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The launch of the Doha-based satellite television channel al-Jazeera in 1996 – one year after the new Emir came to power – has radically altered the Arab media world. It was the first regional station to offer hard news and field reporting combined with controversial political and social debate. But most of all it struck a populist pan-Arab chord that had not been experienced in the region since Nasser’s ‘Voice of the Arabs’ radio broadcasts in the 1960s.
The station not only allowed viewers to speak their minds through live phone-ins, it also offered a platform for political dissidents and populist preachers such as the Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi. It broke with some political and social taboos, while at the same time keeping strictly in line with Arab popular sentiment on high profile issues such as the American Middle East policy or the problems in Israel/Palestine.
The effects of al-Jazeera’s rise to prominence have been diverse. Many other satellite channels have sprouted up in the region since, such as Sunni Lebanese Future TV and Saudi controlled, but Dubai based, al-Arabiya. These stations may have imitated al-Jazeera’s modern presentation but have not been able – or willing – to reach the same level of controversy, and thus influence, of the trendsetter. At the same time, al-Jazeera has attracted fierce criticism from the West for its supposed radical Islamist stance and anti-Western rhetoric.
American politicians in particular have expressed their annoyance at al-Jazeera’s coverage of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. No one in the region subsequently believes the official American statements that the bombings of al-Jazeera’s offices in both Kabul (2001) and Baghdad (2003) were unfortunate accidents. Within the region itself, autocratic regimes have felt threatened by al-Jazeera’s airing of opposition voices and have more than once closed its foreign offices or intimidated its correspondents.
Western and local outrage or intimidation has only served to provide al-Jazeera with an aura of audacity, freedom and independence both among local Arabs and among liberals in the West. This image has become so entrenched that most observers have accepted its staff’s assertions that they operate free of censorship from the Qatari government. A good example of this perception is the influential book Al-Jazeera. The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West (2005) by the British journalist Hugh Miles.
In this book, Miles explains al-Jazeera’s policy of ignoring Qatar’s deposed Emir and his former entourage in the following way: ‘Qatar is such a tiny country with a minute population that [an interview by al-Jazeera with the former Emir] would certainly not serve its audience.’ But even he has to admit that ‘there is probably an informal connection of some kind’ between the popular channel and the Qatari Emir, who personally financed its launch and continues to finance the station, which invariably makes a loss.