Tue, Jun 29, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Arab TV maverick revels in riling up governments

HARD TO IGNORE By hitting on taboo subjects and provoking arguments among his guests, Faisal al-Qassem has staked out a unique place on al Jazeera

REUTERS , DOHA, QATAR

Faisal al-Qassem has been annoying Arab governments for eight years and loving every minute of it.

At the forefront of groundbreaking Arabic satellite station al Jazeera since its inception in 1996, the presenter and his weekly political theater have been hard for them to ignore.

"Why is it that...?" his voice always blares in the trailers for the show, The Opposite Direction, as his arms gesticulate wildly.

"Why is it that Arab regimes failed to condemn the pictures of abuse of Iraqi prisoners?" he began on a recent episode about the US prisoner abuse scandal. "Is the torture in Arab prisons not a hundred times worse than Abu Ghraib?"

Speaking to Reuters from his home in Qatar where al Jazeera is located, al-Qassem -- a Syrian who previously presented a similar radio show on the BBC World Service -- says he was particularly proud of his show addressing prison abuse.

diplomatic rifts

"I'm sure over 50 million people watched it. We're talking about torture in Arab prisons. Don't you think the Sudanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Mauritanians will watch -- everyone will."

The program, which goes out live every week, now offers viewers the chance to vote online to answer such questions. In this case, 86 percent said yes -- Arab torture is worse.

Al Jazeera has brought about a revolution in Arab media with its remit to take on the taboos of Arab politics, religion and society in a region dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The channel, left with a largely free hand by its Qatari financers, has caused the oil-rich Gulf state diplomatic rifts with Arab governments as well as Washington over its coverage of the war on Iraq, Afghanistan and Islamic militancy.

Al-Qassem's format -- two guests representing two opposite sides of an argument -- is novel in the Arab media although the formula has been used on Western airwaves for years.

And an argument it often is, with guests and callers hurling abuse at each other as tempers fray.

Al-Qassem admits he does his best to stir the debate, despite feigned attempts to stop the insults with his stock phrase "People. People." The show has often been cut short as guests more used to public niceties and private intrigue of Arab politics storm off in fury from the public forum.

egyptian feminists

Viewers have been treated to such delights as Egyptian feminists out-shouting radical preachers and exiled Lebanese warlords incandescent over criticism of one-time Israeli ties.

"I could do a calm, sober program, but I know the viewers wouldn't watch. No one would watch a dead program," al-Qassem says with a certain pride.

"Five countries cut diplomatic links with Qatar because of the program. Kuwait closed our office more than once and Egypt once evicted my brother," he brims, as if presenting a resume.

State media around the region have accused al-Qassem of everything in the Arab political lexicon. "There's no intelligence agency I haven't apparently worked for. One day I'm with Mossad, the next day I'm a CIA agent," he says.

"I go to Tunisia and they say `why are you against Tunisia?' I go to Syria and hear the same, I go to Saudi Arabia and they say it too. I hear the same thing from everybody, which is good: It means we are not against anybody."

Most commentators agree the show was a long overdue forum to vent frustrations in a region of repressed societies smothered by authoritarian regimes. But now, many say it has had its day.

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