When it first appeared, the new satellite channel broadcast from Qatar reflected its own name. Al Jazeera – Arabic for “the island” – represented a haven of professional, independent, current affairs programming in a sea of one-sided, government-controlled Arab media. Until Al Jazeera’s mostly BBC-trained journalists arrived on the scene, the average Arab citizen’s news television diet was nothing more than protocol news, wire service video reflecting the latest in the Palestinian conflict, and dramatic photos of earthquakes or wild fires.
Al Jazeera not only provided live interviews and broadcasts from the field; it introduced live debate to the Arab world. Its program Al Itijah al Mu’akess (“the opposite direction”) brought the sort of verbal jousts that most of the world takes for granted but Arabs had never seen televised. The guests that Faisal Qassem brought to the Doha studios (or via satellite) included people from the same Arab country or region but representing completely opposing points of view.
While hard-hitting professional news and programs like Al Itijah al Mu’akess provided viewers with unique television, it took major world conflicts to bring Al Jazeera acclaim. The Palestinian intifada, the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington in September 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq propelled Al Jazeera to global influence.
In its first years, Al Jazeera was simultaneously hailed as a pioneering media outlet for reform in the Arab world and as an instigator of internal conflict and strife. Almost every Arab ruler at one time or another attempted to silence the station by closing its local bureau and pressing the Qatari rulers to muzzle its freewheeling journalists. Neither worked. In fact, the pressures only added to the station’s popularity among Arab viewers.
The United States initially seemed favorable to Al Jazeera. The station’s encouragement of democratic reform and coverage of different points of view were compatible with the proclamations of US foreign policy. But this changed dramatically after 9/11, when it became clear that Iraqi and Afghan civilian victims of US bombs (as well as prisoners of war) would receive more coverage than was being provided by the embedded western media machine (Al Jazeera’s one embedded journalist did not remain so very long).
When Al Jazeera reporters interviewed Osama bin Laden and the station broadcast his videos, America’s gloves came off. Senior US officials publicly vilified the station. But the more the US and authoritarian Arab regimes attacked the station, the more the station became a reflector of some of the radical Islamic trends. In the Danish cartoon case and the recent controversy over the Pope’s statements, the station was clearly seen as making the news rather than just covering it.
Despite its popularity, however, Al Jazeera has not succeeded financially. The enmity of the Saudis to the station and its Qatari owners resulted in boycotts. Multi-national advertisers who covet the huge Saudi market were informed in no uncertain terms that they would lose hefty contracts if they advertised on Al Jazeera. Nevertheless, the station, whose owners have deep pockets, expanded to add a direct satellite broadcast, a children’s station, two sports stations, and soon an international, English-language station.
Although no one has yet caught up to Al Jazeera’s news and current affairs popularity, the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center has introduced a successful 24-hour station, Al Arrabiyeh, which is challenging Al Jazeera’s lead. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation and Egypt’s Dream have also won large segments of the general Arab public with entertainment programs.
Al Jazeera has made Qatar famous and the Arab world better informed. Despite its inadequacies and biases, Al Jazeera has changed the Arab world for the better. While no state-run TV station had live current affairs programs ten years ago, now even stations from some of the most dictatorial regimes are forced to raise their level and allow live interviews.
As it celebrates its tenth anniversary, Al Jazeera is no longer new, but it remains a trendsetter. It has broken new ground in politics and culture, but its impact on social and economic life has been minimal. So, as Al Jazeera moves into media adolescence, it must begin to think about how it can become a social pioneer in the Arab and Islamic world. God knows, change is still needed on that front.