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Last Updated: 06/06/2006
The Rise of Al Jazeera
Nicolas Eliades

Al Jazeera is likely the most controversial media phenomenon of the last few decades. But say what you will about the goodness or badness of it, its effect is undeniable. Al Jazeera has done what no other media before it could: bring all Arabs together, under one umbrella, to speak their minds.

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The Arab world has always been so terribly far and distant from the Western world, not just geographically speaking (in which respect it is probably closer than most people assume), but also in terms of identity, outlook, culture, reaction and general day to day to life. This in turn has helped to fuel gross misperceptions, generalisations and overall lack of understanding that does not help much in confronting modern day demons of Islamic terrorism and the objectives and focus of a war in the Middle East like the one the United States is currently waging in Iraq.

Because of these blinkers we as the West seem to have on, we tend to forget that at the end of the day, their society is one faced with similar issues we would face if we didn’t have certain freedoms, like those of opinion, press and expression. The Middle East in its modern form, and arguably during its entire history, has never been a particularly welcoming place for opinion and opposition. Though this is true of many places, it is ironic that a civilization, in the words of Huntington, would suffer from such a generic case of government oppression and censorship. New media such as print, radio, television, etc, have generally been used to further the objectives of controlling regimes. Saddam Hussein did not allow open criticism in the press, or anywhere really. Egypt owned all media outlets to which its people had access, and these reported largely on the average day of a politician - what meetings he (because there is striking male dominance in Egyptian politics) might have attended, what phone calls he would have received, and other such riveting bits of news. Even things as universal in the Arab world as the commencement of the Haj, Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which is determined by astrological calculations, were largely delivered by state sponsored media. This means that, if Saudi religious authorities had abruptly announced the start of the Muslim lunar month of Dhu'l Hijja (when the Haj commences) a day before the expected date, it would have been up to the discretion of local broadcasters to inform Hajis of the change. This did not necessarily happen.

Equally, events in far off Egypt remained, for locals in a Jordanian or Kuwaiti village, far off in Egypt. There existed little if any shared experience for the Arab world as a whole - or at least on a conscious level - other than the greater cultural similarities. The most memorable shared experience in recent times had been the monthly radio concerts of the legendary Um Kalthoum, who, for a brief period in the 1970s united the Arab world on Thursday to listen to her sing. Yes, there existed the shared notions of the Palestinian cause, the shared Islamic identity and perhaps equally the longing for the return of the Golden Era of Islam; however, with regards to actuality and day to day existence, the Arab world was largely fragmented.

Until, that is, Al’ Jazeera stepped onto the pan-Arabic stage. Oh how Nasser would have enjoyed such a bold Arabic enterprise, except that it might have undermined him with the truth. Al Jazeera, though initially received with some apprehension, represented for the first time a trans-Arabian news network that transcended the state apparatus and delivered into the living rooms of an average Arab family what was going on in their region, even in their country. News became interesting. News became, more than anything, relevant.

This phenomenon, not unlike the “CNN effect” is so much more relevant in the lives of an average Arab, where censorship was a normal occurrence. “CNNification” for the West, meant instant access to events across the globe, in real time. The general effect would be to empower the world with instant information, to the point that public opinion could sway the outcome of a particular event. This effect is classically crystallized in the memory of the Clinton administration’s Somali venture. The US government chose to take unilateral action in a warlord dominated Somalia partially in response to the US public demand after viewing eerie footage on CNN and other news networks. It also, of course, brings events that occur in Indonesia much closer to us, because of what they might represent. The impressive outburst of compassion and eagerness to help the Indian Ocean rim after the Tsunami struck in Dec 2004 was in large part possible because of the instant and extensive character of the media coverage the event received. The rise of international media outlets has undoubtedly changed our world. Our Western world. Indeed, the whole world. The rise of an Arabic news network, though, represented so much more for the Arab world than CNN did in ours. Where we were finally connected as a world, the Middle East and North Africa were finally connected.

In a land where little opportunity for public expression existed, a call-in talk show, so very normal to our Western constructs, seemed like an extraordinary possibility. It meant that Rajah in Casablanca could debate with Salman in Bahrain about what it truly means to be Jordanian. A debate which would normally be avoided boomed out of boxes in a family’s lounge. This meant that a Palestinian family, from Grandmother to children, sitting in a room in Amman could actually question the difference between their identity and what was forced on them, because other people where thinking it, and they now knew it. It lent legitimacy to people’s thoughts and gave them permission to question.

Al Jazeera meant a revolution in thought and identity in the Middle East and amongst the Arab populace at large. It also meant that there was an alternative to biased government broadcasts and largely western-slanted media institutions like the BBC and CNN. This paper explores the rise of Al Jazeera as a media corporation and the effects it has had on its audience. It considers the effect a corporation can have on a large group of people and the consequences its actions may have for the world at large. With this in mind, we take a look at the reactions on both sides of the Atlantic and within Arab countries, as well as Al Jazeera’s effect on international and national relations and policy.

This includes an analysis of reaction to Al Jazeera, including the establishment of a rival news network, Al Arabiyah, and where this currently places Al Jazeera. The paper hopes to understand and explain the history of Al Jazeera in an era when corporations often transcend nationalities. Al Jazeera is a particularly interesting example, because, though financed by a state, it transcends this and affects population, in turn affecting state and regional dynamics. This paper asserts that Al Jazeera is one of the most important corporation developments to have occurred since the end of the Cold War. In addition to this, the paper believes it to be a powerful engine for changing the general dynamics in the region. Ultimately this paper asks whether the rise of Al Jazeera could be as significant in the Middle East as Gutenberg’s creation of movable type was in its day.

Nicolas Eliades is a Master's candidate seeking a degree in International Peace Studies from the University for Peace