Is Al Jazeera Any Different From Western News Networks?
By Naomi Sakr

For a satellite channel that broadcasts only in Arabic, al-Jazeera has achieved an astonishing level of recognition way beyond the Arab world. To understand why this is so is to understand some key contradictions of contemporary media and global politics. Here is a TV station inspired by the format of American programs such as CROSSFIRE and LARRY KING LIVE. Yet it has been denounced as a dangerous anti-American force in newspapers such as the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS and the NEW YORK TIMES. Here is a TV station where Western-trained staff apply Western criteria of newsworthiness ("what bleeds, leads"), yet find themselves accused of radicalizing public opinion and fomenting unrest. At the heart of the contradictions is a history of stifling state censorship in an increasingly angry Arab world.
Today, even some Arab governments admit that decades of repression may be to blame for breeding fanatics who believe in violence rather than debate. Al-Jazeera, based in Doha, Qatar, emerged into the limelight at a moment in history when fanatical violence was all too apparent, but the circumstances behind it remained largely concealed. By providing unprecedented coverage of turmoil and its causes, al-Jazeera opened a window onto conflicts not previously exposed to an international gaze. In doing so it provoked charges that it was not just reporting on conflict but stirring it up.

Such charges, however, have come mainly from policy makers inconvenienced by media exposure. Ordinary viewers, in contrast, have watched al-Jazeera's live talk shows with a mixture of amazement and admiration.

They have been stunned to see opposing sides argue ferociously on an Arab station and fascinated by the opportunity to phone in comments and questions while the show is on air. Statistics suggest that al-Jazeera's arrival in late 1996 prompted a surge in satellite access in Middle Eastern homes and Arab households in Europe and the United States.Satellite reception had already spread through Arab countries during the first half of the 1990s, in response to the launching of new Saudi, Lebanese, and Egyptian channels. The privately owned Saudi and Lebanese channels appeared to offer a different diet from that pushed by government-monopolized and heavily censored terrestrial TV. But in reality, being tied to ruling elites, they simply wrapped a pro-government agenda in new packaging to tempt viewers away from foreign alternatives like CNN.

Al-Jazeera thus found an audience already hooked up to satellite dishes and hungry for serious non-government material in Arabic. With each new crisis in the region, word-of-mouth recommendations swelled the numbers gaining satellite access specifically to see the coverage on al-Jazeera. The second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000. A year later the suicide atrocities of 9/11 triggered U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan. Spring 2002 saw Israel invading Palestinian towns and refugee camps. Spring 2003 brought war in Iraq.

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