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Al Jazeera: Is there a lesson for the Indian Muslim community?
By AU Asif

There are about 50,000 newspapers and periodicals in India. Out of which only about 3,000 are owned by the Muslim community. This includes a large number of dailies and periodicals in Urdu, besides a few in English, Hindi and regional languages. 

Interestingly, there are only two dailies owned by this second largest religious community in India in a language other than Urdu. They are Madhyamam, owned by Kerala Jamaat-e-Islami people and Chandrika, run by the Kerala Indian Union Muslim League, in Malayalam. The circulation of each daily is over a lakh in a state wherein only 3 per cent of the country's total population reside. The entire population is Malayalam-speaking. According to an estimate, there are only over three and half a crore Malayalam-speaking people in the world. 

These facts and figures should be an eye-opener to the much greater number of Muslims speaking Urdu, Hindi, English and other languages in the country. Strangely enough, not a single daily in even Urdu touches the magic number of one lakh.

To bring out an English daily has had only been a cherished dream for the Indian Muslim community. Nobody knows where did a huge amount collected sometime by a well known Muslim organisation, the other time by a group or some individuals for this purpose go? What happened to those efforts? 

So far as efforts for periodicals in English are concerned, over 38 years ago a viewsweekly was launched. Thanks Allah, it is still alive, but with a ten-times decline in its circulation. Besides this viewsweekly, a number of other efforts on this front were done. Two monthlies, one devoted to the Islamic ethics and other related issues and the other dealing with the young Muslims are brought out from Bangalore. From the same city came the first ten-day magazine about four years ago, setting a new trend of periodicity. But it had to compromise after some time, not only in periodicity but policy also. However, it is also still surviving as a fortnightly. There is another magazine being brought out fortnightly from the national capital under the patronage of a team of top Muslim business tycoons led by an eminent bureaucrat-turned-educationist. This fortnightly competes the Bangalore fortnightly so far as get-up, printing and resources are concerned. But the tragedy is that both the fortnightlies could not pick-up and come to the expectations of the community. Elders say they have failed even to match the popularity once held by the above mentioned viewsweekly. Amidst this scenario the recent emergence of The Milli Gazette is being watched with interest and curiosity. However, only future will tell how much it would come up to the expectations and needs of the community.

This is a brief account of the Muslim print media. The general complaint of the community is that even after 6 per cent share in the country's total newspapers and periodicals and two successful dailies in Malayalam, it has no organ, no mouth-piece and no representative newspaper or magazine.

So far as the Muslim situation in electronic and web media in India is concerned, it is more pathetic. One fails to find a single channel owned by the community amongst about a hundred channels. There are several Sikh channels and even an Ahmadiya (Qadiani) channel but not a Muslim channel. About a year ago there came a news about the start of "Falak TV" but it has so far failed to come down the falak (sky).

In the presence of the above facts, bitter facts, the question that haunts one's mind is: What actually stops a community that possesses the richest man in India from having its own organs in print, electronic and web media? Resources? Not only resources, says a top executive of the above channel who has now left it and heads a media house besides successfully running a feature service for about eight years. Says he: "Resources are a big but not every thing. What matter in running anything in media are perspective, planning and strategy."

The example is of Al Jazeera, a small channel in Arabic, operated from a modest bungalow on the outskirts of Doha (Qatar). Launched with only 100 million dollars five years ago, it is now the focus of media attention. Much like the CNN during the Gulf War. 

Al Jazeera is highly professional and objective. Its policy is fearless, unbiased and independent. Most of its staff have been recruited from the Arabic services of BBC and CNN.

During its 5-year life, its exclusive coverages are the footage of Iraq President Saddam Hussein lambasting the US, Osama Bin Laden's interview after the 1998 blasts in the US embassies in Nairobi and Daressalaam, wedding of Osama's son, destruction of Bamiyan Budhhas by Taliban in March 2001, and interviews with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

It is the only channel to release the taped televised call of Osama Bin Laden for Jehad against the USA and its allies following the bombing on Oct 7 in the wake of the suicide attacks of Sept 11 on the USA. Moreover, through its live coverage of the impact of the bombings in Afghanistan, it has brought home images of the significant civilian casualties inflicted by the bombings. Its impact on the world public opinion has not been very conducive to the USA's war effort and has earned it the ire of US secretary of State Colin Powell who spoke to the Emir of Qatar in a vain attempt at restraining Al Jazeera. 

The channel's brush with media regulation is not new. Since its inception it has often fallen foul of Arab regimes unaccustomed to civil dissent. It has done much more than broadcast live images from Afghanistan. In the Middle East, it has accorded a platform to dissenting views. Moreover it has given international voice to Arab concern. With its English channel starting shortly, it can bridge the gulf between Arab and non-Arab world.

To air multiple viewpoints on a subject, Al Jazeera has promoted several discussion programmes and talk shows like "Opposite Direction", "More than One Opinion", and "Without Bounds". The practice of independent news coverage and representation of multiple voices has made it face the ire of different governments.

Says its chairman Sheikh Hamad Bin Thamer A Sani: " We have been accused of acting on behalf of Iraq, Islamic fundamentalists, secularists, America..., even Israel. These allegations only go to prove that the channel is covering the entire spectrum of opinions."

In the words of its chief editor Ibrahim Hilal: "We are in the news business. We will not hide any truth. Our policy is to air all shades of opinion. The attention of the whole world is riveted on Afghanistan now. These are the historic times and we are the only ones left in Afghanistan now. If we don't show it, who will?"

The credit for the success of Al Jazeera with a meagre resource to a great extent goes to the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. Soon after coming to power in 1995 he abolished the ministry of information and culture to ensure media autonomy and freedom. Not only it was allowed to establish its base in Doha but was also given an annual grant of $ 30 million for the first five years (till November 2001). 

But the Qatar government's generosity does not mean that it has been spared. Its policies are often criticised on the channel. The Emir recently told the New York Times: "What a headache Al Jazeera is. But all the same, I think of it as a kind of oxygen invigorating our thinking. I tell my children if you want to know the issue of real importance in the Arab world, watch Al Jazeera." 

In the light of the Al Jazeera experiment, the question is: Is there any lesson for the Muslim community in India? Al Jazeera experiment has proved that if there is a perspective, planning and strategy as well as professionalism and objectivity, a success is bound to come.

AU Asif is the writer of Media and Muslims in India since Independence, published by the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi. q

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