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The Means And Meaning Of Al Jazeera, As Top Arab Broadcaster Turns 15

Marking its 15th anniversary, Al Jazeera is basking in recent praise for its pivotal coverage of the Arab Spring protests. But the still relatively young history of the Qatar-based satellite network is filled with contradiction, as well as innovation

The nerve center at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar
The nerve center at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar
Silke Mülherr

The Egyptian revolution is the first ever to have been broadcast on live TV. For 18 days, the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera reported non-stop from Cairo's Tahrir Square, letting the young demonstrators have their say and filming the violence of regime thugs that followed. It was compelling coverage that told viewers: History is being made, and we at Al Jazeera are right here in the thick of it.

Weeks earlier, the broadcaster had been using video taken by a female blogger to report on the revolts in Tunisia. Lina Mhenni had filmed produce seller Mohamed Bouazizi‘s self-immolation and posted it on Facebook. Al Jazeera picked up on this, and gave Bouazizi's act a prominence it is unlikely to have had otherwise.

In a region where television is the leading medium, where less than one-third of people have Internet access, TV broadcasts are the only way to reach the masses. And during the 15 years Al Jazeera has been broadcasting, it has worked its way up to the No. 1 spot in the Arab world.

Its beginnings were humble. After a BBC project failed to gain a foothold in the region, in 1996 the Emir of Qatar launched Al Jazeera, meaning literally "The Island" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani hired the 17 reporters that had been working for the BBC, and from that point on, their scrutiny of Arab politics became a matter of principle.

An audience magnet were the US-style talk shows, where views for and against were publicly discussed – this was completely new in the Arab world. If to this day Al Jazeera shares similarities with CNN and the BBC in its style, the content of the broadcasts from Qatar is notably different. The Arab broadcaster, for example, relished every chance to highlight the double standard of US foreign policy during the Bush years.

By 2001, the perception in the West of Al Jazeera as a disturber of the peace and propaganda machine had changed and it started to be perceived as serious competition for established Western broadcasters. After the 9/11 attacks, it was the only one to have a bureau in Afghanistan and provided the world with images of the war that were also picked up by CNN.

When, in March 2003, the Iraq war began, Al Jazeera launched an English-language website. The move opened up a wide Western audience for the broadcaster, especially as the reporting in English was not a mere translation of Arabic content. If, for example, Al Jazeera's Arabic web page glorified suicide bombers as "martyrs', the English-language edition did not. Coverage also varied: North Africa and the Arab Peninsula constituted focal points for the Arabic website, while the English-language one was adapted to an international readership.

Not always independent

Financed primarily by the Qatari royal family, the news broadcaster has been changing perceptions in and about the region for 15 years. "Being financed by the royal family means that Al Jazeera doesn't have to become more commercial and take advertisers on board," says news chief Mustafa Souag.

That of course is by no means a guarantee of independent journalism. Al Jazeera's reporting on the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, for example, was biased against the existing regimes sometimes to the extent of being blatantly in favor of the revolutionaries and their agenda.

Bias was particulary noticeable in the case of Libya. The relationship of the Emir of Qatar and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was cloudy, and Sheikh Al Thani is said to have supported the rebels from the outset with money, weapons and fuel. As rebel incursions grew, Libya became the prime topic for Al Jazeera.

Some reproached the broadcaster for what was perceived as imaginative content creation, or for picking up on blatant misinformation such as the Transitional National Council's feeds about Gaddafi's black soldiers, which later turned out to be false propaganda.

The credibility of Al Jazeera as an independent voice in the Arab world also suffered from their noticeable downplay of the revolt in Bahrain, which they wrote off as "religion-fueled unrest." The double standard presumably comes from the fact that Bahrain, like Qatar, belongs to the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, and is thus to be spared critical coverage.

There is no question that Al Jazeera brought a breath of fresh air to the Arab media landscape. However, the broadcaster is a prisoner to politics. The Emir of Qatar is said to still have the last word on content: when he says "hold back", that's what Al Jazeera journalists do.

Ironically, it could be the very Arab Spring that Al Jazeera's coverage pushed onto the agenda that could prove the broadcaster's downfall. Before the revolutions, audiences depended on the station to circumvent government propaganda. Should democratic structures and journalistic freedom take hold in the region, Al Jazeera will have to share the fertile terrain of open information with other Arab media.

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