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Elliot Leven

Elliot Leven: Al Jazeera: still working on its blind spot

By Elliot Leven,October 19, 2012

Al Jazeera – the unusual TV station based in Qatar – still has a big blind spot when it comes to covering Israel. This became apparent to me recently when I watched a documentary about the Nile River on Al Jazeera English (AJE).
First a little background is necessary. Qatar is an oil-rich, absolute monarchy governed by an Emir. It is slightly more progressive than adjacent states like Saudi Arabia, and it welcomes Western tourists. Freedom House (the respected non-profit organization that monitors freedom around the globe) rates Qatar as “not free”.
Al Jazeera (Arabic) was founded in 1996. The Emir of Qatar allowed this TV station to do things like criticizing Arab governments and airing interviews with Israeli leaders. Of course, it was not free to attack the Emir himself. AJE was founded in 2006. It is available in Winnipeg on both main cable services. It has an English website.
AJE makes an effort to respect the conventions of free journalism. When it airs a news report that is critical of x, it asks x for a comment and airs at least a brief portion of the comment within the news report. AJE provides superb coverage of the developing world – much more than Canadian and American TV news. If you want the news from Senegal or Uruguay, AJE is probably the first place to look. AJE’s coverage of American politics is generally excellent. The AJE website currently includes a very insightful blog about the Obama-Romney campaign, and the fact that both candidates are unwilling to be honest with the American public about the national debt.
Al Jazeera has been criticized for having an anti-Israel bias. Unfortunately, the evidence confirms this bias. This became apparent to me recently when I watched a 2011 documentary called “Struggle over the Nile” on AJE. Although I have seen the Nile and the Aswan dam as a tourist, I knew very little about the Nile River, and I was hoping to learn something new. Among other things, I hoped to learn how global warming is affecting the Nile.
As it turned out, what I saw on AJE was the third part of a three-part documentary about the Nile. I have since watched the entire documentary online.
The AJE documentary (Part 3) did include some objective information about the river, including a fascinating summary of the historical relationship between Egypt (where the Nile flows into the Mediterranean) and Ethiopia (where the Blue Nile originates). There was some interesting information about a proposed Ethiopian hydro project. Global warming was mentioned in passing.
What shocked and disappointed me, however, was the airtime devoted by the documentary to a truly bizarre theory about an Israeli conspiracy. It began by recalling that Theodore Herzl had one meeting with British officials about the possibility of creating a Jewish homeland at El Arish (in British-controlled Sinai), to be supplied with Nile water diverted by canal. The notion was immediately abandoned and all but forgotten, except perhaps by Herzl biographers. How astonishing to find this historical footnote resurrected by AJE in a documentary about the state of the Nile in 2011.
For decades, Israel has attempted to befriend developing-world states. Ostracized, boycotted and occasionally invaded by Arab nations, Israel looked for friends wherever it could find them. Among these friends were the more westernized nations of Africa, such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Both, coincidentally, are Nile countries upstream of Egypt.
There is a apparently a bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel only attempted to befriend Kenya and Ethiopia in order to strengthen its position relative to Egypt, which relies heavily on Nile water for its survival. This theory includes the paranoid notion that modern Israel is simply playing out Herzl’s old plan to control the water of the Nile.
After devoting about 20 minutes to this conspiracy theory, the documentary gives about 20 seconds to Israeli “security expert” Gad Shimon, who rightly dismisses the theory as laughable. The documentary then moves away from conspiracies and moves on to an objective examination of various issues involving the Nile today. The first two parts of the documentary are also objective and educational.
The documentary-makers never attempt to search for objective evidence that would prove or disprove the conspiracy theory. For example, what efforts has Israel made to befriend developing-world nations other than Kenya and Ethiopia? Since 1977 (when Sadat flew to Israel), has Israel made any attempts to befriend Egypt? The documentary does not even ask these questions. It simply spends 20 minutes explaining the conspiracy theory, then 20 seconds quoting an Israeli who says it is preposterous. That is all.
Pity. AJE does some things very well – much better than Canadian and American TV news channels. It has the potential to be a fine source of news. If only it did not have a gaping blind spot when it comes to Israel.
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