Al Jazeera English is ready for broadcast in Canada thanks to a CRTC decision last year, 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. Al Jazeera Arabic was started in 1996, and in 2007, Al Jazeera added a sister channel, Al Jazeera English, to its network.
“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 Hossein Alizadeh, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).
Gay activist El-Farouk Khaki says Al Jazeera English’s entry into Canada is good news for the representation of queers in media.
“What we suffer from is invisibility in Canada within the larger Muslim community,” says Khaki. “Some of the more traditional, conservative groups do not recognize our existence.”
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.
But Al Jazeera’s Arabic network “is not interested in covering gay rights issues the way Al Jazeera English does,” says Alizadeh. Comparing Al Jazeera Arabic with Al Jazeera English “is like comparing apples and oranges.” Al Jazeera Arabic is geared towards a Middle Eastern audience and does not challenge cultural values or orthodox religion, he says.
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.”
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.”
Yanar Mohammed, a Canadian-Iraqi feminist leader and co-founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, is critical of the lack of coverage of feminist and queer issues on Al Jazeera Arabic. Last spring, she blew the whistle on the persecution of gay men in Iraq, a story that TV network Al Arabiya broke in April. While the story 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.
“Al Jazeera English is different,” says Sharma. “Its mandate is to project a secular, modern image of the Arab world. In doing that, it has a completely different management.”
Al Jazeera English is, Alizadeh agrees, 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 — when it comes down to it — that is where the shots are called on issues that are controversial in the Middle East. In 2008, when the US bureau of Al Jazeera English wanted to do a story about the coexistence of Islam and homosexuality, they tried to arrange an interview with Sharma on the popular Riz Khan show.
“A lot of communication went back and forth between the Washington bureau and Doha,” says Sharma. “The management in Doha killed the story. It turned out to be too controversial.”
Although Al Jazeera English is the world seen through secular Arab eyes, 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…. If I was a news story [or] if something happened to me, then they would cover it.”
Alizadeh is glad to hear that Al Jazeera English is coming to Canada. He emphasizes the essential role of a free press in effecting democracy. “There are elements of culture that can’t change overnight. With the free flow of information, eventually an environment is created where queer people will be able to talk about their issues.”
Xtra spoke to Al Jazeera Arabic’s Washington bureau chief for this story.
“We here in the US, we never had to cover homosexuality from any angle,” said Abdur-Rahim Fuqara. “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 Xtra’s request for another interview.
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