This timely collection of essays by Arab and Western scholars provides a better understanding of the network – and how it has affected the public and even foreign policies of Western governments – than any other of the few books published in English up to now.
The book provides rare insights into Al Jazeera's politics, its agenda, its programmes, its coverage of regional crises, and its treatment of the West. The authors attempt to gauge the network's impact on ordinary Arab viewers, understand its effect on an increasingly visible Arab public sphere, and map out the role it plays in regional Arab politics. The image of Al Jazeera that emerges from this book is much more complex than its depiction in Western media. It reveals the role that the network plays in shaping ideas and reconstructing Arab identities during a crucial juncture in Middle Eastern history and politics.
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About the Author
David Kidd-Hewitt has taught criminology and law and society at London Guildhall University for over 20 years and is retired Head of the Department of Sociology and Applied Social Studies. He is a member of the editorial team on the journal Criminal Justice Matters.
Read an Excerpt
Introduction — Al Jazeera and the Vicissitudes of the New Arab MediascapeMohamed Zayani
Few phenomena in the Arab world are arguably more intriguing than Al Jazeera — a pan-Arab 24-hour satellite news and discussion channel beamed out of the tiny Gulf peninsula of Qatar. Its immediate success took the Arab media scene aback and even stunned Al Jazeera itself. Advertising itself as a forum for diverse views, focusing on issues of broad Arab concern and broaching controversial subjects, Al Jazeera has in no time managed to acquire a leading role in the Arab media scene. According to a 2002 report on Middle East communication published by Spotbeam Communications, "Al Jazeera is center-stage in the modernization of Arab-language broadcasting." Not only has the network left a permanent mark on broadcasting in the Arab world, but it is also developing the potential to influence Arab public opinion and Arab politics. At the same time, Al Jazeera is highly controversial. Both inside and outside the Arab world, the network's coverage has been regarded with skepticism. In official Arab circles, Al Jazeera has acquired a maverick image and even prompted diplomatic crises. Since it catapulted to international prominence during the war in Afghanistan, the network has sparked a much publicized controversy, garnered much loathing and attracted considerable criticism. Away from the enthusiasm of those who champion it and the bitterness of those who criticize it, Al Jazeera remains not only a phenomenon that is worthy of exploration, but also one which begs for a better understanding.
AL JAZEERA'S NEW JOURNALISM
Al Jazeera is a relatively free channel operating in what many observers perceive as one of the regions that are less inclined toward freedom of expression. What made this venture possible was the initiative of Qatar to liberalize the press and do away with censorship, an initiative which gave Al Jazeera a free hand to operate more than it had an enduring effect on Qatari media as a whole. Upon taking power, the Emir of Qatar — who is keen not only on nurturing free speech but also on flirting with democracy — lifted censorship of the media by disbanding the Information Ministry, which was responsible for media censorship. Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, Chairman of the Board of Al Jazeera, explains the rationale: "The Ministry of Information ... is the Ministry that controls the news media, be it television, radio or newspaper ... We don't see that a Ministry of Information has any positive role to play in future media projects." Seen from this vantage point, the key to the channel's success is the relative amount of freedom available to the people who work at Al Jazeera. As such, Al Jazeera enjoys an unprecedented margin of freedom which makes it a haven for free speech in the Arab world. In fact, it is popular precisely because it openly discusses sensitive topics and tackles controversial issues. It ventures into a realm of open discussion rarely attempted by other broadcasters in the region. Its talk shows unabashedly tackle such unmentionables as government corruption, the human rights record of Arab regimes, the persecution of political dissenters, Islamic law (or Sharia), the (in)compatibility of Islam and democracy, and Islamic fundamentalism.
To some extent, Al Jazeera fills not only a media void but also a political void. In the absence of political will and political pluralism in the Arab world, Al Jazeera serves as a de facto pan-Arab opposition and a forum for resistance. It provides a voice for Arab opposing views and a high-profile platform for political dissidents many of whom live abroad. In a way, Al Jazeera has instituted the right to have access to the media for representatives of the region's myriad opposition groups. This has branded the network as one which questions authority and challenges the common political discourse. Projecting an unspoken reformist agenda, Al Jazeera does not shy away from covering political and social issues over which Arab governments prefer to keep quiet. In some of its programs, Al Jazeera tactfully welcomes criticism of governments and the hosts of its talk shows often challenge their guests if they are apologetic for their governments. Al Jazeera has also led the way in exposing Arab power abuses and giving an outlet to a pervading disenchantment with non-democratic and autocratic governing systems in the region. In doing so, it has instilled what may be loosely described as a culture of accountability. Leading figures and policy-makers have suddenly become accountable and answerable to their public.
It should come as no surprise that the network's frankness has angered most if not all Arab governments. Accordingly, the Arab States Broadcasting Union has denied Al Jazeera — the odd man out — access to the Pact of Arab Honor for not abiding by the "code of honor" which promotes brotherhood between Arab nations. While theoretically this move is impelled by the urge to meet standards of broadcasting propriety, in reality it is politically motivated. Al Jazeera is deemed a threat to the very hegemony and ideology of Arab regimes whose "survival instincts ... continue to pre-empt any liberalizing impulse of satellite TV." The rhetoric of the network has, indeed, rankled some Arab governments who are unaccustomed to opposition. Naturally, Al Jazeera has been regarded with suspicion by Arab governments who complain that its programs bruise their sensitivities and threaten the stability of their regimes. For a few Arab statesmen and leaders, Al Jazeera is out there to undermine the reverence with which they are treated in their own media, criticize them, challenge their wisdom and undermine the very legitimacy of their regimes.
Sure enough, Al Jazeera's insistence on challenging the culture of political restraint and showing little inhibition in its broadcasting about Arab states has prompted reprisals. In fact, some governments have denied Al Jazeera permission to open a bureau or closed its bureaus temporarily. While some Arab states have rebuked the network, others have banned its reporters or refused them visas. Even in Palestine, the Ramallah office of Al Jazeera was closed after Al Jazeera broadcast an unflattering image of Chairman Yasser Arafat in a promotional trailer for a documentary on the 1975–90 Lebanese Civil War, showing a demonstrator holding a pair of shoes over a picture of the Palestinian leader in a sign of contempt, thus silencing a media outlet that had provided extensive coverage for the Palestinian intifada against Israel and has helped put the Palestinian issue on the front burner. Likewise, Arab states — including so-called moderate governments — have complained to the Qatari foreign ministry about Al Jazeera. Qatar's relationship with some of the Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, has been strained because of what the channel telecasts. Other countries such as Jordan and Egypt have either broken or threatened to break diplomatic relations with Qatar at times for being criticized by Al Jazeera, thus causing occasional diplomatic crises. But the Emir of Qatar has resisted pressure from Arab leaders to bring back Al Jazeera to the straight and narrow of the region's conformist tradition — and that has made a difference. According to the aforementioned Spotbeam Communications report on Middle East communication, Al Jazeera's "strength is that it is not cowered into self censorship."
THE SPECIFICITY OF AL JAZEERA
Interestingly enough, the official stand toward Al Jazeera does not match its popularity with a large segment of Arab viewers. The network has gained as much popularity among Arab viewers as it has garnered loathing and attracted criticism from Arab governments. According to a 2002 Gallup poll on the Arab and Islamic world conducted in nine countries, Al Jazeera is widely watched — albeit with interesting nuances between regions. In the Persian Gulf region and in Jordan, Al Jazeera is by far the preferred station for news (56 per cent in Kuwait and 47 per cent in Saudi Arabia); in the Levant, viewership of the network is relatively high (44 per cent in Jordan and 37 per cent in Lebanon where it vies for first place with a Lebanese channel); and in the Maghreb, Al Jazeera is fairly popular although not the preferred channel (20 per cent in Morocco, with two local channels faring slightly better). The poll's findings that viewers in such countries as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon are most likely to turn to Al Jazeera first to catch up on world events suggest that, by and large, Al Jazeera is regarded positively in the Arab world.
The poll attributes the success of the network to a variety of factors. A high percentage of the viewers included in the poll turn to Al Jazeera because they feel it is always on the site of events, which in turn gives it direct and instant access to information and an instinct for airing breaking news. Not only does Al Jazeera pursue aggressive field reporting, but it also has come to claim a unique access to information — information which may not otherwise be available. For instance, during the so-called War on Terrorism, Al Jazeera has been a vital source of information, providing news and reports from Afghanistan and Iraq. Many tapes have found their way to the network featuring figures ranging from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, to Palestinian activists. Although access to such material raises questions about the significance of Al Jazeera's trustworthiness in the eyes of groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein's regime and various Islamic "opposition" groups, Al Jazeera has proven to be a window on a part of the world that is all too often alien to the West. Over the years, Al Jazeera has come to provide comprehensive coverage of news and events that matter to the Arab and Muslim world. Part of the appeal of Al Jazeera according to the Gallup poll is its commitment to daring live unedited news as well as its tendency to broadcast uncut, live pictures. Particularly in times of turmoil, viewers are subjected to live feeds and unfiltered news on Al Jazeera. Likewise, its current affairs and talk show programs are aired live without screening out embarrassing questions or controversial statements. Viewers are drawn to Al Jazeera also because it offers intrepid reporting, candid talk, timely debates and vivid commentaries. Last but not least, the poll suggests that Al Jazeera is valued for the honesty and fairness of its reporting. As such, it aims at journalistic objectivity by presenting news and balancing it through a narrative and/or by inviting guests who represent different perspectives.
While such an opinion poll is suggestive, it does not capture the rich dynamics Al Jazeera sets up in their full complexity. Beyond the findings of this Gallup poll, one can venture a number of explanations for the relatively wide appeal of Al Jazeera. The network is popular partly because it is attentive to political news and caters to an audience that is politically conscious, that cherishes reliable political news and that craves intelligent political debates. Naturally, the geo-political situation of the Middle East has made politics an important component of media programs. Regional developments, tensions, crises and wars over the past few decades have enhanced such an interest. Being a major component of TV programs, political news has done much to develop the Arab viewers' political instinct. In fact, the media coverage of politics has contributed further to what Muhammad Ayish calls "the politicization of Arab viewers." Al Jazeera has capitalized on that, providing food for an audience that is hungry for credible news and serious political analysis. One of the aims of Al Jazeera, as its former managing director Mohammed Jassim Al Ali explains, is "to bring the Arab audience back to trusting the Arab media, especially the news ... We treat them as an intelligent audience, rather than the conventional idea that they will take whatever you give them." Al Jazeera is popular partly because it takes the viewers seriously with its content and programming. In the not so distant past, large audiences received programs but were unable to make direct responses or participate in vigorous discussions. However, the viewers' expectations of media have changed. Arab viewers are no longer seen as consumers in a one-way communication stream. Through interactive debates with live phone-ins, Al Jazeera has helped initiate a new kind of viewer experience. The kind of debate championed by Al Jazeera is something new in the Arab world where public political debate is considered subversive. What is particularly interesting about Al Jazeera is its ability to expand what people in the Arab world can talk about.
The advent of Al Jazeera has not only changed the viewers' expectations, but also altered some media practices in the Arab world. Overall, Al Jazeera has instilled a competitive drive in some mainstream Arab media and accelerated the institutionalization of new trends in programming. Certain programs, or at least program formats, which are typical of Al Jazeera have been injected into many Arab satellite channels in bandwagon fashion as is the case with talk shows with viewer call-ins. Al Jazeera is also nudging competitors toward live interviews and is pushing some channels to display a new savvy for finding stories. Some Arab satellite channels such as Abu Dhabi TV have tried to emulate Al Jazeera's free style in news broadcasting. Recently, the Arab media scene has also seen the proliferation of news channels, the most prominent being the Dubai-based Al Arabiya. Even state media establishments can no longer ignore what pan-Arab stations like Al Jazeera are doing and have, indeed, become more aware of the need for more appropriate programming. Al Jazeera's programming has challenged the restrained coverage available on state media which has no other choice than to follow suit and even send reporters to the scene for fear of losing audiences. Not only have Al Jazeera's professional standards informed many other channels, but the mobility of some of the network's staff has also helped dissipate such journalistic practices. In February 2004, the network set up a Media Center for Training and Development aimed at instilling its journalistic values into journalists and media institutions throughout the region.
AL JAZEERA AS A PAN-ARAB CHANNEL
Al Jazeera distinguished itself by its attempt to reach out to a large Arab audience, discussing issues that are pressing in the Arab and Muslim world, in general, and the conflict-ridden Middle East, in particular. Dealing with a wide range of issues that touch the Arab world — such as the Anglo-American bombing of Baghdad in operation Desert Fox, the plight of the Iraqi people under the decade-long sanctions, the Palestinian intifada, the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq — Al Jazeera has managed to carve a niche for itself. Not only are Arab issues prominent on the network's news and discussion programs, but the very issue of Arabness is paramount. According to Suleiman Al Shammari, Al Jazeera plays off and even feeds an Arab nationalist trend in its viewers. Through some of its programs and talk shows, "the channel promotes an Arab nationalist discourse wrapped in a democratic style which makes it easy for viewers to palate." But Al Jazeera is no Sawt Al Arab. It may be vaguely reminiscent of the heyday of Nasser's Arab nationalism but, as David Hirst rightly points out, it is very different for "neither in style nor content can Al Jazeera be compared to Cairo's Voice of the Arabs ... but some regard it as its closest successor." The pan-Arab overtones are not only subtle, but different and less contrived. Al Jazeera has come to play an important role in broadening pan-Arab interaction. As such, it projects an inclusive identity which crosses national boundaries.
Excerpted from "The Al Jazeera Phenomenon"
Copyright © 2005 Mohamed Zayani.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgements
About the Contributors
Part I. Introduction
1. Al Jazeera and the Vicissitudes of the New Arab
Mediascape by Mohamed Zayani
Part II. Al Jazeera, Regional Politics and the Public Sphere
2. The Politics of Al Jazeera or the Diplomacy of Doha by Olivier Da Lage
3. Influence without Power: Al Jazeera and the Arab Public Sphere by Mohammed El Oifi
4. Al Jazeera.net: Identity Choices and the Logic of the Media by Gloria Awad
Part III. Al Jazeera Programming
5. The Opposite Direction: A Program which Changed the Face of Arab Television by Faisal Al Kasim
6. Media Brinksmanship: Al Jazeera’s The Opposite by Muhammad I. Ayish
7. Women, Development and Al Jazeera: A Balance Sheet
Part IV. Al Jazeera and Regional Crises by Naomi Sakr
8. Al Jazeera and the War in Afghanistan: A Delivery System or a Mouthpiece by Ehab Y. Bessaiso
9. Witnessing the Intifada: Al Jazeera’s Coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict by Mohamed Zayani
10. Al Jazeera and American Public Diplomacy: A Dance of Intercultural (Mis-)Communication by R.S. Zaharna
Postface: Jon B. Alterman. ‘Arab Media Studies: Some Methodological Considerations