THE 1990S MARKED the spread of transnational Arabic satellite television with the launch of the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Corp. (MBC). Fifteen years later, the number of satellite channels targeting the Middle East has multiplied. Besides some dozen transnational, pan-Arabic TV stations, a number of former terrestrial-only, state- and private-run broadcasters are now also distributed via satellite. Cable households in the region are reported to receive up to 100 broadcasting channels, including a number of transnational services in Persian, Kurdish, English, French, Urdu, Hindi, Malayalam, Tagalog, etc.
The majority of satellite channels, which transmit programming in Arabic, are general entertainment or special interest. However, there are also a number of “mixed” programming channels, covering a broad scope of fictional and non-fictional fare.
Arabic satellite stations, those covering news and current affairs either on a 24-hour basis or as part of their overall program mix, have received the most Western attention from journalism observers, media researchers and critics, for their appeal to a Pan-Arab authence and their professional approach to news and current affairs.
Al Jazeera in particular has become the most popular television station in the Middle East and the first Arabic channel to provide extensive live news coverage, even sending reporters to previously unthinkable places, such as Israel.
Its global recognition is so wide that Al Jazeera was voted the world’s fifth most influential brand in a poll of branding professionals conducted in January 2005 by Brandchannel, an online magazine. Al Jazeera came just behind Apple’s iPod, Google, IKEA and Starbucks, mega brands that net billions of dollars each year.
Al Jazeera was founded in Qatar in 1996 with financing from the country’s young Emir and a staff largely drawn from a failed Saudi-British joint venture in satellite television. Although it is not the first transnational Arabic television station, it is the first to make open, contentious politics central to its mission. It has managed to develop an independent identity that can be attributed to having a staff of Arabs from different countries and to the intention of addressing issues that have universal appeal to Arab audiences. Al Jazeera is seen as the best broadcast organization to offer a pro-Arab perspective as it covers live events, controversial issues and content, as well as domestic, regional and international news.
Before the satellite television revolution, most Arab viewers depended on terrestrial state television, and perhaps on foreign radio broadcasts. Neither gave direct, immediate visual access to political developments abroad, in other Arab countries, or even in their own countries. When Egyptians protested in one part of Cairo, for example, Egyptians outside that neighborhood would have heard about it only by word of mouth, since Egyptian television would not have covered it.
Most Arabs viewed traditional news programs with skepticism, understanding clearly that the concepts and images were limited. Now, virtually any protest or election or political event is immediately covered by Al Jazeera and its many competitors.
Talk shows on Al Jazeera and other Arabic television stations have contributed enormously to building the underpinnings of a more pluralist political culture, one that welcomes and thrives on open and contentious political debate. News coverage of protests and struggles has opened up the realm of possibility across the Arab world, inspiring political activists and shifting the balance of power on the ground.
Al Jazeera’s programs have famously revolutionized political discourse in the Arab world, fearlessly tackling taboos of all stripes. Open, frank discussions of social issues (AIDS, education, women’s rights), economic issues, and especially political issues have brought those subjects – which had previously been discussed only in private salons or in limited circulation and elite newspapers – into everyone’s living rooms.
Faisal Al Qassem’s provocative program, “The Opposite Direction,” which became one of the most watched and discussed television shows in the Arab world in the late 1990s, is a symptom of ravenous hunger for such frank political debate.
In reporting news, Al Jazeera has demonstrated “contextual objectivity” – the communication and treatment of news from different perspectives. Rather than covering just the event, the news becomes more about the description and analysis of an event. In line with its slogan, Al Jazeera believes that its responsibility is to present “the opinion and the other opinion.”
Internationally, Al Jazeera has taken the traditionally dominant news services to task and may have ended the Western monopoly of global dissemination of information. It has amplified the Arab perspective and showed the West that the global marketplace of news and information is no longer dominated by the United States.
The world no longer has to see the Arab world through only Western lenses; the station has forced many Americans and Europeans to recognize – although not necessarily appreciate – the existence of significant cultural divides.
Its immense popularity in the Arab world has solidified its reputation as the go-to source for “alternative” news for much of the Western hemisphere.
For the first time in modern history, the flow of information is no longer just from West to East, and stations such as CNN and the BBC sometimes have to rely on feed from Al Jazeera to keep their viewers informed about areas of the Arab world where the station has greater access.
In terms of transmission, it was Al Jazeera’s coverage from Afghanistan that put the station on the global map most dramatically. The “independent” Arabic station was the only broadcaster allowed into Afghanistan (more precisely, the Taliban-controlled parts of the country) and this is the main reason for Al Jazeera’s rise to fame in the West. It was Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s exclusive choice of Al Jazeera after 9/11 that brought the network to the attention of most Americans and Europeans, and exposed the station to Western critics.
Al Jazeera is called radical by its detractors and an alternative medium by admirers, and is often accused of being “Bin Laden’s mouthpiece.” Yet it does not appear to have internalized or adopted the ideologies of any specific social movement in its coverage. For this reason, in March 2003, Index on Censorship awarded Al Jazeera for its “courage in circumventing censorship and contributing to the free exchange of information in the Arab world.”
As a matter of fact, it has provided a platform for the broadcast of radical voices without aligning itself directly or establishing cohesive relationships with any issue, ideology or group in the Arab world or beyond.
In its urgent desire to promote democracy and other reforms in the Arab world, the station is as witheringly critical of Arab regimes as it is opposed to certain pillars of American foreign policy.
As it entered its 10th year in 2006, Al Jazeera, with more than 40 million viewers, has emerged as one of the most powerful news channels globally. It is now a major “mainstream” political, social, cultural and economic playmaker on the media landscape.
The station is in an ambivalent position vis-à-vis its regional and global audiences – in some instances serving as the sole voice of discursive dissent and in others acting as the major mainstream broadcaster in the Arab world.
The popularity of Al Jazeera with Arab viewers should not lead us to overlook deficiencies in its journalistic practice.
A constructive critique of its programming and representational practices – as well as a more general analysis of all media institutions – articulated from within the Arab world and abroad, is an important incentive to further a pluralistic, responsible and commercial and public service oriented media environment.
Al Jazeera alone is not sufficient to overcome entrenched authoritarian regimes. Nor are its political effects always constructive. But such satellite television has expanded the realm of political possibility for Arab citizens.
To reach an even wider authence, Al Jazeera, in November 2006, launched an ambitious effort: Al Jazeera English, a global news channel in English with an unusual rolling 24hour rotation, anchored throughout the day in four hubs around the world: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Doha, Qatar; London; and Washington, D.C. It’s the first English-language channel based in the Middle East looking out.
In addition to some new faces, the network has assembled an impressive corps of news veterans from Western television, among them Sir David Frost and American journalist Dave Marash, who left ABC News’ “Nightline” last year and joined the new channel as an anchor and field reporter.
“The brief is emphatically not to do an English translation of the Arabic channel,” said Nigel Parsons, the project manager. “It will have international appeal and fill a lot of gaps in existing output. It will develop its own approach independently of Al Jazeera in Arabic.”
The channel uses familiar Western formats, Western reportorial conventions and Western journalists, but the perspective and choice of stories are fresh and non-Western.
By telecasting in English, the channel has clearly sought to occupy a space that was excluded or marginalized by Western bias in the media. It represents a unique opportunity of reaching a combination of demographic consumers (Asian Muslims, European Arabs, etc.) as well as the majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims who don’t speak Arabic.
“Looks like it is going to be a serious competitor for the two established channels, BBC World and CNN … They’re going to be reporting the south to the north, and they say they won’t follow the traditional agenda,” said Richard Porter, head of BBC news. “I welcome their arrival. Competition is good in any market.” But Al Jazeera’s English-language service is likely to be the subject of just as much controversy as its parent organization.
The English-language variant may struggle to find a foothold in the closed and complex circle of U.S. broadcasting, an arena tightly controlled by media tycoons and multinational corporations. Media observers and academics have already lined up to predict its failure.
One suspects that a battle royal is only just around the corner with conservative media organizations such as Fox News as well as the U.S. administration.
Although the new network said it will have access to 70 million to 80 million homes worldwide, in America, no major cable or satellite operators have reported plans to carry the Qatar-based channel. Al Jazeera English is only available through the Internet and a satellite company specializing in international television feeds. Ironically, it is the world’s freest media market that poses the biggest challenge to Al Jazeera English. Some critics argue that allowing it to air on American television would be essentially giving a megaphone to anti-American propaganda.
The priority of the channel is therefore to prove that it is a reliable and impartial broadcaster.
Steve Clark, Al Jazeera English’s director of news, said: “Our news reporting will uphold the strictest guiding principles of accuracy, impartiality and objectivity, whilst being fearless in its reporting. On air, Al Jazeera English will be innovative and provocative, but above all we will earn viewer trust through the impact of accuracy, integrity and speed. We have no domestic agenda and no political bias. Our coverage will be fearless, provocative and the most informed on what’s happening on the ground in the world’s hot spots.”
The English channel has been joined in the past months by Al Jazeera Documentary Channel, whose aim is to extend and complement the vision and mission of Al Jazeera. The focus of the channel – as reported by Tawfiq Founi, supervisor of Al Jazeera Documentary Channel’s on “the gray areas and issues,” i.e. stories that are distorted or ignored by the Western media on the grounds that they are marginal and insignificant from a Western standpoint, even though these issues are a priority for Arabs and Muslims. Future plans for the Al Jazeera Group are very optimistic: they include products such as Al Jazeera Urdu – an Urdu language channel to cater mainly to South Asians – a music channel and an international newspaper.
Al Jazeera channels have been launched at a time when the role of mass media in a globalized world is a hot topic and competition among broadcasters is strong. It is an “information warfare” that is marked by a proliferation of technology and a fast flow of information from all over the world.
Regional ideas and media strengths are growing across the globe. Al Jazeera English is now directly competing with BBC World and CNN International, as well as with a growing number of other international broadcasters such as France 24 (launched shortly after Al Jazeera English in December 2006), Russia Today and others. Even the BBC has unveiled plans for an Arabic-language television news service, slated for launch this year.
So, what will be the future for satellite broadcasters like Al Jazeera?
Open and democratic channels like Al Jazeera/ Al Jazeera English, which can contribute to bridge the philosophical gap between the West and the Middle East, should be fostered and encouraged by the West.
Rather than view the impact of the channels in terms of single moments of change, or pin great hopes for revolutionary change on their broadcasts, we should focus on these deeper, less obvious but more profound ways in which the Al Jazeeras are refashioning the political terrain.
Expectations that satellite television alone can bring about transformations should not be exaggerated, but simply kept in mind.