Al Jazeera satellite television was founded in 1996 in Doha, Qatar. Within less than two years of its founding, it dramatically transformed the media and information climate in the entire Arab world. The station capitalized on the emergence of satellite reception in the Arab world from the early 1990s, which created potentially large regional markets that began to be filled up by commercial and state-owned stations. When Al Jazeera was launched, it was clear that no Arab government was willing to tolerate uncensored news media. The founding staff of Al Jazeera was in fact recruited from the ranks of an earlier British Broadcasting Corporation Arabic television service that had been set up in Saudi Arabia, but that had its contract canceled because of the Saudi government’s objection to its editorial content.
Conceived as an independent station but supported with loans or grants from the then new, reform-oriented emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the station devoted itself to news and information, and became known for a daring style in which it presented issues that would have been routinely censored by any Arab government. It interviewed opposition figures and members of banned parties. It moved away from the traditional news format of staid, official news, focusing instead on items relevant to a wide pan-Arab audience. Almost all Arab governments levied complaints against the station with the government of Qatar at one point or another. The Saudi government went a step further, banning companies that advertise on Al Jazeera from operating in the country. In this way it attempted to economically undermine what seemed to be, for a few years, the freest channel of information with a pan-Arab audience. The station also drew bitter complaints from the U.S. government over its graphic coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for allegedly inflaming Arab feeling by its equally poignant coverage of the suffering in the occupied Palestinian territories. During the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, U.S. aircraft in fact bombed and destroyed Al Jazeera’s offices in Kabul and Baghdad, killing some journalists, and in both cases the official story was that the bombings were mistakes.
Realizing that Al Jazeera was here to stay, many commercial as well as government-owned channels in the Arab world changed their formats or saw some relaxation of rigid censorship so as to compete with Al Jazeera, which by 1998 had become the most widely watched station in the entire Arab world. Even the Saudi government, once the station’s severest critic, set up al-Arabiyya, a competing satellite station that mimicked Al Jazeera’s style of uncensored news and reporting. In view of the station’s association with the emir of Qatar and its location in that country, its coverage of Qatar appears scant, although the country itself is small and is of little importance in the context of the more pressing pan-Arab issues.
In addition to news and investigative reporting, Al Jazeera also broadcasts programs on religion and modern life, featuring modernizing and popular Muslim clergy, and provides historical education in the form of lengthy interviews with “witnesses of the age,” namely important intellectuals and former government or revolutionary figures. Al Jazeera regularly interviews U.S. ambassadors, secretaries of state, and other notables from around the world and was the first Arab channel to interview Israeli officials.
SEE ALSO Arab League, The; Arabs; Media; Pan-Arabism; Television
El-Nawawy, Mohammed, and Adel Iskandar. 2003. Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Rugh, William A. 2004. Arab Mass Media: Newspapers, Radio, and Television in Arab Politics. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Sakr, Naomi. 2002. Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization, and the Middle East. London: I. B. Tauris.
Mohammed A. Bamyeh