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.