Jamal Dajani is an award winning producer and the Director of Middle Eastern Programming at Link TV. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Dajani completed his early studies at CollÃ¨ge des FrÃ¨res, and attended Columbia University in New York City where he received a B.A. degree in Political Science. Since 2001, he has produced more than one-thousand installments of Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, winner of the prestigious Peabody Award . In 2005, Dajani completed Occupied Minds, a documentary shedding light on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict & Who Speaks for Islam?, both aired on Link TV and PBS stations.
Foaad Khosmood: Link TV’s Mosaic is one of the only outlets Americans have to see news programs produced in the Middle East. Watching the program, one is consistently reminded of the vast disparity between news coverage in the region and news coverage here in America. What would you say are some of the most under-covered stories by US mainstream media?
Jamal Dajani: Generally, big stories from the Middle East are reported on US mainstream media outlets; however, tens of stories go unnoticed every day. Stories about ordinary citizens whose lives have been dramatically affected due to the current political circumstances, like a story we recently broadcast about Iraqi families resorting to the usage of manure for cooking and heating their homes, while residing few miles away from an oil refinery. A story about Palestinian taxi-drivers having to learn how to deliver babies at Israeli checkpoints or a recent women demonstration for equality in Iran go unnoticed. One can also compare and contrast the past couple of weeks of news coverage in the US and in the Middle East, Iraq has been on fire due to the new security plan and all what you can see here in the US is wall to wall coverage of Anna Nicole Smith.
FKh: In one of your recent Intelligence Reports, you reported on a summit of 7 Islamic nations and the OIC chief in Pakistan. You suggested it may have been a summit of US allies who are willing to support action against Iran. Can you elaborate on this view?
JD: Seven Islamic nations (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia , Egypt , Jordan , Indonesia , Malaysia , and Turkey) met in Pakistan to discuss important issues affecting Muslim nations ranging from the Palestinian-Israeli problem, Syria & Lebanon and most importantly the Iranian nuclear file. This closed-door conference happened without the presence of the countries that are being discussed: Palestine , Syria & Iran. They were not invited. Many analysts in the Middle East believe that this was merely a meeting of US client-states that met to rubber-stamp US demands delivered to them during Condoleezza Riceâ€™s recent trip to the region. It signals their approval of a US strike on Iran. The US has been exploiting these countriesâ€™ fear of a growing Iranian influence in the region. I want to distinguish however, the sentiment of the populous from that of their leaders. Most people in the Middle East perceive Israel and the US as a threat and not Iran . In a recent survey people selected Hassan Nassrallah, Chavez, Chirac and Ahmedinejad as the leaders they admired the most. Three non-Arabs and two Shia leaders!
FKh: So people believe the summit was really about a US strike against Iran?
JD: I, myself also believe it. Many discussions in the media, television, editorials in the region confirm it. There’s definitely an agreement that we are heading toward a clashing point between Iran and US. Even within Iran, the line is that Iran was deliberately excluded. Official statements out of Tehran say that there was definitely an intent and the intent was to exclude Iran. The participating countries are all US client states and they are not necessarily influential players. I mean, what’s the regional influence of Jordan? These are the countries that acquiesce to US demands. And the US wants to make sure they are all in agreement.
FKh: Shouldn’t the Persian Gulf Monarchies have been included also?
JD: No, Saudi Arabia still has tremendous influence over all of them. Saudi Arabia in essence is speaking on their behalf.
FKh: Which countries were involved in the survey about the most admired leaders?
JD: The survey was conducted by a reputable company by Zogby International / University of Maryland who contacted Arabs in the region. 3850 people from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and UAE were interviewed. With the exception of Lebanon, these are all overwhelmingly Sunni Arab countries and they put two Shiite leaders in the top 5. Hassan Nasrallah was first followed by Chirac and Ahmadinejad. Asked to name 2 countries that posed the greatest threat to them 85% said Israel, 72% US and 11% identified Iran. 61% believed that Iran has a right to a nuclear program, 24% think Iran should be pressured to stop its program .
But governments are a different matter. The Sunni governments are definitely threatened by these numbers. A block is being formed consisting mainly of Saudi, Jordan and Egypt with some outside assistance from Pakistan to undermine Iranian influence. These countries are working all in tandem to undermine the Iranian regime while their own people by enlarge support Ahmadinajed and Nassrallah.
FKh: Another surprising report featured on Mosaic was from a Lebanese broadcaster who quoted Saad Hariri saying that Iran has a positive role in addressing the current crisis in Lebanon and even welcomed Iranian involvement. This of course went completely uncovered here in the US. What is your take on this situation?
JD: Unfortunately, Lebanon has now become the battleground for Iran & Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have been supporting Hezbollah and wield a lot of influence on Syria and the Saudis are trying to maintain their economical control over Lebanon through the Hariri family. Hariri knows that there will be no progress in the Lebanese internal negotiations without a positive Iranian involvement. Saad Hariri is correct to recognize the Iranian influence.
FKh: So Hariri’s supporters are willing to share power with Hezbollah?
JD: His father did not mind such an arrangement. But now things have changed. There’s a new level of complexity that’s going on. Hariri’s mother is King Fahad’s Sister. You’re talking about political, family and economical ties to Saudi Arabia. Most of the rebuilding of Beirut came through Saudi investors. So this issue affects them in the pocketbook as well. Alliances move faster than the shifting sand in the Middle East.
FKh: You also include Israeli sources, at least one per broadcast. There seems to be more plurality of opinion in Israel about Israel, than here in the United States.
JD: Here, when discussing any issue about Israel, the media walks on eggshells. Anything like Palestine, apartheid, discrimination, the way stories are always presented is that the media will go out of it’s way to create an artificial balance, to counter with and always represent the official Israeli narrative. Progressive newspapers like Haaretz have routinely more severe criticism of the Israeli government than anything we may find in the US media. There’s always more of a debate going on where they are critical of their own government.
For example, take the invasion of Lebanon last Summer. Israeli media began immediately after the event to convey that “Olmert lost the war.” There were more defenders of Ehud Olmert in this country than in Israel. It was only several months afterwards, that this country started to even mention such a sentiment. Before that everybody would be always defending Israel.
FKh: What is the status of the peace movement in Israel?
JD: There’s defiantly a progressive peace movement inside Israel with members who take courageous steps every day. Frequently we report on stories about confiscation of Arab farm land and other injustices in the Israeli controlled region and nine out of ten times various members of the Israeli peace movements are there to protest, block bulldozers and help farmers.
But ultimately it is weak. It is a gallant effort by dedicated individuals but still very weak. In essence, the left movements have been losing ground in Israel for the past 10 years straight. Ever since Sharon came to power, basically and now Olmert has followed, they have been marginalized. There are those who remain steadfast but they have been marginalized within Israeli society itself. That is due to the stress Israelis are feeling. Historically whenever they are stressed about something they resort to supporting hawks who say they can defend them. In the past, militant people always came to power in this way. But this is the first time that Israel’s nose got really bloodied. Maybe the peace movement will gain momentum, perhaps the society will stop supporting the hawks after seeing that they can’t deliver security.
At the end of the day what will count is the Israeli public opinion. It’s great if you have 7% peaceniks, etc. But that is not enough to create a major change in the government. If the peace movement grows stronger and convinces people to stop voting for the hawks, and the maintainers of the occupation, then we might see some real change.
FKh: What do the people in the region think of the current US/Iran standoff? How is the latest move by the Bush Administration to hold talks with Iran being perceived?
JD: I have not met yet a single Arab who has been calling for an attack on Iran (politicians excluded). Therefore, everyone welcomes the negotiations however, they are apprehensive. Knowing that Iran is not going to back down on its quest for nuclear power, many believe that this is a ploy by the Bush Administration to tell the rest of the world â€œsee weâ€™ve tried everythingâ€ before striking Iran.
FKh: After the US invasion of Afghanistan , Al-Jazeera was heavily demonized by Donald Rumsfeld and others as being anti-western and even pro “terrorist.” Have Arab and Islamic sources of news been more legitimized in this country in the past few years?
JD: No. It amazes me how this campaign of demonization has continued and unfortunately a lot of Americans still believe for example that Al Jazeera supports Bin Laden and other ludicrous assumptions. A distrust was created by the US media during the early days of the war on Iraq , the â€œus against themâ€ which remains until today. A major proof to this is the fact that Al Jazeera English was unable to find a cable carrier here in the US .
FKh: What is the status of free press in the Middle East? To what extent are organizations like Al-Jazeera independent? Does state dependency necessarily mean that news objectivity is compromised?
JD: Pluralism is on the air but not on the ground in the Middle East . Certainly, Al Jazeera has been instrumental in creating this. There are more than 300 satellite TV stations operating in the region many of which are privately owned. They are all competing for the same audience which thanks by enlarge to Al Jazeera has become more news-savvy. Therefore, people in the Middle East are no longer paying attention to government propaganda and thatâ€™s why when the US launched its Al Hurra station to broadcast in the Middle East, it was totally rejected by the audience because it was seen as American propaganda.
This does not mean that censorship and government control does not exist; recently the media suffered a set back in Jordan when the parliament voted for a law calling for the imprisonment of journalists who violate some of their draconian media laws. I do not believe however, that there is such a thing as a totally independent network or a 100% objective media outlet, not in the Middle East and certainly not here in the US. Thatâ€™s why Mosaic is what it is: a Mosaic of different reports, angles and opinions. One cannot depend only on one source.
FKh: What about the news agencies in Iraq ? There have been reports of US planting stories in Iraqi newspapers. To what extent are the TV broadcasts influenced by the Pentagon or US policy?
JD: Iraq currently has 6 or seven satellite stations depending on whether you want to count â€œAl Zawraâ€™ TVâ€ which is the official insurgent station. Then you have Al Iraqiya TV which is financed by the US government which puts a spin on reality to project a positive image of the occupation. Currently I do not trust any of the Iraqi media outlets: they all have agendas.
FKh: What has been the reaction to Link TV’s Mosaic program here in the US? Have you received any criticism or negative feedback?
JD: Mosaic has a great following not only in the US but also globally on the web. More than one million downloads on the web in the past six months. More people have been realizing that if they needed to know more about what is going on in the Middle East theyâ€™d better look for additional sources to CNN and Fox and Mosaic provided this service.
I remember when the late Peter Jennings came to interview me he said about Mosaic, â€œWhat a brilliant, simple ideaâ€. And the idea is simple: I believe that our viewers are smart enough to view a story and come up with their own conclusions. Like all media outlets we receive our share of criticism, I have been criticized by some as being pro- Palestinian and by others as pro-Israeli. A couple of years ago we were accused by some viewers that we were pro-Shia and pro-Hezbollah, recently a viewer wrote that we are anti- Shia and pro-Sunni. You cannot please everyone and this is not our mission. Our mission is to bring a window to what people in the Middle East watch on a daily basis.
We are primarily viewer supported with some support from grants. We receive no aid from the US government or any other government. We don’t even take commercial sponsorships, like PBS does. We don’t want to be associated with the companies who do those sponsorships.