Al-Jazeera, the 24-hour Arab satellite station broadcasting from the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, sprang to life as a direct result of the collapse of the Arabic TV division of the BBC News Service. When Saudi investors pulled the plug on the BBC service in 1996, Al-Jazeera “inherited not only most of the staff of the former BBC network but also,” according to Mohammad El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar’s informative primer, “its editorial spirit, freedom, and style.” Additionally, it came by $140 million in seed money from the reform-minded, but essentially despotic, government of Qatar.
Today the station, broadcasting in classical Arabic, reaches an estimated 35 million viewers worldwide, who rely on it for coverage of Palestinian casualties in the second intifada. Even so, Al-Jazeera’s policy of airing all sides of the story—interviewing Israeli leaders, and Western officials such as Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of 9-11—leads some Arab viewers to perceive it as pro-Zionist, even pro-CIA. Its interview, debate, and talk-back forums—modeled after CNN’s Crossfire—challenge religious orthodoxies and tend to air extreme views. Every Arab government has on occasion taken offense at Al-Jazeera’s critical coverage.
Prior to 9-11, the U.S. State Department had viewed Al-Jazeera favorably. As the only network that considered Afghanistan sufficiently newsworthy to establish bureaus in Kabul and Kandahar in late 1999, it had been covering both sides of the war between the Northern Front and the Taliban. Powell, however, asked the emir of Qatar to tone down Al-Jazeera’s rhetoric shortly before the U.S. air war began, betraying concern that coverage of the bombing might inflame Arab opinion. Though most journalists and security experts scoffed at suggestions that Al-Jazeera’s October airing of its exclusive bin Laden tape might yield coded messages, in some quarters the erstwhile free media outlet was publicly accused of providing a forum for jihad.
Urging U.S. officials to use Al-Jazeera to make their “case for U.S. policy,” El-Nawawy and Iskandar conspicuously avoid any speculation as to what that policy might be and how the Arab world will react to it. The U.S. has been relocating its Gulf headquarters from Saudi Arabia to the vast Al-Udeid air base in Qatar. It would be interesting to speculate how Al-Jazeera will cover unfolding events should the U.S. launch an attack against Iraq from there. In any event, this succinct history provides timely and much-needed background on Al-Jazeera.