Thursday, June 01, 2006

The rise of Al Jazeera

Al-Jazeera is an Arabic word meaning ‘the island’ or ‘the peninsula.’ It is also the name of an Arabic television station based in the Gulf state of Qatar which has received international attention, plaudits and brickbats in equally large measure in the last ten years.

In a 2005 poll conducted by branding consultancy Interbrand, Al-Jazeera came out the No. 5 "brand with the most global impact," behind Apple, Google, Starbucks and Ikea. Al-Jazeera built its reputation as a genuine alternative to the global English-language networks and broke the West’s monopoly on news. It rivals the BBC in worldwide audiences with an estimated 50 million viewers.

Al-Jazeera has been a pioneer of free expression in a part of the world not renowned for it. It has taken on sacred cows both by criticising Arab regimes and interviewing Israelis. It has incurred the wrath of Gulf States such as Bahrain which banned it for supposed pro-Zionism and bias against Bahrain. The ban is more likely a result of Al-Jazeera airing footage without permission of anti-US protests in Bahrain which ironically were spurred by Israeli military action in the West Bank.

Al-Jazeera has several channels including sports and children’s channels. It also has English and Urdu language channels planned. But it is the main 24 hour news service for which it is most justly proud. It has an important presence on the internet. The station is most famous for its role as a conduit for Al Qaeda communiqués and videos to the Western World.

This fame is double edged, Al-Jazeera have become imprinted in the Western conscience as a result but are also sometimes seen as a mouthpiece for Osama Bin Laden and are thus greatly feared and mistrusted in the US. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused the network of lying and getting "advance notice" of attacks from terrorists. Al-Jazeera International (AJI) are hoping that their English language channel, with American backers, will change this perception. They have already signed a deal with satellite distributor BSkyB, which is partly owned by News Corporation.

The launch has not been without problems and they have already missed three deadlines to start the channel. There is a fight for identity between Western AJI and its Arabic parent channel. Critics, most notably on the Friends of Al-Jazeera website, have attacked the executive team for being overloaded with "ex-corporate" types. These include Sir David Frost who, by his own admission, sought a seal of approval from Washington and London before signing on.

Al-Jazeera is based in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Qatar is ruled by the Sandhurst educated Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Sheikh Hamad is the staunchest ally of the United States in the Middle East. He has permitted the US to begin building military facilities within Qatar and has normalised relations with Israel. He overthrew his father who was vacationing in Switzerland in a bloodless coup in June 1995. The Al-Thani family is the only one off-limits from Al Jazeera criticism.

The origins of Al-Jazeera also date to the same year of Al Thani’s coup – 1995 - when the BBC signed a deal with the Saudi Orbit Communications to provide Arabic news for Orbit's main Middle East channel. However, the BBC's insisted on editorial independence which did not sit well with the Saudi government who baulked at reporting issues such as executions and the activities of prominent Saudi dissidents. It took only until April 1996, and a BBC story which showed footage of a Saudi beheading, for Orbit to kill the deal. A few months later, the then new Emir of Qatar, al-Thani, took advantage of this to hire most of the BBC Arabic Service's editors, reporters and technicians to form the nucleus of a new channel. The Emir, who had started a campaign to end censorship in Qatar and abolished its notorious “information ministry,” contributed $140 million to finance its operations for the first five years. It aimed to become self-sufficient through advertising by 2001. When that failed to transpire, the Emir committed to a further $30 million a year until further notice.

During the Iraq war, the US bombed the Al-Jazeera Baghdad office killing three journalists in a missile attack. The Daily Mirror published a story in which they claimed that President Bush had considered bombing Al-Jazeera's Doha headquarters in April 2004, when U.S. Marines were conducting an assault on Fallujah.It was intimated by the report that the Iraq war incident and other bombing of Al-Jazeera offices (such as Afghanistan 2001 and Basra 2003) were also deliberately targeted by presidential order. British Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith gagged the newspaper 24 hours after it published details of what it said was a transcript of talks between Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair is said to have talked Bush out of launching "military action" on the television channel's headquarters.

Al Jazeera and one of its many new imitators, the Dubai based Al-Arabiya, both embarrassed the American funded Iraqi Al-Hurra channel ($60 million seed money plus $40 million added by Congress to reach 80 percent of Iraq's population with over-air transmitters) by broadcasting from inside the city during the siege of Fallujah. Al-Hurra has been exposed as an American propaganda exercise and is losing the battle of the airwaves as a result.

Al-Jazeera are annoying everyone which would most likely mean they are doing a very good job of reporting the truth.

No comments: