Al Jazeera, which translates as "the island�? or “the Arabian peninsula�? in Arabic, was established by decree in February 1996. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, armed with a group of BBC-trained journalists looking for work after the collapse of BBC Arab TV, created Al Jazeera as part of an effort to modernize and democratize Qatar. Emir Al Thani allocated $137 million
to the endeavor with the intent that the station would be self-sustaining by 2002, just five years after its November 1, 1996 debut. Since its birth, the media organization has grown significantly, becoming the first Arab media organization that offered news twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (Kelley, 2002). And as soon as 2002, it had offices in Washington, New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Djakarta, and Islamabad operating around the clock.
Al Jazeera’s popularity and importance became increasingly apparent after 9-11, when it was granted exclusive coverage of the war in Afghanistan. When the US-led strikes began in Kabul, Al Jazeera alone offered the images of bombing and war that the global public demanded. Moreover, two weeks after 9-11, when a videotape of Osama bin Laden was anonymously “dropped off�? at Al-Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul, Al Jazeera had exclusive access to the message of bin Laden (and al-Qaeda), guaranteeing that the world, and especially America, was tuning in. All of sudden, Al Jazeera was not only delivering the news to its thirty-five million viewers, but it was also telling the world's top story to billions of people around the planet via international media that had no choice but to use Al Jazeera's pictures (el-Nawaway and Isakandar, 2003).
The war in Iraq posed a new test for the media organization. While its privileged access in Afghanistan meant that the world’s media and people depended on Al Jazeera, the war in Iraq would offer Al Jazeera no such opportunity. Indeed, in the build-up to the war, it become clear that there was another battle going on, one between international media moguls. With the Bush administration offering hundreds of opportunities for American journalists to become ‘embedded�? in American military units during Operation Enduring Freedom, Al Jazeera would soon be challenged by every major media organization in the world, and importantly, in its own backyard (Klein, 2004). While many assumed that the western media’s experience from the first Gulf War in 1991 in later in Kosovo meant that they would have the upper hand in covering the burgeoning conflict in Iraq, Al Jazeera had the recent experience of Afghanistan and was adequately prepared for covering the invasion of Iraq, arguably better than its global competitors. This argument was quickly settled when, six days into the war in Iraq, European subscriptions for Al Jazeera doubled to eight million. In addition, enquiries from other international media were received from far away places such as Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, China and Indonesia (Al-Jaber, 2004).
What has become clear is that Al Jazeera’s influence is pervasive. Speculation regarding its success has also been widespread. What contrasts Al Jazeera from other traditional media organizations in the Middle East is its independence. In a region that has been dominated by state run, and oftentimes censored, media organizations, Al Jazeera was the first to actually represent news coverage of Arab and global politics that was relatively independent of the powerful elite interests. An element of this independence can be observed in the nature of Al Jazeera’s programming. In contrast to traditional coverage, Al Jazeera adopted a western model of media entertainment, offering shows that instigated critical coverage and debates between opposing political and social groups. As Rick Zednick (2002) observed, “it has built an audience through its talk shows, which probe political, social, and religious issues previously untouched by Arab media.�?
One of its most popular programs, ‘The Opposite Direction,’ hosted by a British-educated Syrian named Faisal Al Qasim, is exemplar. Similar to CNN’s Crossfire, the show invites guests with opposing views, and the host
often goads the panelists to draw out differences in opinion and instigate a public debate. Most importantly, the topics of the show are unprecedented for the Arab public. As two examples, Al Qasim hosted a show that pitted an Egyptian supporting normalization of relations with Israel against another Egyptian who quoted anti-Semitic writings on-air, and another where a woman opposed to the abolition of polygamy walked off the set after being challenged by her counterpart who insisted that it was an antiquated practice. Another popular program is ‘Islamic Law and Life,’ in which the host, Yusif Al Qardhawi, a professor of Islam at the University of Qatar, has discussed sensitive topics such as female circumcision and laws that forbid women from working. One Arab commentator observed, as demonstrated in much of its news coverage and programming, “Al Jazeera has been credited with revolutionising public opinion and the media in the Arab world by virtue of its resoluteness in maintaining its independence from the censor, something quite alien to traditional Middle Eastern media�? (“Al Jazeera: The Satellite Station�?). This independent and critical coverage has not come without consequence, however. Soon after the United States began bombing Kabul in October, 2001, the Bush administration was aggravated by the station’s critical coverage of the war in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera’s programming even instigated a meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Qatari emir, where Secretary Powell reportedly asked that Al Jazeera be impartial and tone down its anti-American message.
In the cover story for the November 18th, 2001 edition of the New York Times Magazine, Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, argued that the station had portrayed bin Laden in a positive light, exemplified with a “clip that juxtaposes a scowling George Bush with a poised, almost dreamy bin Laden.�? Ajami claimed that "in its rough outlines, the message of Al Jazeera is similar to that of the Taliban: there is a huge technological imbalance between the antagonists, but the foreign power will nonetheless come to grief," and accused the station of "mimicking Western norms of journalistic fairness while pandering to pan-Arabic sentiments."
Criticism of the organization’s coverage has not been limited to the western world, however. El-Nawawy and Gher (2003) contend that Al Jazeera has “been a thorn in the side of many Arab regimes,�? a claim that is substantiated by the over 400 official complaints that the organization has received from Arab governments alone. And many Arab regimes have taken action to retaliate against what they see as unfair and inappropriate coverage. For instance, when the network aired a special on Algeria's civil war, the government in Algiers cut the signal, preventing the program from airing throughout the country. Egypt's state media ran a campaign against Al Jazeera, denouncing the station's "sinister salad of sex, religion and politics" topped with "sensationalist seasoning�? (Klein, 2004). The network also upset Palestinian authorities with a documentary that explored the role of Palestinian guerillas in Lebanon's civil war (1975-1990). Palestinian security personnel went as far as to enter the Al Jazeera bureau in Palestine and demand that the program be taken off the air. Al Jazeera refused, and continued to air the footage. The Saudi Arabian government simply prohibits Al Jazeera from being aired in its country. Jordan temporarily closed Al Jazeera's bureau in Amman after a guest criticized the governing regime, and Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya have all recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Al Jazeera coverage (though, later reinstating them once their point was made, Klein 2004).
Despite its controversial coverage, or maybe because of it, Al Jazeera continues to grow in scope and popularity. In response to the flood of accusations of bias, Al Jazeera maintains its mantra that it gives all sides a chance to defend their view, and presents news from the diverse perspectives of the Arab world. Indeed, the station was founded and thrives on living up to its motto: “The Opinion and the Other Opinion�? (el-Nawawy and Gher, 2003).
Al-Jaber (2004) argues that part of the reason for Al Jazeera’s popularity is that it is seen throughout the Middle East as “local news,�? presenting information and viewpoints that are important for the various Arab communities. Reaching over an estimated 50 million viewers, and available in any country with universal satellite capabilities (DVB-S), Al Jazeera’s growth shows no signs of slowing (Nisbet et al., 2004). For instance, in November 2003, Al Jazeera launched an Arabic sports channel called Al Jazeera Sports, which quickly grew to become the top Arabic-language sports channel. On April 15, 2005, Al Jazeera also launched Al Jazeera Live, a channel that broadcasts conferences live without commentary. It is the first of its kind in the Arab world and is modeled after the US-channel C-SPAN. And on September 9 2005, Al Jazeera launched a channel called Al Jazeera Children's Channel. Al Jazeera Children's Channel (JCC) is the first all-Arabic-language channel devoted for children, and it "will produce 40% of its own programmes, a ratio touted as being one of the highest of any children's channel worldwide�? (Henderson, 2005).
In March of 2003, Al Jazeera launched a website featuring its content in English (http://english.aljazeera.net/HomePage). While efforts by Internet hackers made the site inaccessible on its official debut, the website has since operated without hesitation. And while it receives a sizeable amount of “hits�? from outside of the Middle East, some critics have found that the content of the English webpage is significantly different from that of the organization’s main website, which is in Arabic (Zayani, 2005). Finally, in March of 2006, Al Jazeera will launch an all-English news channel to be broadcasted worldwide, called Al Jazeera International. The new channel will have broadcast centers in Doha, London, Kuala Lumpur, and Washington D.C. Needless to say, Al Jazeera has become a global media organization to be reckoned with. Regardless of accusations of bias, the size and diversity of its audience continues to rise, and its coverage continues to expand. As the most listened to voice representing the citizens of the Arab world, studying Al Jazeera is critical to furthering our understanding the people, politics, and culture of the Middle East.
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- Profile authored by Shawn Powers