It seems everyone is talking about Al Mayadeen, the latest brand to join the growing family of Arab satellite TV news channels. And no wonder, the company has deployed a major billboard campaign across Beirut, including the coveted and massive Airport Road spot, shown above. Al Mayadeen derives its title from the Arabic term “Midan” which roughly translates to public square as in Midan Al Tahrir. It can also be used to denote arena or battlefield– either way the title is definitely topical.
But with so many channels out there today, as discussed in my recent post on Sky Arabia’s launch last month, how will Mayadeen be different? If we are to judge it by the views of its chairman Ghassan Ben Jeddou, then the station will likely take a resistance supportive position, unlike most channels today which are supported by wealthy pro-Western monarchies. And unlike Al Jazeera, the channel will not conduct interviews with Israelis, Ben Jeddou said during Mayadeen’s first press conference. The former Al Jazeera talk show host, who quit the leading network last year–reportedly over disagreements over Syria coverage– has figured prominently in Al Mayadeen’s ad campaign, shown in the top billboard below:
But who paid for the campaign and who is funding the channel? I raised this question during an interview I did with Now Lebanon’s Shane Farrell, who said he’s had little help from the channel’s spokesperson in finding out.
While I don’t have any inside info on who is paying the bill, what I can offer is a bit more insight into Ben Jeddou and his politics. Below, I’ve posted an in-depth interview I conducted with the Tunisian Lebanese journalist following the 2006 war, where he had gained exclusive access to Hezbollah’s underground bunkers and its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah.
The interview was published in the wonderful, but short-lived Middle East Broadcasters Journal, for which I was managing editor.
BEN JEDDOU SPEAKS OUT ON NASRALLAH, THE WAR, AND AL JAZEERA’S ROLE
MIDDLE EAST BROADCASTERS JOURNAL, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2006
By Habib Battah The ‘Al Jazeera exclusive’ has almost become a given during times of war. So in the heat of this summer’s Lebanon-Israel conflict it seemed only natural to see Ghassan Ben Jeddou, Al Jazeera’s man in Beirut, seated across from Sayed Hassan Nasrallah despite a relentless barrage of Israeli missiles raining down across the country—many of them probably targeted at the Hezbollah leader himself. Seated in his sleek office near downtown Beirut, Ben Jeddou, who grew up in Tunis with a Lebanese mother, firmly believes the Israeli intelligence was out to kidnap him during the war.
He is frank about his fondness for the Jewish state’s number one enemy in Lebanon, but insists he can put those feelings aside as a journalist. His decision not to air certain videos taken during an exclusive visit to Hezbollah’s underground bunkers in south Lebanon, was done upon the request and not the insistence of the group, he says. Al Manar, the Hezbollah supportive TV channel, plays on one of three flat panel televisions in his office; LBC, the Lebanese channel most critical of Hezbollah, flashes on the other, while Al Jazeera runs on a third. Ben Jeddou—who was Al Jazeera’s Tehran bureau chief before the network was ousted from Iran in 2005—may be a rising star within the channel, but he was humble enough to set aside two hours for our discussion, despite having to pause briefly to deal with notes passed on to him during the interview. He discussed the gambit of issues facing the world’s most controversial news network, including what he thinks is behind the ‘Al Jazeera exclusive’ and his view of the much-anticipated Al Jazeera International, which he corrects me politely as “Al Jazeera English” despite a constant stream of press releases we receive from “AJI” that read otherwise. Before joining Al Jazeera in 1997, Ben Jeddou worked for the BBC as well the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper and a number of other Arab publications including a stint with the Arab Institute for International Studies in Washington.
The chipper 45-year-old says he enjoys good relations with America and disagrees with Hezbollah on its view of the US. As he walks me to the elevator at the end of the interview, he expresses some excitement about his next assignment which will be covering the US congressional elections in November. “The Arab Americans will honor me (with an award),” he says holding the door open with a smile.
Was it difficult to get an interview with Nasrallah during the midst of the war?
I actually made a request long before the war. I did not expect to get the interview once the war began due to security reasons and the great dangers posed to Nasrallah. Honestly, I had hoped for this interview and it happened that he chose me and Al Jazeera. This endangered my life and his.
So you were chosen?
They told me about the interview right on the spot. I was just sitting in my office when suddenly I was informed that I was going to interview Nasrallah and suddenly I was taken to see him. Then, suddenly I found myself back at my office. I don’t know where I went or how I got there.
You said that your life had changed after the interview with Nasrallah?
I learned that Israeli TV channels were broadcasting reports on me—channels 1,2,3 and 10. I was expecting the Israelis to do something to me since they believed that I knew where Nasrallah was, which is not true. Then I learnt that the Mossad was planning to kidnap me. We took precautions here at our Beirut Bureau, especially in light of the past bombings of Al Jazeera’s offices in Kabul and Baghdad. On a personal level, I have also taken security measures. I no longer drive my car or go to public places. I love the ocean and I used to go out and watch it every day. Now I can’t do that. It’s over. You see this couch? This used to be my bed, my living room. Take a picture of it. You know, I used to live in this office during the war. I ate one meal per day. I lost 15 kilos.
You hosted a show featuring Hezbollah’s underground bunkers in the South. Were you also chosen for this?
No, I made the request to produce this program, Hiwar Maftouh, which covered the battlefield and the Resistance. The underground sites were located in Aita Al Shaab connecting four homes of Hezbollah resistance fighters—not civilians. It is believed that the footage you captured is only a small part of Hezbollah’s infrastructure. That is right and the Israelis know that, so I did not uncover new information or reveal any locations to the Israelis. People may have considered my report to be a big deal, but it wasn’t really. Hezbollah still have a lot of things that they have not showed.
Will we see more reports on Hezbollah’s infrastructure?
The report was exclusive to Al Jazeera and there won’t be anyone else doing any such kind of reports. This is because Hezbollah is a very strict and committed party. UN Resolution 1701 forbids any appearance of resistance fighters or weapons in the South after the deployment of the Lebanese Army. I want to tell you something for the first time. I had taped other very interesting footage and interviews with the resistance fighters. But, Hezbollah did not want to give viewers the wrong impression through the appearance of Hezbollah armed fighters in their uniforms three weeks after the end of the war. Hezbollah clarified this issue and I respected their view and therefore, I avoided showing further tapes I already prepared so that people wouldn’t think that Hezbollah’s members and arms were still deployed in the South and thus violating 1701, which was not the case.
Were your questions pre-approved by Nasrallah?
Not at all. I didn’t even have the chance to prepare them. I started writing them as soon as I arrived and Nasrallah did not check them before the interview. Let me clarify one thing. Nasrallah is a decent and a respectful man and he respects journalists and he never asks for questions before interviews.
Do some of the leaders you interview ask for questions in advance? Yes many of them—Lebanese and others—but I refuse to provide them with questions, only an outline.
Why is it that Al Jazeera seems to be getting so many exclusives with groups battling the US and Israel, namely Hezbollah and Al Qaeda?
I believe this is due to three facts: First, Al Jazeera is the news channel with the widest reach in the Arab World; second, most Arab and world leaders as well as intelligence agencies watch Al Jazeera; third: we were objective during the war and I guess we were chosen because Hezbollah was keen on broadcasting its message on an objective and widespread outlet.
But why wasn’t Al Arabiya, for example, chosen for such exclusives?
Why not Al Manar? Some people talk about a level of trust between Nasrallah and myself, and I don’t deny this. I admit having a personal relationship with Nasrallah that I cherish and am proud of, but I am certain that he trusts the journalists of Al Manar more than me. I believe Nasrallah was seeking credibility by choosing me over an Al Manar journalist because I am objective and Al Jazeera is not related to Hezbollah. The goal of my dialogue was not to flatter or compliment him. I asked him all the questions of his opponents.
What about Al Qaeda, do they also trust Al Jazeera?
Al Qaeda used to provide material to MBC, Al Arabiya, Abu Dhabi TV, Al Jazeera and once even LBC. The difference is that Al Jazeera plays the tapes uncensored and then discusses the content after broadcasting it. Al Jazeera has never changed this policy. It has always broadcast these tapes without any censorship and besides Al Jazeera is the most widely-viewed Arab channel. It could be the worst channel ever, but it is the most widespread.
Isn’t it ironic that the US government also trusts Qatar to keep major military bases there?
The biggest problem is people’s inability to differentiate between Al Jazeera and the Qatari government. Al Jazeera is totally independent from the government although it is funded by it. We actually hosted guests on Al Jazeera who criticized the Qatari government, US-Qatari relations, Israeli-Qatari relations and the Qatari Foreign Minister.
You recently said that you consider Nasrallah to be one of the greatest leaders in the world. Do you admire him?
Not only do I respect him, I actually like him and am proud of him. Let me clarify one thing—because Westerners get afraid sometimes—Nasrallah is a very moderate and cultured man, he is not an extremist but a muqawem (one who believes in resisting occupation) and a nationalist, not a terrorist.
Do you think the audience should know about a journalist’s feelings?
Not necessarily, but let me tell you something. I do not respect the journalist who uses journalism for his own agenda or to support his political positions.
Do you see a lot of that in Lebanon?
Honestly, yes there is some. And this has become very clear since the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Some journalists continue to be professional and others have turned into politicians working as journalists. Let me tell you something: our coverage during this war was divided in two parts: the battlefield and political developments. On the battlefield, we were not neutral. We were very sympathetic with the victims in Lebanon. Our sources were the press releases of the Lebanese and Israeli Army as well as the Resistance. On the political level, we were objective and neutral. I had a daily program where I hosted politicians and journalists, both Hezbollah supporters and critics. And now after the war, I do not side with Hezbollah nor am I against them.
You recently apologized to Nasrallah on a Lebanese TV show for making him feel uncomfortable with some questions during a second interview with him after the war. Can you explain that?
The interview was supposed to cover Arab and strategic issues since Nasrallah did not want to elaborate about the Lebanese internal situation. And we had agreed on that beforehand. But the political situation in Lebanon was so tense and I just had to ask him some internal questions. The man answered me with full respect, but I felt that I had to apologize to him on air.
The Al Jazeera journalist Tayseer Alouni interviewed Osama Bin laden and was later jailed for alleged links to Al Qaeda. Do ever fear that you could also be put behind bars?
Honestly, there is a difference between Bin Laden and Nasrallah.
So you are not afraid of being accused of guilt by association by governments that label Nasrallah as terrorist?
No, no, no. There are a million Sunnis and a million Shiites in Lebanon who love and support Nasrallah and there are 200 million Arabs around the world supporting Nasrallah. And many people now in Turkey Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Europe and America—Muslims and non-Muslims—like Nasrallah. What is America or Israel going to do? Jail all of these people? Let me also add that the Americans know me very well and I have good relations with them. I do not agree with Hezbollah when it says that America is the utmost evil and is responsible for all wars and disasters around the world. Yes the Bush Administration is mistaken in so many issues, however, as an Arab I believe that it is for our interests to have good relations with the American Administration, especially if it tries to implement freedom and democracy in the Arab World. I do differentiate between Israel and America. However I am against America when it supports Israel against us, the Arabs.
During the war, after a report from South Lebanon, you once signed off from “the Palestine-Lebanon border.” Does that mean that you reject the existence of Israel?
(Laughs) Are you interviewing a foreign minister? I am just a journalist! I said these are Palestinian lands. It’s historic Palestine, this is my position. However, there is an Israeli state. There is a difference between the Israeli state and Palestinian lands. The Israeli state has become a reality now, but the lands are Palestinian and we cannot deny that. There are no Israeli lands, there is an Israeli state.
Did you always refer to the border this way or just during the war?
In general, we use the term “the Israeli-Lebanese border” but in that report I was referring to historic Palestine. But, professionally speaking, I should say “Israeli-Lebanese border” because this is the way it appears on all the maps.
Does Al Jazeera reject the state of Israel?
Al Jazeera has no position about the existence of Israel. In our news, we have Israel on our maps.
Do you think that Al Jazeera covers the Israeli military as closely as it covers Hezbollah and Nasrallah? Why not interview Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz?
During the war, we hosted many Israeli guests on Al Jazeera, and let me tell you a secret; we were insulted by so many viewers who blamed us for hosting them. In Israel, Al Jazeera requested permission to report inside Israel near their military bases. They granted us permission in the beginning but barred us later on. As for the top Israeli officials like Olmert and Peretz, they did not wish to have any interviews with Arab media outlets. But we did interview other high level officials like Israel’s foreign minister. But, I don’t think it would be right to compare Nasrallah with Olmert or Peretz because he was the most popular Arab figure during the war and thus much more important to interview than any Israeli official. I personally would not mind interviewing Israeli officials, but Lebanese law forbids me.
What do you think about that law?
I do not believe in it. During the war, the Lebanese Information Ministry warned Al Jazeera that it is illegal to have interviews with Israeli officials from Beirut so we transferred these interviews to our headquarters in Doha.
How does Al Jazeera determine who is a martyr or “shaheed”?
We define martyrs as the people killed because of the Israeli occupation, as is the case in Lebanon and Palestine. We don’t use martyr for those killed in Iraq because we don’t know who is killing who there.
Would “shaheed” ever be used for the other side, i.e. Israeli victims?
No, the Israelis are the occupiers and “shaheed” is used for those who die for a fair cause.
So it is a word used only for Arabs?
But is that objective?
Listen Al Jazeera is an Arab station, and it is not located on planet Mars. It interacts with the Arab issues.
Are you concerned that Al Jazeera International will present a noticeably different perspective than Al Jazeera Arabic?
It is Al Jazeera English, not international because the entire Al Jazeera network is international, including Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera English, the children’s channel and Al Jazeera Sports.
But we have received several press releases from “Al Jazeera International.”
It will be called Al Jazeera English, I am sure. And there is no need for changing the perspective because Al Jazeera is an objective and professional station. Only the audience is different.
But the new staff might have different backgrounds and opinions. Won’t this make a difference?
Al Jazeera English is a part of the Al Jazeera network and it has to reflect the same views and style. Maybe a year ago, it wanted to be different but now things have changed and those who are working there have become convinced that we should all be one family. We welcome the foreign staff, but I feel that when people talk about difference it is as if they mean that Al Jazeera Arabic is the non-advanced channel while the English Al Jazeera will be the most advanced and updated one. And that is not true at all. Al Jazeera Arabic is the origin of the Al Jazeera network.
Will Al Jazeera English use the word “shaheed”?
“Shaheed” is an Arabic term and it concerns the Arab audience. The foreign audience won’t be concerned by such a term so there is no need for it on Al Jazeera English.
Do you believe Al Jazeera was attacked by the Americans in Baghdad and Kabul on purpose?
Yes, especially in Afghanistan. It was punishment for coverage of the war. Al Jazeera was the only channel broadcasting from Afghanistan after the Taliban banned TV. They only allowed Al Jazeera and CNN to operate in the country and CNN got tired and left. Al Jazeera was covering the actions of Taliban and the Americans didn’t like it, so they punished us.
Is Al Jazeera comfortable investigating Arab royalty, especially Qatari royalty?
We have no problem hosting their opponents. Once a viewer called in and insulted the Qatari Foreign Minister accusing him of being corrupt and a homosexual. Let me ask you, why should I care about the daughter or wife of US President George Bush? Why should I care about Monica Lewinsky? It is not our major concern. Our major concern is politics not social issues or the royal families or presidents and this is the difference between us and the Western media. I mean why should I care if Bush’s daughter drinks a lot or if the Saudi King has a girlfriend?