Al Jazeera: Breaking 'real' news, winning grudging admiration

The TV channel maintains subtle balance among three trends: pan-Arab, Islamist and liberal

Addressing the US Senate foreign relations committee, she said the United States was losing the ‘information war’ in the world because the large American networks were broadcasting “a million commercials and... arguments between talking heads”, while “viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the US because it’s real news”. She added: “Like it or hate it, it is really effective,” and it is “literally changing people’s minds and attitudes.”

Although not a disinterested observer — Hillary was defending her department’s budget — her recognition of Al Jazeera’s international role and impact takes on particular significance in light of the upheavals in the Arab world.

At the regional level, the channel has set the pace and established the way of doing things for the Arab media, marginalising some of its Arabic-language competitors and knocking others off their stroke.

The challenge to his employers made in a live broadcast by Hafez al-Mirazi, a star presenter on the Saudi Al Arabiya channel, Al Jazeera’s main competitor, is highly significant. In response to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, the Egyptian journalist expressed his regret that his broadcaster “doesn’t dare utter a single word about the role of King Abdullah or the Saudi regime”.

He concluded with an ultimatum: “If we cannot express our opinion, we should give up. In the next programme, we’ll conduct an experiment: We will talk about the impact (of the Egyptian revolution) on Saudi Arabia. If that works, then Al Arabiya is an independent station. If not, it’s thank you and goodbye from me.”
T
hat was his last appearance on the Saudi-run channel. His act of rebellion emphasised the inability of Saudi leaders to adapt to the new political climate. It also marked the return to the Arab media of an Egypt freed from the paralysing control of Mubarak, which will probably turn out to be the most significant event in the region over the years ahead.

Since its inception in November 1996, Al Jazeera has revolutionised the regional media landscape, transforming its structure, the rules by which it operates and the political power relations which underpin it. Some believe Al Jazeera has played a more important role than social media in igniting the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world.

Because of its common language, the Arab media has operated in a shared sphere that transcends national boundaries since the late 19th century. Inter-Arab rivalries are played out in this public space, controlled now mostly by the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Egypt’s dominance of the Arab media ended on Ganial Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970; Iraq’s disappeared after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when Saudi Arabia took control of most pan-Arab media. But the Saudi monopoly came to an end in the mid-1990s with the launch of Al Jazeera by the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Al Jazeera broke the Saudi mould in three ways: by its choice of location, by the kinds of journalists it recruited and by its ideological position. It used to be thought that Arabic broadcasters could only enjoy comparative freedom if they were based overseas. The Saudi media empire was based in London and Italy and profited from large numbers of Arab, especially Lebanese, journalists who had become the allies — some assumed the mouthpieces — of the Saudis.

Freedom in home region

Al Jazeera gave the lie to this assumption by showing that Arab media could enjoy freedom in its home region. (Gradually, the Saudi media has begun to return, though not to Saudi Arabia itself; most of it has chosen the United Arab Emirates.) And to win viewers and encourage the public to identity with it, Al Jazeera’s founders wanted its employees to be representative of a range of Arab countries.

A careful reading of Al Jazeera’s ideological identity and its editorial line, through an analysis of its discussion programmes and choice of themes — but also through the declared positions of its main presenters — reveals a subtle balance among three trends: pan-Arab, Islamist and liberal.

Al Jazeera’s success and the interest, even passion, it arouses in the Arab public is explained by its innovative way of presenting news, and also by its openness. By allowing opposition voices from every Arab country to comment on official versions of events, Al Jazeera gives its viewers a genuine debate.

The range of contributors — in nationality, ideological and political complexion, and country of residence — has enabled a circulation of ideas and viewpoints that bypasses national borders and censors.

As a result, the channel has contributed decisively to the creation of a transnational Arabic public sphere in which political opinion and choices about issues that concern the Arab world can be formed.

This pluralism — including the proliferation of competing cross-border news providers launched by other states, such as Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya), the United States (Al Hurra) and Iran (Al Alam) — has resulted in a unique situation in which a relatively free, pluralist media sphere has been superimposed on authoritarian regimes.

This paradox, made more acute by Al Jazeera’s boldness and influence, has kept the pressure on regimes discomfited by the free flow of information. That revolutionary processes in the Arab world have now reached maturity is largely due to this tension between the political and media spheres.

In effect, Al Jazeera has ceased to be an ordinary TV channel and has transformed itself into an alternative political forum. For the past decade, all the major questions affecting the people of the region have been debated on its programmes. It has become a factor in all the major conflicts from Afghanistan to Palestine.

Criticism of the channel’s position, from within the Arab world and beyond, is now part of the West Asia political landscape. Some deplore its openness to the Israelis (it was the first satellite channel to interview Israeli leaders); others condemn it for a purported Islamist slant. Its intensive coverage of the Arab revolutions, especially in Libya and Yemen, and its support for United Nations military intervention, have been denounced as interference in the internal affairs of those countries.

The absence of Saudi and Qatar opposition from the screen, the channel’s relative timidity covering events in Bahrain, and its lack of criticism of the intervention of Saudi forces and their allies in Bahrain are seen as a sign that Al Jazeera wants to preserve the status quo in the Gulf.

Yet all the signs are that Al Jazeera has become an Arab phenomenon, a mirror of change in the region, which goes far beyond what Doha wants. That much is clear in its coverage of the revolutions of recent months.

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