Arabs started to pay attention to media in the Middle East after the establishment of Al-Jazeera. Prior to this, they considered the information they got from the media in their own nations biased as it only provided speeches of their prominent leaders as well as the reports of their activities. Consequently, they turned to Western media for rather concrete information not only from the Arab world but also from other parts of the world.
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They relied on news from three major broadcasting stations (in Arabic) which included The BBC based in London, The U.S Voice of America and the French radio Monte Carlo. However, they considered the three as foreign sources of information since they believed that their ultimate goal was to serve the specific interests of their own countries.
It is with no doubt that the Arab community needed its own news channel(s) based on their land which would give a comprehensive coverage of all aspects form their own point of view. It was not until the establishment of Al-Jazeera television network that the Arabs gained a sense of pride in having a genuine Arab channel. This paper explores the history as well as the effects of the Al-Jazeera network in the Middle East as well as the rest of the world.
The history of Al-Jazeera
When Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa gained power in the Qatar, he brought about many reforms in the nation. One of the most significant reforms that he initiated in the communications and media sector was the abolition of the ministry of information. By so doing, he abolished censorship over the media in Qatar. This led to the freedom of the press, television and radio in Qatar paving the way for Al-Jazeera.
Historians argue that Shaikh Hamad wanted a television station that would reflect the new image of Qatar that he would create during his rule to the entire world. His quest led to the establishment of Al-Jazeera since he decreed the introduction of the station in the communication sector shortly after he assumed power-less than a year (Bahry 89). His initial idea was to modernize Qatari TV to be able to broadcast via satellite but later changed this for a new television station.
The Emir’s plan for the Al- Jazeera station was to air both news and entertainment. However, he later decided that the station would air exclusively news from not only his nation but also from other regions in the world. He appointed three professionals to be part of the committee that was to work to ensure that the station was functional within the shortest time possible.
The committee comprised of Adnan Al-Shariff who was a journalist, Muhammad Suhlaw, a financial advisor to the Emir and Hamad Bin Thamir Al Thani who worked under the secretary of the ministry of information (Bahry 90). Their first responsibility was to prepare a pilot program, which won the Emir’s approval. The committee began recruiting professionals to work for the station.
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The process of recruiting employees for the station was easy. During that time (1996), there was a major dispute in another television station. The Saudi owned satellite station based in Rome had entered into a contract with the BBC Arabic TV station. However, the contract did not last long due to a dispute between the two parties after the BBC station covered events that did not please the Saudis (Ziauddin 53).
One of the broadcasts that annoyed the Saudis covered a leading Saudi dissident. Additionally, the BBC Arabic television covered a funeral procession of a Saudi Princess, which deeply offended the Saudis since it was contrary to their conservative Wahhadi beliefs (Rubin 212). This Saudi-BBC dispute coincided with the establishment of the Al-Jazeera network. Following the dispute, hundreds of media professionals became jobless.
Al-Jazeera signed a contract with 120 of them among which were well-trained professional Arab Journalists, media administrators as well as broadcasters. Some of the factors that attracted many of the trained media professionals include better salaries and freedom of expression in the new television station-Al Jazeera (Marash 47). Among these new recruits were two reporters who played a pivotal role in the establishment of Al-Jazeera’s most popular programs namely Fassal Al-Qassim and Sami Haddad.
In the same year (1996), the Qatari Council of Ministers made a decision to appoint a board of directors, which comprised of seven members that would oversee the overall running of the station. The station began it operations in 1996. Initially, it broadcasted for six hours a day, which later increased to twelve hours.
It took approximately two years for Al-Jazeera to attract the attention of the majority of the Arabs not only in the Middle East but also in other Arab nations such as Libya and Egypt (Tischler 62). In January 1999, the station began its twenty-four hour broadcasts.
According to Miles, by 2001 Al-Jazeera had built up and grown exponentially with 497 employees, 38 foreign correspondents and 11 offices in other nations around the globe (37). As the popularity of the channel grew, many of its viewers mostly Arabs, continued to access in-depth information about several aspects in the Middle East.
It did not take a long time before Al-Jazeera began to broadcast its programs in English. It enabled people from all over the world especially Arabs to access information from the station. This was particularly important for the Arabs who are not familiar with Arabic (language) to access information from the Middle East and other Arab nations.
However, had it not been the for the September 11 terrorist attack in the United States, Al-Jazeera may have well remained solely of the interest of the Arabs especially those in the Middle East (Kessler 28). Their broadcast of the terror attack drew the attention of a huge audience especially in the West that led to the expansion of its network. Al-Jazeera international aimed to reach 40 million homes in the world through cable and satellite on launch.
Late last year, Al-Jazeera English began broadcasting to approximately two million cable subscribers in the US (Ackerman 113). Some renowned American leaders have praised the network for its news coverage. For instance, Secretary of state Hillary Clinton refers to its broadcast as real news. Additionally, John McCain is very proud of the way the station handles the Arab Spring (Kessler 30).
In the Arab world, Al-Jazeera is among one of the leading stations with a daily reach of 25%, which is equal to that of the joint market leader MBC (Johnson 31). Al-Jazeera English/International broadcasts to nearly 250 million homes in 130 countries. On the other hand, Al-Jazeera Arabic has captured the attention of approximately 70 million homes in North Africa and the Middle East. With its vast coverage, Al-Jazeera has a great effect not only to the Middle Eastern society but also to the global society.
The effect of the Al-Jazeera Network
Aljazeera has brought about several positive changes in the Middle Eastern society. It has empowered people by providing them with knowledge, information as well as ideas. This has been possible through its constructive shows/broadcasts. Among the constructive shows is the ‘Islamic Law and Life’ which is a weekly program presented by one of the renowned personalities in the Muslim circles.
This show concentrates on certain topics such as the compatibility of Islam and democracy as well as the position of non-Muslims in a Muslim society. Such topics help in building the society as they provide information about what is required of the various parties in a society for the smooth running of a nation. Other programs have also been instrumental in clarifying some of the controversial issues within the Arab community.
For instance, it was during one of the shows when Qaradawi, a presenter, declared publicly that it is acceptable for women not to wear headscarves (hijab) in certain circumstances especially if they visit or live in a secular country. Such clarifications enhance unity as well as cohesion within the Middle East region. Al-Jazeera has led to reforms in some of the countries in the Middle East by criticizing all forms of inhumane acts.
For instance, it constantly opposed and criticized Saddam Hussein’s brutalities in Iraq that led to the events, which brought down his regime. It also criticized the autocratic transfer of power in Syria bringing about the desired changes in the nation. According to Austin, Arabs all over the world love Al-Jazeera due to its ability and willingness to criticize various regimes in most Arab nations and present views that dissent from official lines (36).
It regularly addresses issues that are considered forbidden by Arab standards such as the torture of prisoners, sex, polygamy, women’s rights and Islamic fundamentalism. As a result, the radio, TV and internet Al-Jazeera programs have united the Middle Eastern society.
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To the global community, Al-Jazeera has also been a fundamental source of information. For instance, their interview with the exiled Saudi billionaire and terrorist Osama Bin Laden was pivotal for the American government in shaping its tactics in the fight against terrorism in the world.
Additionally, it promotes democracy since it insists that it is important for Muslims in the west to participate fully in the political processes in the countries that they live in. This ensures that every person in a democratic nation exercises his/her democratic power enhancing cohesion in all nations as far as politics are concerned.
On the other hand, Al-Jazeera has led to the propagation of enmity between different nations, which in some instances have led to violence in such nations. For instance, the late Libyan president Muamar Qadhafi used Al-Jazeera to cause embarrassment on the rest of the Arab leaders especially those in the Middle East.
He provided a leakage of a draft of one of the statements of the Arab League Summit on the Palestinian intifada in an attempt to expose what he believed were some of the weaknesses of the Arab leaders, which offended the Arab community (Bahry 91). In addition, it has also played a pivotal role in the propagation of the war between the Arab nations and America. For instance, in 1999 Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used Al-Jazeera as the medium to call upon the people of Egypt and Saudi Arabia among other Arab nations to rise up and overthrow their leaders. He accused the leaders of being “stooges of US imperialism”-hate speech (Bahry 92).
According to Hassan, people watch Al-Jazeera’s confrontations of irreconcilables at their homes as entertainment and then go out to spread conspiracy theories in the streets (100). This has been evident in New York, Cairo, London and Rijadh. At times, the protests have led to massive loss of property as well as lives.
Some people argue that Al-Jazeera network for news broadcasts has led to the formation of many Islamist groups not only in Middle East but also in other parts of the world since it provides a platform for airing their views to their target groups. Its broadcasts have also caused heated debates over several issues due to some of the exclusive information they provide. For instance, it aired the bombardment of Baghdad during the ‘Desert Fox’ operation in December 1998.
Al-Jazeera International and Arabic television dates back in 1996. Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa played a pivotal role in the establishment of the television station in his country especially through the abolition of the censorship over the media in Qatar. Over the years, its network has gained massive audience not only in the Middle East but also in other parts of the world. Al-Jazeera’s values, its championing of democracy, freedom of expression, civil liberties dissent and criticism are having profound influence on its audience.
It also addresses and tries to solve some issues within the Muslim faith fostering understanding at different levels. On several occasions, certain leaders have used it to propagate enmity between nations as in the case of Saddam Hussein and Muamar Qadhafi. Its involvement in Arab politics both domestic and regional as well as its shaping of public opinion has challenged political taboos and created new spaces for political and media freedom. This has led to the several Arab revolutions.
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