Vol. 2    Issue 20   16-29 February 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family

Minaret Research Network

Al Jazeera: A media colossus in the making

Autocratic rule, absence of political and civil rights, suppression of freedom of expression, and media censorship are among the conspicuous features of many Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East. According to the rankings of Freedom House (an American-based independent monitor of political and civil rights), almost two-thirds of the 192 countries around the world are now electoral democracies. But among the 47 countries with a Muslim majority, only one-fourth are electoral democracies and none of the core Arabic-speaking countries falls into this category. Out of seven world regions, Arab countries have the lowest freedom score. Political participation is much less developed in the Arab world than in other developing countries in Latin America, East and South-East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

The Arab Human Development Report 2002 identified lack of freedom (together with knowledge and women's rights) as one of the three major deficits of Arab countries. According to a report brought out by Reporters sans Frontieres in 2004, the Middle East was the region that enjoyed the least freedom in the world in that year. Media control and censorship are rampant in Arab countries. Journalists often face intimidation, harassment and imprisonment.

Media in the Middle East: Lost credibility

With a few exceptions, media freedom in the Arab world has been conspicuously absent. Until quite recently, Arab citizens had to rely on two sources of news and information: state-owned media, and Arabic-language foreign stations such as the French Radio Monte Carlo, the Voice of America, and the BBC.

The state-owned media served as the mouthpiece and propaganda wing of governments. Their coverage and analysis were determined by the whims and fancies of authoritarian rulers and the political and commercial interests of the ruling dispensation. They always blocked news and events that were at odds with state policies. Journalists who dared to cover agitations or demonstrations against the government were often imprisoned and tortured.

During the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Arab world heavily relied on the Shatt al-Arab radio station, founded by the Egyptian president, Jamal Abd al-Nasir, for information on the progress of the war. One morning the radio announced in a triumphant tone that the Israeli army had been routed by the Arab forces under the command of Egypt and that Israeli planes were 'falling from the sky like flies.' A week later, the Arabs learnt from foreign sources, to their shock and dismay, that the Arab army had suffered a grievous defeat and that the Egyptian air defence had been blown to smithereens in a swift action by the Israeli jets. The Shatt al-Arab was thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the Arabs. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Saudi media withheld the news for two days.

During the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Arab world heavily relied on the Shatt al-Arab radio station, founded by the Egyptian president, Jamal Abd al-Nasir, for information on the progress of the war. One morning the radio announced in a triumphant tone that the Israeli army had been routed by the Arab forces under the command of Egypt and that Israeli planes were 'falling from the sky like flies.' A week later, the Arabs learnt from foreign sources, to their shock and dismay, that the Arab army had suffered a grievous defeat and that the Egyptian air defence had been blown to smithereens in a swift action by the Israeli jets. The Shatt al-Arab was thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the Arabs.


Satellite technology first came to the Arab world in 1985 with the launch of Arabsat (Arab Satellite Corporation), which is jointly owned by 21 Arab states. Satellite television channels, such as the Egyptian Space Channel, Lebanese Future TV and Saudi Arabia's Middle East Broadcasting Centre, serve as mouthpieces of their respective governments.

On the other hand, the coverage of news and information related to the Middle East by the foreign media has often been marked by over-simplification, bias and misrepresentation. Western media have tended to look at the Arab world as composed of a homogeneous, monolithic Muslim population. As a matter of fact, there are significant and wide-ranging diversities in the Arab world in terms of religious affiliation, sectarian and regional distinctions, and political loyalties and ideologies. There are, for example, more than 15 million Arab Christians in the Middle East-ranging from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Protestant.

Literacy rates in the Arab world are extremely low. The Arab Human Development Report 2002 revealed that illiteracy rates in the Arab world are higher than the international average and even higher than the average in the developing countries. Due to widespread illiteracy, newspaper circulation in the Arab world is extremely low. However, television is becoming increasingly popular across the Arab world as the most important source of news and information.

The launch of Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera was founded as an Arabic television channel in Qatar on 1 November 1996 with funding from the country's ruler, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa. The Emir gave a grant of 500 million Qatari riyals (US $137 millions) as a one-off payment, which was supposed to cover five years. It was envisaged that the financial independence and viability of the channel would be ensured through revenues from commercial advertising, sale of exclusive footage and documentaries to foreign channels, link-up with international media, and cable networks in Arab countries as well as in Europe and North America. In a significant move, the Emir of Qatar abolished press, radio and television censorship in 1998. The new constitution of Qatar guaranteed freedom of the media. This move provided a stimulus to the independence and neutrality of Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeeras Arabic-speaking staff has been recruited from more than 20 Arab countries. Many of them have been educated in Western countries and have been exposed to Western culture. Many of the journalists and technicians were earlier associated with Orbit, a joint Saudi-BBC Arabic television station, which was closed down after 18 months of operation.

Initially, Al Jazeera began broadcasting six hours a day from Arabsat. In February 1999 it began broadcasting 24 hours a day from different satellites, over the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Within a short time, Al Jazeera gained immense popularity across the Arab world. It has been hailed as the first international and politically independent Arabic-language channel, financed and staffed by Arabs and broadcast from an Arab country, that provides extensive coverage of events in the Middle East in particular and the Islamic world in general. Its focus encompasses not just political news but fundamental issues and concerns that are of deep interest to all Arabs regardless of national, regional and political distinctions and differences. The programmes and talk shows aired on Al Jazeera cover not only politics but also education, social and political issues, and women's rights. Al Jazeera provides a distinctly Arab perspective, in an objective and unbiased manner, on a wide range of pan-Arab, regional and international issues. Virtually every election, every controversy and every demonstration or agitation in Arab countries is immediately covered, with striking visuals, by Al Jazeera's staff located in different parts of the Arab world. Al Jazeera's motto is to present "the opinion and the other opinion." Its coverage is marked by what it calls "contextual objectivity"-the presentation of news and analyses from different perspectives.

Within a short time, Al Jazeera gained immense popularity across the Arab world. It has been hailed as the first international and politically independent Arabic-language channel, financed and staffed by Arabs and broadcast from an Arab country, that provides extensive coverage of events in the Middle East in particular and the Islamic world in general.


Al Jazeera's format

Al Jazeera's presentation format is much the same as that of other international channels such as BBC, CNN and Sky News. However, its comprehensive coverage, professionalism and objectivity and its interactive and participatory orientation set it apart from other channels. Its talk shows, for example, have a distinctly interactive character. Viewers can ask direct questions to politicians, public figures and intellectuals interviewed on the channel by phone, fax or email. Each talk show receives hundreds of calls.

A highly popular talk show on Al Jazeera is The Opposite Direction, hosted by Faisal al-Qassem. Among the channel's most popular programmes is More than One Opinion, a political talk show presented from London by Sami Haddad. This show is based on live debates between invited guests, often politicians, and public figures. Another popular programme is Without Borders, based on face-to-face interviews presented by Ahmad Mansur. Another programme watched by millions of people across the Arab world and in the Arabic-speaking diaspora in North America and Europe is Al-Shariah wal-Hayat (Islamic law and life), which presents Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a highly respected Egyptian-born Islamic scholar. Dr al-Qaradawi was imprisoned and finally expelled from Egypt for his loyalty to the banned Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (The Muslim Brothers). He now lives in Qatar. This 90-minute show focuses on contemporary issues and challenges seen from an Islamic perspective. The programme draws hundreds of letters and queries from across the Islamic world.

Besides drawing on its global network of correspondents for the coverage of news and events, Al Jazeera buys footage from international news agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press, and BBC. In January 2003, Al Jazeera entered into an agreement with BBC for sharing facilities and information, including news footage. Al Jazeera has sharing agreements with several international media giants, including CNN, ABC, NBC, Fox News, the Japanese NHK and the German ZMF, who regularly use its footage and reports. The immense professional clout and reputation Al Jazeera has acquired in recent years may be gauged from the fact that quite often international media giants such as CNN and BBC have to rely on Al Jazeera in their coverage of politics and society in the Middle East.

In the run-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq, the BBC approached Al Jazeera for a news-gathering deal, especially for access to some of Al Jazeera's facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. In exchange, the BBC offered to provide training to Al Jazeera's staff and to help in launching Al Jazeera's English-language website. Al Jazeera agreed to the deal. Subsequently the channel bought a thousand hours of BBC's celebrated documentaries on current affairs, wild life, history and science to run on its Documentary Channel. A similar deal was struck with Britain's ITN channel.

Al Jazeera channel is available worldwide through various satellite systems and cable networks. In Britain, for example, Al Jazeera is offered as part of a subscription service on Sky Digital. In the US it is available through subscription satellite and Free to Air DVB on the Galaxy-25 satellite. In the US and Canada, around 200,000 subscribers pay the Dish Network to receive Al Jazeera as part of a multi-channel package. Ironically, in the US, which is considered the bastion of free speech, no major cable or satellite operators have so far agreed to air Al Jazeera English on American television.

Al Jazeera English

In November 2006, Al Jazeera launched a global news channel in English called Al Jazeera English, anchored in four hubs in Kuala Lumpur, Doha, London and Washington, D.C. In a shrewd move, Al Jazeera English has hired the professional services of some veterans from the Western media, including Sir David Frost and Dave Marash. It is estimated that Al Jazeera English will have access to some 70 to 80 million households worldwide. Al Jazzera is now poised to offer a stiff competition to international media giants such as CNN International, BBC, France 24 and Russia Today. The prospects of this competition have forced the BBC to think of launching an Arabic-language television news service in the near future.

Al Jazeera English has a supplementary channel known as Al Jazeera Documentary Channel, launched on 1 January 2007, which seeks to focus on areas and issues that are generally ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream Western media but which are central to Arabs and Muslims. In the course of time, Al Jazeera plans to launch a music channel, a separate cannel in Urdu, and an international newspaper in English.

The pursuit of credibility

Al Jazeera's coverage of the Palestinian uprising and the American-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq enormously added to its professional credibility and reputation. The second Palestinian uprising (Intifada) against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories began in October 2000. Thousands of Palestinians, including women and young children, were mercilessly killed by Israeli soldiers. The atrocities committed by the Israeli forces were extensively covered, with striking and heart-rending visuals, by Al Jazeera. During the Intifada, a crew of Al Jazeera captured on camera the brutal shooting of a 12 year-old Palestinian boy by an Israeli soldier. This footage, which was repeatedly shown on the channel, had an enormous effect on the Arab world.

Al Jazeera was the only television station that was allowed to cover Taliban-led Afghanistan. It had a monopoly over all the pictures and interviews related to the country. It was the first channel to air the destruction of the colossal Bamian Buddha statues. During this period, CNN had an exclusive arrangement with Al Jazeera for sharing news and footage.

During the Intifada, a crew of Al Jazeera captured on camera the brutal shooting of a 12 year-old Palestinian boy by an Israeli soldier. This footage, which was repeatedly shown on the channel, had an enormous effect on the Arab world.


Afghanistan was invaded by the American-led forces in October 2001. In the course of the invasion, American forces dropped nearly 6000 uranium-based guided missiles, killing thousands of people and destroying civilian sites including hospitals and schools. The killing of innocent people and the destruction of civilian sites in reckless missile attacks were vividly aired by Al Jazeera. Though the reports of civilian casualties carried by Al Jazeera were earlier denied by the Pentagon, they were later confirmed by Reuters and AFP. The extensive footage of the invasion by Al Jazeera was shown worldwide by CNN, BBC and Sky News. Shortly after the invasion, Al Jazeera aired an interview with the British prime minister Tony Blair, with simultaneous translation into English. The airing of this interview added to the growing influence and reputation of Al Jazeera.

Western media as an appendage of the establishment

On the eve of the American-led invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon devised a strategy, which came to be known as 'embedded journalism.' More than 500 international reporters, journalists, photographers and television crew were embedded in coalition military units. They would travel, eat and sleep with the military units at the expense of the Pentagon, as long as they abided by certain rules set out by America's defence department. More than three-fourths of these journalists were American. All embedded journalists signed an agreement to the effect that they could be expelled by the military at any time. Needless to say, the whole idea seriously compromised professional integrity and objectivity.

On the eve of the invasion, George W. Bush had declared that there was 'no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.' The American media lapped up the official American claim that Saddam Hossein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction (WMD), despite of repudiation of such claims by the UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and the chairman of the International Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Muhammad El Baradei. Similarly, the American media uncritically accepted and disseminated the official claim that Saddam Hossein had links with Al Qaeda, which had a massive impact on public opinion in the country. According to a poll conducted by the Washington Post, in August 2003, 69% of Americans believed that Saddam was personally involved in 9/11 and that he had provided assistance to terrorist outfits. Later it turned out that the American (and British) claim about the existence of WMD in Iraq was a hoax. The American media not only miserably failed in its professional duty to investigate and interrogate the American authorities but also in going all out in support of the war.

The role of British media during the invasion of Iraq by the coalition forces was scarcely better than that of its American counterpart. A study by Professor Justin Lewis of the University of Cardiff revealed that, during the Iraq war, the four major British television networks-BBC, ITN, Sky News and Channel 4-had reported as fact 49% of unsubstantiated statements issued by the British government. The report revealed that 89% references to WMD on television networks in the country suggested that they indeed existed in Saddam's Iraq, while only 11% expressed reservations.

A study by Professor Justin Lewis of the University of Cardiff revealed that, during the Iraq war, the four major British television networks-BBC, ITN, Sky News and Channel 4-had reported as fact 49% of unsubstantiated statements issued by the British government. The report revealed that 89% references to WMD on television networks in the country suggested that they indeed existed in Saddam's Iraq, while only 11% expressed reservations.


By and large, the American media has toed the establishment line in foreign policy and international relations. A study in 2001 by the American national media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (Fair), found that 90% of American network television news reporting on the situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories failed to mention the words 'occupied' or 'occupation' or any other variant of the word. Instead, the West Bank and Gaza were described as 'contested' or 'disputed' territories. When Amnesty International issued a damning report in 2000 on Israel's gross violation of human rights in the occupied territories, most American press, including the New York Times, chose to ignore it. The FAIR study concluded that reports in the American media on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians were grossly misrepresented in favour of Israel.

During the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Walter Isaacson, CNN's CEO and chairman, issued instructions to his staff to slant the news in America's favour.

The renowned linguist and political commentator, Noam Chomsky, has made an interesting observation on the American media and on Al Jazeera.

    You can only be on television if you have concision. That means you can say something between two commercials. That's a terrific technique of propaganda. On the rare occasions when I'm asked to be on television, I usually refuse for this reason. If you're gonna be asked a question, say, about terrorism and you're given three sentences between commercials, you've got two choices. You can repeat conventional ideology-you say, yeah, Iran supports terrorism. Or you can sound like you're from Neptune. You can say, yeah, the US is one of the leading terrorist states. The people have a right to ask what you mean. And so if it was a sane news channel-Al Jazeera, say-you could talk about it and explain what you mean. You're not allowed to do that in the United States.

Two thousand years ago, the Chinese sage Sun Tzu had observed that 'in war nothing is too deceitful.' The truth of this adage was vividly brought out during the invasion of Iraq. In the course of the invasion, the coalition forces deliberately and calculatedly spread a rumour that a Shia uprising against Saddam Hossein had broken out in Basra, following which a massive artillery attack was launched by the coalition forces, while American and British warplanes dropped satellite-guided bombs on selected targets. Most of the American and British television networks and media carried this rumour as a fact. Al Jazeera not only showed the footage of civilian casualties and collateral damage to hospitals, schools and residential areas but also discredited the rumour of the Shia uprising. Its extensive footage of the damaged areas of Basra and of public grief showed that there was no trace of any uprising.

Many false claims made by the coalition forces in the course of the invasion were investigated and falsified by Al Jazeera. In April 2002, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks announced at a press briefing that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key Shia leader based in the holy city of Najaf, had issued an edict 'instructing his followers to remain calm and not to interfere with coalition actions.' Ayatollah Sistani's office immediately issued a disclaimer, which was aired on Al Jazeera, saying that he had not issued any such instruction.

Many false claims made by the coalition forces in the course of the invasion were investigated and falsified by Al Jazeera. In April 2002, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks announced at a press briefing that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key Shia leader based in the holy city of Najaf, had issued an edict 'instructing his followers to remain calm and not to interfere with coalition actions.' Ayatollah Sistani's office immediately issued a disclaimer, which was aired on Al Jazeera, saying that he had not issued any such instruction.


In the course of the invasion, five American servicemen and women of 507th Maintenance Company were captured by the Iraqis. When an American marine commander was asked about the incident, he dismissed it as 'Iraqi lies.' Soon after, and before the Pentagon came to know of the incident, Al Jazeera ran a seven-minute footage, showing the captured Americans together with an interview with the captives.

Al Jazeera's comprehensive and objective coverage of Israeli atrocities on the Palestinians and the consequent Intifada and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11 established its reputation as an independent and reliable source of information on the Middle East. The audience of Al Jazeera has grown from strength to strength. Within a few years Al Jazeera captured the attention of millions of viewers from the Persian Gulf to North Africa. In September 2000, an opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics for a Palestinian newspaper showed that nearly 75% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza turn to Al Jazeera as their first and authoritative source of news. During the Intifada, Al Jazeera's audience touched 35 million.

During the invasion of Afghanistan by the US-led coalition forces, which was exclusively covered by Al Jazeera, the channel's audience increased from 35 to 45 million worldwide. Before the invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera's Arabic-language website was receiving close to 13 million hits daily, of which 45% came from within the US and Europe. The present audience of Al Jazeera exceeds 50 million. Al Jazeera has become increasingly popular in the Middle East as well as in the Arabic-speaking diaspora in North America (where an estimated 1.8 million Arabs live), Britain (home to some 400,000 Arabs), and Germany (with an estimated Arab population of 800,000).

International recognition

Al Jazeera's independence, professionalism and objectivity have been widely recognized and appreciated. In 2000 Al Jazeera won three international journalism awards and signed a cooperative deal with a major Russian news agency. In March 2003, the London-based free speech organization, Index on Censorship, presented an award to Al Jazeera for its "courage in circumventing censorship and contributing to the free exchange of information in the Arab world." In April 2004, Webby Awards nominated Al Jazeera as one of the five best news websites, along with BBC News and National Geographic. Al Jazeera was voted the world's fifth most influential brand, after megabrands like Apple's, iPod, Google, IKEA and Starbucks, in a poll of branding professionals conducted in January 2005 by Brandchannel, a prestigious online magazine. Al Jazeera produced a documentary film, Control Room, by the Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim, which received an international award.

Al Jazeera's social and political role

In addition to serving as a reliable and authentic source of news and information on the Middle East, Al Jazeera has played a highly important role in creating and fostering a healthy climate of opinion based on unfettered freedom of expression and frank exchange of views in the Arab world. It has played a catalytic role in broadening intellectual horizons and in deepening political and social consciousness in the region. It has virtually ushered in an information revolution in the Arab world and has thereby helped in dispelling bias and stereotypes about issues, personalities and organizations. Al Jazeera has created and expanded the space for civil society in the Middle East.

The programmes aired on Al Jazeera are often critical of authoritarian rule, the suppression of freedom of expression and the violation of human rights in the Arab world. In 2001, Al Jazeera featured an extended interview with a leader of Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun on its programme Bila Hudud (Without Boundaries). The Ikhwan leader called for the end to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East through peaceful means and the restoration of democracy.

The climate of opinion and discourse created by Al Jazeera has had an enormous influence on popular consciousness in the Arab world. It has strengthened grass roots organizations, social movements and human rights groups. Al Jazeera's coverage of the second Palestinian Intifada had an enormous influence on the Arab world and inspired huge public protests and demonstrations in support of Palestinians across the region. The barbaric invasion of Iraq by the American-led coalition forces, extensively covered by Al Jazeera, with striking visuals of civilian casualties, gave rise to a wave of protests across the Middle East and the Islamic world. In Morocco, between half a million and a million people participated in the country-wide demonstrations. These demonstrations forced the temporary closure of 21 American embassies in the Middle East.

Al Jazeera has consistently sought to present an authentic portrayal of politics and society in the Middle East and has thereby provided a much-needed corrective to the biased and distorted picture of Arabs and Muslims painted by the Western media. Al Jazeera has thus broken the hegemony of Western news agencies over the Arab world. After many centuries, information flow is being channelized from East to West.

Al Jazeera has consistently sought to present an authentic portrayal of politics and society in the Middle East and has thereby provided a much-needed corrective to the biased and distorted picture of Arabs and Muslims painted by the Western media. Al Jazeera has thus broken the hegemony of Western news agencies over the Arab world. After many centuries, information flow is being channelized from East to West.


Al Jazeera has also held up a mirror to the Arabs, which reflects their strengths, potentialities, lost opportunities and failures. Since its inception, Al Jazeera has never wavered from the goal of independence and objectivity which it set for itself. It has been as critical of authoritarian regimes and the violation of human rights in the Middle East as of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy and Israeli expansionism. It has condemned Saddam Hossein's dictatorial regime as well as the banditry of the American-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In pursuit of the goal of political independence and objectivity, Al Jazeera has often faced hurdles and hardships. Perturbed by Al Jazeera's coverage of the atrocities committed by the coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US administration tried to exert pressure on the Qatari authorities to clip the channel's wings, but without success. Interestingly, this move was condemned by the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists as well as the International Press Institute. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration asked America's five major television networks-ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC-to block and censor Al jazzera's footage, which was complied with. During the invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera's office was targeted by the coalition forces and one of its journalists was killed in a missile attack.

Many Arab states at some time or other have lodged complaints against Al Jazeera, accusing the channel of inciting public opinion against the ruling establishment. It has been accused of being pro-Saddam, pro-Israeli, an agent of the British, a stooge of CIA and anti-Arab at different points of time. It has been banned in some Arab countries. The contradictory nature of such accusations testifies to the political independence and neutrality of Al Jazeera.

The professional clout, social and political influence, and international prestige of Al Jazeera are steadily on the increase. It is now competing with international media giants such as CNN, BBC and Sky News. It is poised to emerge as a media colossus-with a distinct flavour of its own-in the near future.

 
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