar studios. On the other it is regrettable that they felt they had to balance Al Jazeera with the much less influential U.S. Arabic language Radio Sawa. Omar Al-Issawi left Al Jazeera in June 2011 to join Human Rights Watch as Director of Advocacy and Communications for the Middle East and North Africa region. Norm Pattiz was a founder of Westwood One, perhaps the largest radio network conglomerate in the United States. He is currently a member of the UC Board of Regents and a prominent figure in the Democratic Party. --LE, 10/5/2011]
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Al Jazeera founder Omar Al-Issawi describes the Middle East's most dynamic television station, Norm Pattiz reports on America's new radio outpost in the Arab world.
By Leslie Evans
[Omar Al-Issawi, founder of the influential Qatar television station and satellite news network Al Jazeera, joined California broadcast magnate Norm Pattiz, who has led in the recent creation of a chain of U.S. government FM radio stations in several Middle Eastern countries, for a discussion of "Media in the New Middle East" at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management October 30. The wide ranging examination of the role of Al Jazeera, the U.S.-backed Radio Sawa, and state-run radio and television in various Arab countries was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. The discussion was moderated by Geoffrey Garrett, director of the Burkle Center and vice provost of the UCLA International Institute. The program was part of UCLA's ongoing commitment to providing a forum for the wide range of views on key international issues for the campus community and beyond. Because of the great interest in the subject and the speakers we are providing a full transcript of the event, beginning with Geoffrey Garrett's introduction of the speakers.]
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[Welcomes the audience, then introduces the two speakers.]
This is Omar Al-Issawi's first speaking tour in the United States. He was born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents, and he attended college in Iowa and Virginia. He is one of the original creators of Al Jazeera, the satellite news operation serving the Arab world, and he continues to be both a reporter for the network and a producer of television content, including a large documentary series for the network. Mr. Al-Issawi worked previously for the BBC and has covered events as far flung as Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Croatia. He has developed a reputation for hard hitting, hard nosed but dispassionate reporting. And as a result he has garnered several accolades in mainstream American media. I would just like to give you some of them. The first is that he has become a regular contributor, interviewee I guess, on the Larry King Live show, an extraordinarily important disseminator of information in the United States. According to a recent New Yorker profile, Al-Issawi has become something of a celebrity, "emerging as one of the more eloquent and cool headed commentators on the Middle East." Newsweek said "he has quickly become a respected source of information for Western reporters and a very popular interviewee. The White House has been watching Al-Issawi closely." I'll leave it to him to tell us exactly what that means, and how he feels about it, but I am sure there is a way to deconstruct that sentence, the White House has been watching you closely.
Our second guest, to his left, is Norm Pattiz . Norman J. Pattiz is the founder and chairman of Westwood One, which is America's largest radio network company. It owns, manages, or distributes NBC Radio Network, CBS Radio Network, the Mutual Broadcasting System, CNN Radio, and Fox Radio News. In addition, Norm is a committed supporter of education. Most notably in this venue I think we should all recognize that Norm serves as a dedicated and very engaged regent of the University of California. But there are at least two other strings to Norm's bow. First, I think he is in some informal sense an honorary member of the Los Angeles Lakers family. And given that it is a family that seems to be having some internal squabbles at the moment I'm thinking that being a member of the family is an honor that brings with it some considerable responsibilities.
In addition to that, Norm has come to play in the last few years an extraordinarily central pro bono role working with and for the American government in the area of international media. In May 2000 Mr. Pattiz was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. And he was then reappointed by President Bush in September 2002. The BBG oversees all U.S. nonmilitary international broadcasting, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Worldnet Television, Radio and TV Marti, and Radio Free Asia. The services reporting to the U.S. BBG provide programming in over 60 languages to over 100 million people outside the United States. Within the BBG, Norm serves on its executive committee, he is chairman of the Middle East committee, and he is cochair of the Language Review Committee. Most importantly for today, I think, he spearheaded the creation of the BBG's new Middle East radio network, Radio Sawa. And he is currently leading a development of a new U.S.-sponsored Arabic language satellite television channel that would be distributed throughout the entire Middle East. So I think it is fair to say that we have two of the best informed and most knowledgeable commentators on the new media in the Middle East that you could find. They are not only commentators, they are doers, so I will leave the stage to them so they can do it. Our first speaker will be Mr. Al-Issawi.
Middle East Media before Al Jazeera
Good afternoon, thank you very much indeed. I think when talking about the new media in the Middle East it is important to set the stage for that. The situation was, when I was growing up in Kuwait, but in Kuwait it was no different than in any other Arab country, there was the nightly news bulletin. And that was started with whatever the Emir, the president, the king, whoever, whatever the activities were that day. And then it progressed to crown prince and vice president, and then you had the interior minister, foreign minister, blah blah blah blah. And sometimes the news bulletins would go on for an hour of absolute nothing. And at the same time we were expected to believe what was said to us in those news bulletins.
We didn't have a choice. The only choice came from abroad, from the BBC. The BBC had the Arabic World Service Radio. The BBC was smart enough to realize in the 1930s, in the runup to World War II, the importance of launching an Arabic service radio. And so they launched the Arabic radio in order to combat Nazi incursions into the Arab world. And it was again left to the BBC to start the first independent broadcaster in Arabic television, back in 1994. I was part of that group. The agreement between the BBC and the Saudi satellite provider called Orbit was that Orbit would finance it while the BBC would maintain editorial independence and integrity.
And so it went, until one day the government of the United Kingdom was trying to deport a Saudi dissident living in London, Mohammed al-Massari. I was instructed to go and interview the man. The instructions from our chief editor, a British national, were, you don't let him launch a diatribe against the Saudi government. You hear what he has to say about his case, because we can't go on air with unsubstantiated allegations. See, that is one important thing I learned at the BBC. There was a style and libel guide. So I interviewed the man, and limited his answers to the topic. But the end result was that Orbit broke the contract with the BBC and we ended up on the streets. Because that was not what was required in Saudi Arabia, to beam dissidents back to them.
An Invitation to Go to Qatar and the Dangers of Being a Journalist in the Arab World
During the period when this was going on, the Emir of Qatar issued a decree launching the Qatari news network, later to be called Al Jazeera, while we were still working for the BBC in that last year, in 1996. The Qataris made good use of our misfortunes, as employees of the BBC, and they offered us jobs. They promised that it would be exactly like the BBC. And so we went. We believed them. We took them at their word. And we went there. I'll get more into Al Jazeera in a while, but you might find some other details about Arab media interesting.
The press was also shackled, except in Lebanon there was a relative degree of freedom. And the Kuwaiti press was quite vocal at times. They would often, in collusion with the Kuwaiti parliament, force the government to resign, which is why parliament was dissolved. But that was about it, and even then there were limitations. There was a publisher of a Lebanese magazine called al-Hawadess . His name was Salim Al-Lawzi When the war in Lebanon broke out he felt he could no longer report from there, so he went to Paris. In 1981 he had to return to Lebanon on a family emergency. On his way back to the airport to head to France, his car was stopped. His wife and driver were let go. Salim Al-Lawzi disappeared for about ten days to two weeks, only to reappear as a body amidst some bushes. His writing hand had been almost skinned to the bone, either by the use of acid or by sharp instruments. And his body had been pierced in several places before being finished by a shot to the head.
Other journalists also paid with their lives in Lebanon. Other journalists throughout the Arab world are today in prisons. Because torture has become an art form. Torture is not only the preserve of the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein. It happens in all Arab governments. And journalists know that. And that is why we have very special welcoming ceremonies in whichever Arab airports we arrive at. They always take very good care of us. Make sure that we know we are not welcome. But, we go.
There is baggage that comes with this because you realize that when you go back to your home country, unlike Western journalists, Arab journalists don't have governments to back them up. If one of us disappears it is usually the work of our government. So nobody is going to try to find us or help us out. I have had colleagues at Al Jazeera who have gone back to their countries on summer vacation, and they were invited for coffee or tea at the intelligence headquarters. They were asked questions about what goes on at Al Jazeera, people, personalities. You know, to build up the files, because we have files everywhere. In terms of press freedom, most Arab countries are classified either as having noticeable problems or very serious problems.
The First Independent Arab Broadcaster
Al Jazeera is a breakthrough in the Arab world. It's the first independent Arab broadcaster to broadcast from within the Arab world. That was very very important. We are the first broadcaster to have the name of Israel on our maps. We get many complaints from viewers, asking us to remove the name Israel from our maps. But you see, we are not in this business to pull the wool over our people's eyes, as governments have done for so long. Because these same governments who claim that when they are talking about political negotiations they want UN Security Council 242 to be the basis of that, which recognizes the right of the state of Israel to exist, will not come out and tell their peoples that.
We do that, and that is why we also broke the mold and began hosting Israeli politicians, journalists, commentators. Which is why we interviewed former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. And which is why former minister Natan Sharansky [leader of the Russian immigrant party in Israel] was physically within our studios at Al Jazeera. Now we are accused of being agents for normalization with the state of Israel. And to us we will take those accusations, no problem. But we believe that we are in the business of dealing with facts. And reality. The dissemination of information, not hiding things.
The Osama bin Laden Tapes
Unfortunately Al Jazeera is best known for broadcasting Osama bin Laden's messages. And that is widely reported in the Western media. However, the Western media neglects to report that after such a message is broadcast, what we do is we have analysts and commentators come in and analyze, criticize, critique what has just been delivered on the air. Because it is important for our viewers to learn what the other side of bin Laden's argument is. Now thankfully after all of these messages, either by bin Laden or by his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri -- the last one of which by al-Zawahri was a call on Arabs and Muslims to hunt down Westerners wherever they may be, even at shopping centers, and to kill them in ones, twos, or threes -- nobody has taken them up on their word, because our viewers are more sophisticated and more intelligent and smarter than that.
But we don't believe in a blackout on bin Laden. We know that if we don't broadcast that, somebody else will. Because bin Laden is news and people want to know. But we have criteria, which is why we have an interview with bin Laden that has not been broadcast and will not be broadcast, because it was conducted by one of our staff, and we deemed his questioning of bin Laden not challenging enough. This was not the case of a tape being delivered to us. It was one of our own. This isn't recent by the way, don't think that we know something the rest of the world doesn't know.
The Photos of American Troops Killed in Iraq
We were criticized for broadcasting the images of the America KIAs and POWs during the Iraq war. I was reporting from the [U.S.] Central Command base that night. It was night time, at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar, and I was surprised to see them on the air. Nobody called up from our headquarters and said, these pictures are coming. And there they were. What I remember is, all of the world media was represented in that media center and everybody rushed into our tiny office, that tiny space. American networks, British, European, but it was mainly the Americans who were most interested. You know what their journalists did? They got paper and pen out and they started writing down: how many bodies, how many POWs, their names, their home towns. Nobody raised any ethical or moral issues about whether we should have broadcast these pictures. That was their immediate reaction, which was like ours, this is news.
We were accused of violating the Geneva Convention. Broadcasters don't violate the Geneva Convention, countries do. The graphic images? We weren't the first to broadcast such graphic images. When the Vietnamese police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed the Viet Cong captain in the middle of the street, those pictures went out to 20 million American viewers in 1968. The little girl running down the street with her skin peeling off as a result of the napalm bombing. It wasn't Al Jazeera that broadcast those pictures. We are not breaking any international protocol here.
Al Jazeera Airs Documentaries on the Holocaust
And at the same time, we broadcast lots of documentaries, historical documentaries. When masses of humanity were treated like trash in the Nazi concentration camps, we broadcast these pictures in documentaries for our people to see. Because that is the part of the world that we come from, that we live in. It's unfortunate, but it's a very very violent part of the world. The Americans remembers that 243 marines paid with their lives at the Marines barracks bombing in Beirut 20 years ago. 150,000 people were killed in the Lebanese war. When a car bomb goes off, we know what it means. When a bomb goes off in a movie theater with people sitting around, we know what it means. And that is why we broadcast these pictures.
Now, we are not infallible. We make mistakes, yes. But there is no malicious intent on our part. We are only seven years old. The BBC is 80. And look at how the BBC messed up in the weapons of mass destruction reporting. We come on with the 5 Ws of journalism [What, When, Where, Who, Why] and with an honest desire to maintain objectivity and professionalism. And we try as hard as we can. But it is really very very difficult. It's not just that the Americans criticize Al Jazeera. Our governments have sent delegations to Qatar, to the Emir, complaining about us. Which just makes us want to work even harder.
Programming for Women
We have a program that is dedicated to women. It is called "For Women Only." Female moderator, anchor; guests are women. And they discuss women's issues, issues like, should the woman be the sole breadwinner in a house? Actually that is a very very simple question to answer, because the Prophet Muhammad's first wife was his boss, she was his employer, he used to work for her. But unfortunately we are bogged down today in the Arab and Islamic world in arguments over things that really and truly hinder development. Which is why we try to do something different to what's been done. We have talk shows that bring people from the opposite ends of the political spectrum. And they go at it. And it's up to the viewer to judge. We have had people, Arabs, calling for American intervention and occupation of Arab countries because they think that Arab countries can change for the better that way. Arabs are saying that, and have said that.
There are people who came out in defense of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, just as people who opposed it on our screens, but it is important. This is the effect of Al Jazeera. It breaks this psychological barrier, to always have to look over your shoulder because somebody might hear what you are saying and you will get a knock in the middle of the night on your door and you might disappear for god knows how long.
We have been accused of being agents of Bin Laden and Saddam and the CIA and the Israeli Mossad and the Wahabis. As employees we don't make enough money to be agents of anyone.
That's why it's important to have more efforts in our business, to have competition. Other broadcasters are starting up now. Norm will tell you about Radio Sawa and what they do, but they also have a message. What they do is also very important, because it gives a voice to the people. A voice that hasn't been heard for decades. And that is what we also try to do, because ultimately it should be a message of enlightenment, not hatred.
Unfortunately, news is bad. It's not something that we control. We don't control the making of it. We are just in the process of reporting it. And in that very very difficult part of the world where we have no friends it gives us a greater incentive to work, because we know the risks of either losing your job or being imprisoned. It doesn't matter, because there are people who are dedicated. Because we know that an incident that takes place in one part of the world is no longer restricted due to boundaries and borders. The repercussions will be felt everywhere else, and that is why there is a very important need for communication. There is a program that goes out of Baghdad weekly, live, on Al Jazeera, where Iraqis are encouraged to come out and talk about the developments in their country. Not just about attacks and bombings and killings, no. they can go and discuss the things that are happening in Iraq. It's a live program.
There is a live program that goes out from Washington, weekly, in which Americans have a platform. And when our reporters were in Iraq during the war, yes, they reflected the Iraqi viewpoint, just as I reflected the American viewpoint from the Central Command base. That's what we were there to do.
I thank you for listening.
Nobody Listened to Voice of America's Arabic Short-Wave Radio
Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. And it's good to see Omar, who I met two and a half years ago when we were in Qatar talking with [Qatar Emir] Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani and also with the foreign minister and many others in the government about the idea of putting on an American Arabic language broadcasting service that people will listen to. The state of the art for us in the Middle East was that the entire commitment to broadcasting in Arabic to the Middle East until the advent of Radio Sawa was seven hours a day of Arabic language programming produced by the Arabic service of the Voice of America, distributed over short-wave that nobody listened to, and out of a very very weak medium wave signal out of the island of Rhodes which was only audible at night and then only most of the coastal areas of the Levant.
When I was appointed to the Broadcasting Board [of Governors] by President Clinton, I was in fact the only broadcaster who was on that board. The board was created in 1998 when the USIA, which used to oversee international broadcasting, was moved into the State Department. Congress created the Broadcasting Board of Governors on which I serve to oversee the broadcasting end of what was USIA, because they felt that broadcasting had a separate and distinct public diplomacy mission as opposed to what was going into the State Department. So they created the board. The board is composed of nine members: eight private citizens, all presidentially appointed and confirmed by the Senate. But private citizens. This is a part-time job. I have a full-time job, even though frankly my shareholders have been very helpful to me by not screaming and yelling about the fact that this part-time job has turned pretty much into a full-time job. But it is such an incredibly important job, and it is one that is so exciting and so vital and so interesting that it is something that I just could not say no to.
Our Mission Is a Journalistic Mission
The Secretary of State also serves as an ex officio member on the board and is generally represented by the undersecretary for public diplomacy. But one of the main reasons that the Broadcasting Board of Governors was created was that Congress in its wisdom wanted us to act as a firewall between the independence of our journalists and the pressures that might be put on us by the State Department, or the administration, or Congress, or whatever. Because the reality is that with international broadcasting around the world, and certainly being a U.S. sponsored broadcasting organization, the first thing that we have to get around is the fact that a lot of people just think of us as the mouthpiece for the United States government, when in fact our mission is a journalistic mission. Our mission simply stated is to promote and sustain freedom and democracy through the free flow of accurate, reliable, and credible news and information about America and the world audiences overseas.
In so many words, we are to be an example of a free press in the American tradition in many places around the world where there is no such thing. When the history of media is written there will be a large place in it for Al Jazeera. Because it was the first Middle Eastern broadcaster who broke the cardinal rule that one Arab country doesn't criticize another Arab country. Al Jazeera criticizes everybody. Everybody. Which is the reason why many times you will read where those of us in the trade will find out that a bureau has been closed down or a correspondent has been asked to leave the country, because, you know, government sponsorship of radio can work, but it can only work if the journalistic organization is allowed to have the integrity and the credibility to be believable. And once you don't have that you don't have any credibility and you don't attract an audience.
U.S. Propaganda Media in Iraq Has Been a Miserable Failure
There's a case in point right now. The U.S. efforts in broadcasting in Iraq. The television and radio efforts in Iraq are being overseen by the Defense Department, by the Pentagon. It's not an operation that has been given to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, even though I think that is about the change. But it has been a miserable failure. It has been a miserable failure because even with the best of intentions going into Iraq and trying to create a public radio-type scenario, using the journalists from the region, having it run primarily by Iraqis, for Iraqis, eventually to be given to Iraqis, it just hasn't worked out. Because what has happened is you are going into a country where there has been no press freedom for thirty, forty years. The journalists who were working for the Ministry of Information know how to do the kind of news and informational gathering that they did for the government. And that, of course, was going to cause immediate problems for the Defense Department people and for the Coalition people and for Bremer and his group that oversees all that.
So consequently the kind of programming that was put up was not the kind of programming that was viewed as being either reliable or credible or honest. And that whole operation just broke down to being perceived as the mouthpiece for Bremer and his group of people. You know, I think they had the best of intentions. But the problem is when you put broadcasting in places like the Defense Department or the CIA it not only has a negative effect on your ability to have any credibility. Those are organizations that are not journalistic organizations. They are not broadcast organizations. And their mission is not the same as ours. Their mission is more influencing than reporting the news straight up and letting the listeners or the viewers decide for themselves.
So consequently I think that it is in the new bill that is just coming out of the House and Senate and that will be signed by the president in fairly short order, the $87 billion. I am told there is another chunk of funding that is going to go to the Broadcasting Board of Governors for us to do a specific Iraqi stream of television programming which will be part of our Middle East television network but with roughly ten or twelve hours directed strictly to Iraq. And we anticipate getting the Middle East television network up at the end of January and the Iraqi broadcast stream right after that.
How I Came to Found Radio Sawa
Let me sort of tell you where I am coming from and why being the only broadcaster on the board has made some changes. I'm no longer the only broadcaster on the board. There are now other broadcasters on the board. But at the time that I came on, since I was the only broadcaster, they asked me to be the chairman of the Language Review Subcommittee, which is the committee that is mandated by Congress to annually determine how our resources are divided up among the 60 some odd languages that we broadcast in all over the world. And, you know, the information age has made it abundantly clear that priorities change all the time. So every year we take a look at the places where we need to put more of our focus. Well I told you what I discovered when I first came on the board about the abysmal amount of resources and the practically zero impact that VOA Arabic service was having at the time. When I reported that back to the board as part of my responsibilities in the Language Review Committee, the board said, you are absolutely right, congratulations Norm, you are now the chairman of the Middle East Committee, go fix it.
So within two weeks I was on a plane with my wife and a couple of staffers, and we visited many many countries in the region. It was a fact finding mission to find out what was possible. And where we could get access to twenty-first century transmission, not short-wave radio and things of that sort. And in going through the region we found that, certainly among the more moderate Arab governments, there was tremendous opportunity to get the kind of transmission resources that we need. We now have I think sixteen FM stations throughout the Middle East in places like Amman, which broadcast to Amman, the West Bank, and Gaza. We have an FM frequency in Ramallah. We are in Abu Dhabi, we're in Dubai, Bahrain, we're in Kuwait. We also have a new FM signal in northern Jordan that booms right into Damascus, and several others -- north Africa, in Morocco, and of course, now we have three FM stations that are broadcasting in Iraq, in Baghdad, Basrah, and in Mosul if I am not mistaken. We are a work in progress.
Market Surveys to Test the Potential Audience
Now, what is it that has made Radio Sawa so different from what U.S. international broadcasting has typically been? The main thing is that we use twenty-first century proven broadcasting techniques to put our radio station on the air. Which means that it is heavily researched. Before we ever did anything in the region we did a lot of research. We employed research companies and companies that one would use in launching a new radio or television station anywhere in the world. And when we got all the research back, we determined that [there was an] opportunity for us to have an impact, a significant impact, not reaching one or two percent of the audience, but the ability to reach ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty percent of audiences, and in some places even higher than that.
In the broadcasting business, which is my livelihood, when we do a survey to determine what we are going to program in a new TV or new radio station we look for the hole in the marketplace. Which means, where's the opportunity to present something that's not already presented? In many cases you just have to go in and be competitive with everybody who is already on in the market. But we go and we look for the opportunity. The opportunity: there was a hole in that marketplace that was big enough to drive a fleet of Mac trucks through. First of all, over 60 percent of the population in that region is under that age of thirty, and they were not being superserved by anybody, in the international media or the indigenous media. And the indigenous media, especially in radio -- not the case in television, where there are a lot of good things happening and there is a rich media environment, you know, Al Jazeera has spawned competitors who are making it a richer media environment -- but in radio everything was pretty dull and pretty drab, and it sounded like government radio. And people were interested in something that didn't sound like government radio, so we gave it to them.
An Arabic Pop Song Followed by a Western Pop Song
Radio Sawa is music driven; 75 percent of our programming throughout most of our program hours is music. Heavily researched music. We generally play and Arabic pop song followed by a Western pop song. And then we'll have news, five to ten minutes in length, twice an hour, with headlines at the top and bottom of the hour. And the wrap on Al Jazeera -- I keep giving you publicity here when I should be plugging my own thing. The wrap on Radio Sawa was, by the traditionalists in international broadcasting, well, they'll listen to the music but they won't listen to the news. Because the Arab street hates U.S. policies. The popularity of America is at an all-time low, which in fact it is. And they'll just listen to the music, they won't even care about the news.