The leading International Arabic language Television Satellite News Service, broadcasting around the world, 24 hours each day.
Watched by 50-million viewers worldwide and described as the Arabic CNN, Al Jazeera has been lauded internationally for its coverage of the global crisis set off by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Its coverage has generated headlines such as “Who needs CNN?”, “Blair argues Allies’ case on Arab TV”, Prime Minister grilled, Paxman style, by Arab TV”, Bin Laden on TV: His Call to Battle Stirs Emotions Among Muslims”, In Propaganda War, an Arab Voice” and “It provides the one window through which we can breathe”.
Such is Al Jazeera’s reputation, it can point to exclusive interviews with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Al Qaed leader Osama bin Laden and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres alongside many others
It is the only Arabic broadcaster that can claim independence and freedom from Government censorship.
It is also the only television broadcaster with full satellite facilities in the Afghanistan capital Kabul.
Al Jazeera’s footage and whole selections of its programming have been used by CNN, Sky News, BBC News 24 and CNBC. Its reports and still footage have been published on the front pages of national newspapers and international publications.
Al Jazeera stands at the crossroads of history.
An oil- and gas-rich monarchy with comfortable reserves, Qatar was an uneventful place until the Emir's son, Hamad bin Al Khalifa Al Thani Five overthrew his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995. It was an event little noted by the world, given Qatar's status as one of the smallest Arab countries (pop. 600,000). But the new 43-year-old ruler’s plans to establish a satellite television network soon made the world sit up and take notice.
Such an idea was not new to the Arab World. For decades viewers were force-fed insipid official propaganda and newspeak. Along with a vast array of domestic media, almost every government in the Middle East felt it must have a Pan Arab outlet of its own. Where Al Jazeera differs, is in its content and approach – independent, impartial, incisive news and current affairs rather than the more usual entertainment peppered with fawning accounts of the activities of the local President, Monarch or Emir. So the Qatar ruler's decision to sanction an independent station was nothing short of revolutionary.
Al Jazeera set out to be the CNN of the Middle East. It broke taboos. The withholding of unwelcome news was replaced by transparency. There was no longer any reluctance to criticise a fellow member of the Arab League. The station let viewers phone in and say almost what they wanted. Round-table discussions at which "undesirables" of every description, from Saudi or Iraqi dissidents to exiled communists and unorthodox took place and Islamists, were given a mouthpiece.
The timing of Al Jazeera’s launch into the Arab world couldn’t have been better. Through its Orbit channel, Saudi Arabia had been financing the recently established BBC Arabic service. But when, in 1996, the BBC screened the controversial documentary ‘Death Of A Princess’, Saudi Arabia terminated the deal. Al Jazeera quickly recruited the experienced but jobless BBC Arabic staffers with a promise of influential but uninfluenced television.
In the five years since its launch, the rolling-news station has become the Arab world's leading forum, watched by more than 35 million people in Europe, North America and the Middle East.
Now it represents a clear, free and uncensored Arab voice in the midst of a conflict that demands independent and unfettered reportage.
Critics And Devotees
Al Jazeera's fresh approach has gone down well - at least with viewers. Governments and world leaders aren’t always so happy.
Last June the authorities closed down Al Jazeera's office in Kuwait City on the grounds that it had gone too far by allowing an Iraqi to insult the Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah, after his decision to give Kuwaiti women the vote in 2003. Jordan closed Al Jazeera’s offices in Amman from November 1998 to February 1999 after guests on a debate programme "cast aspersions on the Jordanian regime and people".
Other rulers, none more assiduously than President Ben Ali of Tunisia, habitually remonstrate with their upstart Qatari colleague. Syria insinuates that Jazeera works for Israel and the Algerian government once arranged a power blackout during a sensitive program. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif called it "excellent and accurate, but--as an offspring of the BBC-- it serves up poison on a golden platter."
The Qatari Foreign Ministry has received some 400 official complaints, but Qatar has stood firm against the onslaught and the Foreign Ministry refers all complaints to Jazeera itself. "And we tell them that if you think we have said something wrong, you always have the right of reply." says London bureau chief executive Muftah Al Suwaidan.
The station’s fans however far outnumber its critics.
The Syrian film director Omar Amiralai waxes lyrical: "Its impact on Arab society is like that of Egyptian radio's Voice Of The Arabs under Nasser." And the Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, once declared that he watches Al Jazeera “more than all the other Arab or Yemeni channels."
Nadim Shehadi is from the Centre for Lebanese Studies in Oxford. “It has had an impact on the whole of the media in the region. The others are forced to catch up and compete. There’s a lot more freedom now, because there’s no point in controlling information if you know that people are going to find out from somewhere else.”
Acclaimed Egyptian born novelist and commentator Ahdaf Soueif says Al Jazeera “provides reassurance against the negative or partial image of ourselves constantly beamed at us every day from the media of whatever country we happen to find ourselves in. In the current crisis, Al Jazeera’s reporting has been straight and sober, a welcome relief from the flag-waving and rhetoric, for example, of CNN.”
And the ordinary viewer? Where previously they might have turned to CNN, they now have an Arabic equivalent that covers their affairs with a grasp, depth, passion and intimacy that no foreign organisation can hope to match. As a result, audiences keep growing.
24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year
It is in the area of news that Al Jazeera has pulled off its most spectacular coups. As the tragic month of September 2001 drew to a close, Al Jazeera was the only broadcaster to receive a faxed message from Washington’s Public Enemy N? 1, Osama bin Laden, warning of further terrorist attacks on the West. Days later, it screened exclusive footage of bin Laden, filmed in a remote mountain hideaway, again warning of dire consequences for the West. As Allied bombs and missiles rained down on targets in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, bin Laden’s terrorist network, sent Al Jazeera another warning videotape. All this footage has been repeatedly screened by other broadcasters, including CNN, Sky News, BBC News 24 and CNBC.
Such is the influence of Al Jazeera, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both used the station to make direct pleas for allegiance to the world’s Arab and Muslim peoples. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres also recognized Al Jazeera’s commitment to objectivity in agreeing an exclusive interview.
Al Jazeera is the only broadcaster to boast full satellite facilities in the Afghan capital Kabul and it was its footage of explosions and anti-aircraft fire in the city that told the world it had gone to war when the Allied attacks on bin Laden and the Taliban commenced on Sunday October 7th 2001.
In December 1998 it conducted an interview with bin Laden, who took refuge in Afghanistan after allegedly organising bomb attacks against two American embassies in East Africa. And in January 1999 the station broadcast Saddam Hussein's first reaction to the Desert Fox operation mounted by the United States and Britain.
Current affairs programs are also real hits. Many are phone-in talk shows. But, unlike other Arab stations, Jazeera does them live, without any delay mechanism for screening out embarrassing questions. Al Jazeera puts out two particularly popular programmes – ‘Opposite Direction’ and ‘More Than An Opinion’, which are hosted respectively by a Syrian, Faisal Qassem, and a Jordanian, Sami Haddad. The studio is turned into a people's tribunal where the misdemeanours of regimes that rarely indulge in self-criticism are ruthlessly dissected. Never before have the region's myriad political opposition groups had access to such a high-profile platform. Little -- not even questions about a regime's fundamental legitimacy -- is off limits.
But politics is not the only fare that Al Jazeera offers. A phone-in programme on Islamic law and life was very popular for several months. An Egyptian member of the clergy, Sheikh Al Qaradahoui, acted as a kind of agony aunt, fielding such questions as ‘Are the rules of correct moral conduct as laid down by the Koran compatible with adventurous sexual practices such as fellatio?’
In this era of religious revivalism, Islam does not go unscathed. In one famous dogfight over polygamy, Jordanian feminist Tujan Faisal so enraged Egyptian writer Safinaz Kazem, a Marxist-turned-Islamist, that she ended up storming out in mid-programme. So did former Algerian Premier and secularist Reda Malek under assault from an Islamic opponent. For the first time in his career, Syrian thinker Sadiq Azm, once condemned as an "apostate," found a television platform, and used it to confront one of the Arab world's most eminent clerics, Yusif Qaradawi, mocking him as the upholder of a "backward" religion.
Unknown in the outside world, talk-show host Qassem has become as well-known within the Arab world as many an Arab leader. He is apt to be mobbed wherever he goes. Cities can grow noticeably quieter when he is about to go on air. That happened recently in his native Syria when he got two guests to debate whether President Assad was "abandoning the Palestinian cause."
More than 500 staff – including 35 correspondents in major cities and capitals, provide the controversial content for Al Jazeera and ensure the channel’s growing popularity across the globe. But in the interests of balanced opinion, only the administrative staff and a few of the technicians are native born Qataris. The editorial team comprises a broad mix of talent from all over the Arab world.
What they say about Al-Jazeera:
“For the hundreds of thousands of Arabic-speakers in the UK, who may or may not trust the western media, the role of the broadcaster is vital and Al Jazeera has seen demand for its services grow across the world.”
“Al Jazeera has become our window on to the war. Suddenly, a sizeable proportion of the world’s population was glued to an Arabic-language satellite channel.”
“With its access to Afghanistan, Al Jazeera has been edging out the BBC and CNN.”
“The TV channel has consistently grown in popularity. …. The reason for this dizzying success is one and one alone: this is a channel that screens the kind of topics that others don’t.”
THE JERUSALEM REPORT
“Al-Jazeera …. is now the most widely watched TV in the (Arab) region – because it is free, diverse in its views”
“Al-Jazeera, a hard hitting Arabic-language news channel that explores issues long suppressed by the region’s rulers, including the lack of democracy, the persecution of political dissidents and the repression of women …… Al-Jazeera offers round-the-clock programming based on a principle revolutionary by the traditional standards of Middle East broadcasting, that all coverage should be free of censorship or bias”
NEW YORK TIMES
“Al-Jazeera’s live satellite coverage kept pace with CNN’s. That kind of professionalism explains why Al-Jazeera is the No. 1 Arab satellite news channel … delighting millions of viewers across the Middle East – and Europe and North America.”
“Millions of ordinary Arabs are turning to the channel for their news … diplomats reckon it is the most popular channel not only in the Gulf but as far away as North Africa …. Al-Jazeera screens lively debates .. and tries to report the news impartially. None of this may be shocking stuff by international standards, but it is revolutionary for the region.”
The TV station Arab leaders hate the most - not CNN. Not the BBC. It's Qatar’s Jazeera network, which beams previously unheard dissent and uncensored news throughout the region. And the people love it.