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Aljazeera Satellite Channel

Aljazeera Satellite Channel

P.O. Box 23127
Doha,
Qatar
Telephone: +974 489 0777
Fax: +974 488 5333
Web site: http://english.aljazeera.net

Private Company
Incorporated:
1996
Employees: 1,400
Sales: $8 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 513120 Television Broadcasting; 513210 Cable Networks; 513220 Cable and Other Program Distribution

Aljazeera Satellite Channel is the Arab world's leading news network. It claims a role as an independent alternative to government-controlled media in the region as well as to the West's corporate broadcasting giants. Aljazeera is no stranger to controversy, offending both local regimes and the U.S. government with its unflinching reporting. While some call it a propaganda mill for terrorists, others praise its balanced and in-depth look at topics other networks avoid. The name Aljazeera translates to "the island," a reference to the Arabian Peninsula. "The opinion and the other opinion," is written below the name in Arabic script.

Aljazeera was launched with support from the Emir of Qatar after the BBC closed down its Arabic language television in 1996. Ten years later, the launch of an English language cable channel was underway. The Aljazeera logo is already familiar to cable news buffs through news clips sold to other stations. The original Arabic language channel has about 200,000 subscribers in North America through Dish Network's Arabic tier. The satellite as well as terrestrial signals are free to those in the Arab world.

LAUNCHED IN 1996

Aljazeera Satellite Channel was launched in November 1996 following the closure of the BBC's Arabic language television station, a joint venture with a Saudi company. It had fallen apart after a year and a half when the Saudi government attempted to kill a documentary on executions under sharia law.

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, provided a loan of QAR 500 million ($137 million) to sustain Aljazeera through its first five years, Hugh Miles detailed in his book Aljazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West. Shares were held by private investors as well as the Qatari government.

According to Miles, the Emir had been contemplating a satellite channel even before he deposed his father the previous year. A free press complemented his vision of the emirate as a center of commercial development and progress.

Sheikh Hamad bin Thamir Al Thani, previously Qatar's Deputy Minister of Information, was chairman of the enterprise, although Aljazeera maintained editorial independence. It was hoped the channel would break even in five years through sales of advertising, news feeds and programs, as well as equipment rental. Much of the staff came from the 250 journalists displaced by the closure of BBC Arabic.

Aljazeera's first day on the air was November 1, 1996. It offered six hours of programming per day; this would increase to 17 hours by the end of 1997. It was broadcast to the immediate neighborhood as a terrestrial signal, on cable, as well as through satellites (which was also free to users in the Arab world). Ironically, notes Miles, Qatar (like many other Arab countries) barred private individuals from having satellite dishes until 2001.

At the time of Aljazeera's launch, Arabsat was the only satellite broadcasting to the Middle East, and for the first year could only offer Aljazeera a weak Ku-band transponder that needed a large satellite dish for reception. A more powerful C-band transponder became available after its user, Canal France International, accidentally beamed 30 minutes of pornography into ultraconservative Saudi Arabia.

Aljazeera was not the first such broadcaster in the Middle East; a number had appeared since the Arabsat satellite, a Saudi-based venture of 21 Arab governments, took orbit in 1985. The unfolding of Operation Desert Storm on CNN underscored the power of live television in current events. While other local broadcasters in the region would assiduously avoid material embarrassing to their home governments (Qatar had its own official TV station as well), Aljazeera was pitched as an impartial news source and platform for discussing issues relating to the Arab world.

In presenting "the opinion and the other opinion" to which the Arabic script in the network's logo refers, it did not take long for Aljazeera to shock local viewers by presenting the Israeli speaking Hebrew on Arab TV for the first time, according to Miles. Lively and far-ranging talk shows, particularly a popular, confrontational one called The Opposite Direction, were a constant source of controversy regarding issues of morality and religion. This prompted a torrent of criticism from the conservative voices among the region's press. It also led to official complaints and censures from neighboring governments. Some jammed Aljazeera's terrestrial broadcast or booted its correspondents. In 1999, the Algerian government reportedly cut power to several major cities to censor one broadcast. There were also commercial repercussions; Saudi Arabia reportedly pressured advertisers to avoid the channel, to great effect. Aljazeera was also becoming a favorite sounding board for militant groups such as Hamas and Chechen separatists. A source told Miles the range of complaints helped cancel out any allegations of bias.

Aljazeera was the only international news network to have correspondents in Iraq during the Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign in 1998. In a precursor of a pattern to follow, its exclusive video clips were highly prized by Western media.

AROUND-THE-CLOCK IN 1999

February 1, 1999 was Aljazeera's first day of 24-hour broadcasting. Employment had more than tripled in one year to 500 employees, and the agency had bureaus at a dozen sites as far as Europe and Russia. Its annual budget was estimated at about $25 million at the time.

However controversial, Aljazeera was rapidly becoming one of the most influential news agencies in the region. Eager for news beyond the official versions of events, Arabs became dedicated viewers. A 2000 estimate pegged nightly viewership at 35 million, ranking Aljazeera first in the Arab world, over the Saudi-sponsored Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) and London's Arab News Network (ANN). There were about 70 satellite or terrestrial channels being broadcast to the Middle East, most of them in Arabic. Aljazeera launched a free Arabic language web site in January 2001. In addition, the TV feed was soon available in Britain for the first time via BSkyB.

COMPANY PERSPECTIVES

Free from the shackles of censorship and government control Aljazeera has offered its audiences in the Arab world much needed freedom of thought, independence, and room for debate. In the rest of the world, often dominated by the stereotypical thinking of news "heavyweights," Aljazeera offers a different and a new perspective.

POST-9/11 HEADLINES

Aljazeera came to the attention of many in the West during the hunt for Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The station aired videos it received from bin Laden and the Taliban, deeming new footage of the world's most wanted fugitives to be newsworthy. Some criticized the network, however, for giving a voice to terrorists. Aljazeera's Washington bureau chief compared the situation to that of the Unabomber's messages in the New York Times. The network said it had been given the tapes merely because it had a large Arab audience.

The rest of the world's television networks were eager to acquire the same footage. According to Miles, CNN had exclusive rights for six hours before other networks could broadcast it (a provision that was broken by the others on at least one controversial occasion). Prime Minister Tony Blair soon appeared on an Aljazeera talk show to state Britain's case for pursuing the Taliban into Afghanistan.

Aljazeera's prominence was heightened during the war in Afghanistan since it had opened a bureau in Kabul before 9/11. This gave it better video than the others scrambling to cover the invasion, clips that sold for as much as $250,000. The Kabul office was destroyed, however, by U.S. bombs in 2001. Aljazeera then opened bureaus in other trouble spots, noted Miles, looking to stay ahead of the future conflicts.

According to Miles, the network remained dependent on government support in 2002, having a budget of $40 million and ad revenues of about $8 million. It also took in fees for sharing its news feed with other networks. It was estimated to have up to roughly 45 million viewers around the world. Aljazeera soon had to contend with a new rival, Al-Arabiya, an offshoot of the MBC, set up in nearby Dubai with generous Saudi backing.

MORE WAR IN 2003

Before and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where Aljazeera had had a presence since 1997, the network's facilities and footage were again highly sought by networks such as the BBC. The channel and its web site also were seeing unprecedented attention from viewers looking for alternatives to "embedded" reporting and military press conferences.

Aljazeera moved its sports coverage to a new, separate channel in November 2003, allowing for more news and public affairs programming on the other one. An English language web site had launched earlier in the year. The channel had about 1,300 to 1,400 employees, its newsroom editor told the New York Times. There were 23 bureaus around the world and 70 foreign correspondents, with 450 journalists in all.

In April 2003, a U.S. plane fired on Aljazeera's Baghdad bureau, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. The attack was called a mistake. Later reports that George W. Bush speculated to Tony Blair about bombing Aljazeera's Doha headquarters did not ease a feeling of mistrust and paranoia at the network. Aljazeera's troubled relationship with U.S. Central Command, which was based in Qatar, was profiled in Control Room, a documentary that aired at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

The broadcast of sometimes gruesome videos of hostages and torture victims from Iraq did not alleviate the network's image problem in the West. Organizers reportedly removed Aljazeera's banner from its media booth at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The network had its supporters, however, particularly in Qatar, and there was already talk of Aljazeera going public at some time in the future.

IN ENGLISH IN 2006

Aljazeera was launching an English language channel, called Aljazeera International, in 2006. It would count among its staff journalists hired from ABC's Nightline and other top news outfits. Josh Rushing, a former media handler for CentComm during the Iraq war, agreed to provide commentary. Britain's esteemed interviewer Sir David Frost was also on board. In an interesting technical feat, the broadcast of the new operation was going to be handed off between bases in Qatar, London, Washington, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on a daily cycle.

KEY DATES

1996:
Aljazeera begins broadcasting after BBC closes its Arabic TV station.
1997:
Aljazeera moves up to a C-band transponder on Arabsat and increases daily programming to 17 hours.
1999:
Twenty-four-hour broadcasting begins.
2001:
An Arabic language web site is launched; U.S. bombs destroy Aljazeera's Kabul office during the Afghan war.
2003:
A U.S. missile strikes Aljazeera's Baghdad headquarters during the Iraq War, killing a reporter; an English language web site is launched.
2006:
English language channel Aljazeera International launches.

The new English language venture faced considerable regulatory and commercial hurdles in the North American market for its perceived sympathy with extremist causes. At the same time, others felt Aljazeera's competitive advantage lay in programming in the Arabic language. There were hundreds of millions of potential viewers among the non-Arabic speaking Muslims in Europe and Asia, however, and many others who might be interested in seeing news from the Middle East by local voices. If the venture panned out, it would extend the influence of Aljazeera, and tiny Qatar, beyond even what had been achieved in the station's first decade. In an interesting circle of fate, the BBC World Service was preparing to launch its own Arabic language station in 2007.

PRINCIPAL COMPETITORS

Abu Dhabi TV; Arab News Network Limited; Cable News Network L.P.; Middle East Broadcasting Center.

FURTHER READING

Abt, Samuel, "For Al Jazeera, Balanced Coverage Frequently Leaves No Side Happy," New York Times, February 16, 2004, p. C2.

"Al-Jazeera: Making the News," MEED Weekly Special Report, October 17, 2003, p. 33.

"Al-Jazeera One Step Nearer to Going Public," BBC Monitoring International Reports, February 2, 2005.

Badge, David, Casualty of War: The Bush Administration's Assault on a Free Press, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004.

"Democrats Remove Aljazeera Banner," AlJazeera.net , July 26, 2004.

El-Nawawy, Mohammed, and Adel Iskander, Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East, Cambridge, Mass.: Westview Press, 2002.

Khalaf, Roula, "Al-Jazeera's Global Aims Boost Qatar's Influence: Controversial TV Station Is to Start an English-Language Service Targeting a World Audience," Financial Times (London), October 25, 2002, p. 11.

Malik, Shiv, "Broadcast and Be Damned," Independent (U.K.), January 24, 2005.

Marozzi, Justin, "Get the Message from the Gulf: The US and Baghdad Both Criticise Al Jazeera, the Arabic Language Satellite Station. Perhaps It Is Doing Something Right," Financial Times (London), September 14, 2002, p. 2.

Miles, Hugh, Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West, New York: Grove Press, 2005.

Noujaim, Jehane, et al., Control Room, DVD, Artisan Home Entertainment, 2004.

Reed, Stanley, "Al Jazeera Meets American Resistance," Businessweek, April 3, 2006, p. 42.

Reporters Sans Frontièes, "Watchdog RSF Condemns Harassment of Al-Jazeera TV," BBC Monitoring International Reports, January 28, 2005.

Tischler, Linda, "(Al Jazeera 1.0) A Decade of Discord," Fast Company, April 2006, p. 46.

, "Al Jazeera's (Global) Mission: Can an English-Language News Network with Radioactive DNA Actually Be Good for Brand America? U.S. Business Better Hope So," Fast Company, April 2006, p. 42.

Vallely, Paul, "The New Power on the Small Screen; On a TV Near You: Al-Jazeera," Independent (U.K.), October 26, 2005.

Wallis, William, "It Is Not for Us to Decide Who Is the Good Guy and Who Is the Bad," Financial Times (London), May 18, 2005, p. 5.

Wells, Matt, "Al-Jazeera Accuses US of Bombing Its Kabul Office," Guardian (U.K.), November 17, 2001.

"World Service Confirms Arabic TV," BBC News, October 25, 2005.

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