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Essay
Last Updated: 06/01/2010
Al-Jazeera: the Famous channel in the Middle East
Amani Kh. Al-Nsairat

This article traces the rise of Al-Jazeera and discusses some of the controversy that surrounds it.


"Since Qatar became host to the headquarters for Al-Jazeera, its political weight on the world stage has increased. Al-Jazeera has made tiny Qatar a major player among the world's news media" [1]

The launch of the Arabic version of Al-Jazeera satellite channel transformed the vision of the viewers in the Middle East. This channel has become so well known that governments and decision makers around the world can hardly ignore their programming [2]. This paper gives an overview of Al-Jazeera in the Middle East by highlighting the history of this channel and the reasons behind its emergence and success. This paper will also discuss different perspectives on Al-Jazeera, some more critical and others more positive.

Despite the controversy, however, this paper finds that Al-Jazeera is still having an effect on the world and at least tries to help people to be aware of what is going on from a Middle Eastern perspective. At the same time we have to recognize that there is no absolute objectivity within any channel around the world.

Background of Al-Jazeera:

A discussion of Al-Jazeera should begin by looking at the history of Qatar and the change revolution that took place after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani undertook a peaceful coup and seized the government from his father on June 27, 1995. The coup happened because of several reasons which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The weakness of Shiekh Hammad's Father [3]
  2. Sheikh Khalifa also had delegated most of his ruling responsibilities to his sons following the 1991 Gulf War [4]
  3. Corruption prevailed in various government sectors, and the revenues from the country's oil were not used to improve the country's infrastructure [5]

After that, Sheikh Hamad announced a new order of things and set out to challenge Saudi Arabian primacy in the Gulf, which indirectly controls MBC, ART, Orbit, and al-Sharq al-Awsat [6]. He hoped to underline his independence and give his principality a voice in the world. These goals came with different actions including the launch of Al-Jazeera, the abolishment of the ministry of information in March 1998, and the sponsorship of municipal elections a year later in which women were allowed to vote [7].

The launch of Al-Jazeera in 1996 was one of the various innovative decisions which Sheikh Hamad took in the first years of his administration which could be considered part of a pro-active and somewhat liberal attitude [8]; however, it is worth noting that Sheikh Hamad had this idea earlier, in 1994 [9].

Sheikh Hamad had a speech at Georgetown University and he said, in reference to his hopes and goals for change in Qatar:

"We have simply got to reform ourselves. We're living in modern age. People log on the Internet. They watch cable TV. You cannot isolate yourself in today's world. And our reforms are progressing well. In a tribal country like Qatar, however, it could take time for everyone to accept what we've done. But change, more change, is coming" [10]

A number of Al-Jazeera employees are highly professional Arab broadcasters with BBC Arabic service experience who left BBC because of the collapse of the BBC- Orbit agreement in 1996, which put them out of work in London [11].

Al-Jazeera can be classified according to the content as a thematic television station with a concentration on one theme, which is news and public affairs.

Al-Jazeera's success:

Al-Jazeera has achieved great success in the Arab world, for several reasons. Unlike most news outlets, Al-Jazeera shows respect for the religion, culture, tradition and aspirations of its listeners in the Middle East [12]. Furthermore, the focus is on news stories. This approach is risky, because it can carry sensitive material for one government or another, as has been the case many times [13]. Partly because of this, while it has been readily accepted by the people of the region, the channel has received harsh criticism from governments inside and outside, and has even been subjected to an advertising embargo by Middle Eastern governments. Rather than holding the station back, however, the anger of the governments it has provoked has deepened the extent of Al-Jazeera's impact and credibility in the region [14]. The station’s growth can be seen through the broadcast time and the number of employees. The broadcast time of Al-Jazeera had been started with six hours each day, but later on it was increased and until January 1, 1999 the broadcast time has been on the air 24 hours daily. The number of employees has increased from 200 to 850, not including foreign offices [15].

Khalil Rinnawi mention about the popularity of Al-Jazeera as follows:

"Despite the proliferation of satellite channels, Al-Jazeera filled a new need for relatively unbiased, critical, well-covered news from an Arab perspective" [16]

There are some important events which encouraged Al-Jazeera to emerge as a famous channel in the Middle East:

  1. In 1998, during the Operation Desert Fox Al-Jazeera was the only news channel there covering while the western networks were not [17]. Also it had covered the Israeli elections and had conducted interviews with Israeli leaders like Ehud Barak [18].
  2. In 2000: by the time Al-Aqsa Intifada began, Al-Jazeera had reporters in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel covering the story as it evolved [19]
  3. In 2001: after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and when the West became very interested in Afghanistan and Osama Bin Ladin, Al-Jazeera was the only broadcast from Kabul especially after the Taliban expelled all journalists except those from Al-Jazeera. And it was the only network to cover the U.S. war on Afghanistan. With this event the news organization truly started to be an important player in international politics [20]
  4. In 2003: the Invasion of Iraq where Al-Jazeera coverage of the fighting from an Arab perspective [21]
  5. In 2006: the war on Lebanon, Al-Jazeera covered this event.
  6. In 2008: Gaza war, Al-Jazeera played role in covering this war.

Although this is not an exhaustive list, these critical events helped Al-Jazeera to greatly increase its number of viewers. Some observers define that Al-Jazeera is the Arab world's most watched newscast [22]:

"A widely cited survey conducted by Gallup in 2002 found that viewers in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon are most likely to turn to Al-Jazeera first for information on regional and world event" [23].

Barkho did an analysis to understand the success of Al-Jazeera and he found that Al-Jazeera stories give priority to issues of Arab and Islamic concern and shown the respective of the Arab and Islamic world by the language that they always use [24]. It is also significant that Al-Jazeera's programming is pan-Arab [25].

Controversial and some conspiracy theories about Al-Jazeera:

Al-Jazeera plays two roles in the Middle East: Internal and External. And these roles represent its agenda. The internal role focuses on debates of values, customs, and norms in Arab society and politics [26]. At the same time, the station offers critical coverage and opinion on external and international events such as the military interventions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq [27]. The network also challenges western values and behavior. This internal and external agenda lead to several criticizes from outside and inside Middle East [28].

Philip Seib mentioned in his book "New Media and the New Middle East" the different criticism of Al-Jazeera because of it is agenda:

"[…] the Arab governments may have favored the external representation of arab interests, they have been more concerned with internal agenda, which directly questioned their autocratic governance and leadership. Thus, they focused their criticism on the internal role of the network. The United States on the other hand may have favored the internal agenda, which is compatible with the idea of democratizing the Middle East, but has been much more concerned with the external agenda, which in American eyes has undermined public support in the Arab World for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, American and other Western focused their criticism on Al-Jazeera's external political agenda." [29]

In addition to the station’s content, the ownership and policy structure of Al-Jazeera are unique, which has raised further controversy. The funding of the channel comes primarily from the government of Qatar, although policy is dictated by upper-level staff, not the Qatari government [30]. However, Al-Jazeera has been known to show some deference to the Qatari government’s concerns and agendas. Khalil Rinnawi notes that:

“Al-Jazeera can only leave one topic untouched: Internal Qatari politics. But I have noted earlier, it is becoming increasingly open relatively speaking on this issue” [31].

In spite of the success that Al-Jazeera has gained in the Middle East as the Arab world's most watched network newscast, some conspiracy theories extend to its viewers, intellectuals and even Al-Jazeera staff. These conspiracy theories can be represented as follows:

  1. Al-Jazeera is funded by Zionists; this point appeared in connection with the fact that one of the investors in Al-Jazeera is Jewish [32]
  2. Somebody is funding Al-Jazeera to allow Israeli normalization in the Arab world, and this point came in connection with the fact that Qatar does not boycott Israel [33]
  3. Al-Jazeera is supported by the U.S. to further its own geo-political ends [34]

Despite the conspiracy theories and the criticisms, Al-Jazeera is successful and does not speak with one voice [35], pursuing on its logo "one opinion and another" [36] and has guests with diverse perspectives, such as pro-Arab, pro-American, Islamist, die-hard secularists, feminists, and misogynists [37]. It has risen to a level of prominence and credibility for the viewers in the Middle East and it has successes by providing the Qatari citizens, and viewers from around the region and the world, with awareness of different sectors because of its broad programming. Al-Jazeera has 13 live broadcasts programs and 20 recorded programs covering several issues and sectors [38].



[1]: El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Iskandar, Adel. 2003. Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Chapter4. P71.
[2]: Barkho, Leon. The Arabic Al-Jazeera Vs Britain's BBC and America's CNN: who does Journalism right? http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol8/Essays/arab2.pdf
[3]: El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Iskandar, Adel. 2003. Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Chapter4. P71.
[4]: Ibid.
[5]: Ibid.
[6]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P215.
[7]: Ibid.
[8]: Ibid.
[9]: Ibid.
[10]: El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Iskandar, Adel. 2003. Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Chapter4. P71.
[11]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P216.
[12]: Barkho, Leon. The Arabic Al-Jazeera Vs Britain's BBC and America's CNN: who does Journalism right? http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol8/Essays/arab2.pdf
[13]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P216.
[14]: Barkho, Leon. The Arabic Al-Jazeera Vs Britain's BBC and America's CNN: who does Journalism right? http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol8/Essays/arab2.pdf
[15]: Ibid.
[16]: Rinnawi, Khalil. 2006. Instant Nationalism: McArabism, al-Jazeera and Transnational Media in the Arab World. Chapter6: Mc-Arabism through Transnational Arab News: the Case of al-Jazeera. P104.
[17]: Seib, Philip. 2007. New Media and the New Middle East.Chapter4: The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera. p55.
[18]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P216.
[19]: Seib, Philip. 2007. New Media and the New Middle East.Chapter4: The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera. p55.
[20]: Ibid.
[21]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P217.
[22]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P230.
[23]: Seib, Philip. 2007. New Media and the New Middle East.Chapter4: The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera. p56.
[24]: Barkho, Leon. The Arabic Al-Jazeera Vs Britain's BBC and America's CNN: who does Journalism right? http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol8/Essays/arab2.pdf
[25]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P230.
[26]: Seib, Philip. 2007. New Media and the New Middle East.Chapter4: The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera. p74.
[27]: Ibid.
[28]: Ibid.
[29]: Seib, Philip. 2007. New Media and the New Middle East.Chapter4: The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera. p74.
[30]: Rinnawi, Khalil. 2006. Instant Nationalism: McArabism, al-Jazeera and Transnational Media in the Arab World. Chapter6: Mc-Arabism through Transnational Arab News: the Case of al-Jazeera. P98.
[31]: Ibid.
[32]: El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Iskandar, Adel. 2003. Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Chapter4. P71.
[33]: Ibid.
[34]: Ibid
[35]: Rinnawi, Khalil. 2006. Instant Nationalism: McArabism, al-Jazeera and Transnational Media in the Arab World. Chapter6: Mc-Arabism through Transnational Arab News: the Case of al-Jazeera. P104.
[36]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P230.
[37]: Rinnawi, Khalil. 2006. Instant Nationalism: McArabism, al-Jazeera and Transnational Media in the Arab World. Chapter6: Mc-Arabism through Transnational Arab News: the Case of al-Jazeera. P104.
[38]: Rugh, William. 2004. Arab mass media. Chapter10. P215.

Amani Kh. Al-Nsairat is an MA candidate of the Media and Peace programme at the University for Peace.
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