Al Jazeera (Arabic for "The Island" or "The Peninsula") is an Arabic television station originating in Qatar. The name comes from the fact that the Arab League sometimes calls itself "Al-Jazeera Al-Arabia" or "The Arab Island." They claim to be the only politically-independent television station in the Middle East. Their motto is "The opinion and the counter-opinion."
Al-Jazeera is probably the most watched news channel in the Middle East, where many people see it as a more trustable source of information than government and foreign channels (such as CNN). It has over 55 million viewers.
It is widely believed internationally that inhabitants of the Middle East are given limited information by their governments and media. State-controlled television stations in every country present information with a bias over many topics. Saudi Arabian television, for example, is under censorship. Al-Jazeera, however, is seen as arguably the most open and complete source of information in the Arab world. They are independant of state-run news and thus they are more neutral and objective on topics. They're lauded for their journalistic integrity in the region. It's considered "The CNN of the Arab world."
Controversial even among Arab countries, the station was the first in the Middle East to offer uncensored news and talk shows that discussed the taboo topics of religion, sex and politics in a region where government control of the media is routine. They have received protests and formal complaints from every government in the middle east for their coverage of certain topics, such as scandals and what Al-Jazeera considers "unbiased" but the government finds "embarrassing." The network quickly made enemies in governments across the Arab world. Moammar Qadaffi pulled the Libyan ambassador from Qatar after the station ran an interview with a Qadaffi foe. Algerian leaders went so far as to cut the electricity in many Algerian cities to keep residents from watching a program that implicated the Algerian military in a series of massacres. The birth of Al-Jazeera, however, was seen as the beginning of journalistic independence in the region, and it was generally welcomed by the West and embraced by television viewers across the Middle East. It is now the most popular station in the region.
The station launched in 1996, from startup funds provided by the Qatari government to fill the niche of independent coverage of the entire Middle East. They provided US$140 million in funding that is expected to last until 2003. Meanwhile Al Jazeera also earns revenue from advertising, though there's a report that Qatar's government is providing US$100 million per year in addition. In April of that year, the BBC terminated its coverage in Arabic; Al Jazeera subseqeuntly hired many of the journalists and employees as well as from Voice of America.
It's become a popular station today, as they were the first to show live air strikes in Afghanistan, as well as bombing raids in Iraq since 1998. They provide news reports and live video that are translated into English and carried by other news outlets such as CNN. They frequently interview Israeli officials and show an "Arab" viewpoint on issues.
Al Jazeera has also come under criticism from the US for a variety of reasons. They were given exclusive footage such as Osama Bin Laden's videotaped statements delivered to their network. The footage that the BBC and CNN display of him, with a microphone and a white cap standing in front of a cave is from a tape delivered to Al Jazeera from an Al Qaeda member. The US protested that they were giving him a soapbox by airing it in its entirety.
US officials also complained that it was adopting an anti-American position by showing civillian casualties and video from Afghanistan, including aerial bombings and battle. On the other hand, the first thing the US supposedly bombed in November 2001 was Afghanistan's regional Al Jazeera bureau, with the United States insisting it was a mistake. Al Jazeera claims four missiles struck the Afghanistan office, just 10 minutes after its correspondents had received warning of an impending attack. Al-Jazeera's Baghdad bureau was also demolished when struck by a missile, killing Tariq Ayoub, an Al-Jazeera cameraman. The US also insists that was a mistake, a casualty caught in the bombing (despite the building being in a residential area, and whose location was known by Coalition troops in advance). In addition, the Americans protested Al-Jazeera's more pro-Palestinian coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its references to Palestinian suicide bombers as "martyrs." CNN has their own Arabic broadcast, but it's come under criticism by much of the Arab world for their pro-Israeli viewpoint.
During the War on Iraq 2003, Al Jazeera aired statements made by Saddam Hussein, which was broadcast throughout the Arab world just as George W. Bush's statements were broadcast throughout North America. The US strongly and harshly condemned Al Jazeera for airing video from Iraqi television that showed captured American POWs as well as some dead American soldiers, even before the US and UK notified the families. The major news networks in the US unanimously refused to air it. They are currently showing the casualties in Iraq, with a parade of people in hospitals and video of destroyed buildings and houses. The US-led forces bombed Al-Jazeera's Baghdad office with 2 missiles, and bombed the Abu Dhabi TV offices minutes later. Al-Jazeera claimed it was deliberate, as they were in a residential area, and provided their exact location to the Pentagon 3 months before. They've pledged to continue covering, even without a regional office. Meanwhile, several groups including the Greece government condemned the bombing. An Al-Jazeera reporter claimed that the US did it to silence all news coverage except for pro-American news that's accompanying the invading army. US officals accused Al-Jazeera of having an anti-American bias in its coverage of the war. The widow of the slain reporter replied "But how biased can a picture of dead people be? A picture of a destroyed house doesn't need a reporter to tell its story, and the tears of children and refugees need no interpreter. "
At the same time they were being accused of being anti-American, others such as in Iraq complained that Al Jazeera was too pro-American. Groups referring to themselves as the Iraqi resistance and the former members of the Ba'ath party threatened Al Jazeera, claiming they were broadcasting news that served the US' interests. During the Iraq war in 2003, Al Jazeera was criticized simultaneously by both the Iraqi government and the US administration. Members of the Iraqi National Congress, which was found to have spread false WMD allegations, accused Al Jazeera in the run-up to the Iraq war that Al-Jazeera was infiltrated by Iraqi spies. During the invasion of Baghdad, Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf condemned Al Jazeera for broadcasting "American propaganda" against his country. The station found itself being accused in some quarters of defending Saddam Hussein's government and by others of suppporting the US invasion. Statements attriubuted to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi constantly lambast the station for "abandoning the mujahideen" and having a pro-American bias. Many so-called Islamist websites bash Al Jazeera for being biased against them and the insurgency, mockingly calling it Al-Khinzeera, which means The Pig.
Al Jazeera claims they heard it all. It was rumoured to have been set up by Israel's Mossad intelligence agency with the purpose of improving Israel's standing in the Arab world. It has also been accused of being a CIA mouthpiece designed to disseminate western culture among the Arabs. Some have suggested that it is part of an international conspiracy to break up the Arab world by means of stirring up discord and creating problems for the Arab regimes. Others decided it was a front for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban; or funded by Saddam Hussein. And, at the same time, it has been condemned by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and bitterly criticised by Donald Rumsfeld.
This is seen as rather unusual by many, because Al Jazeera is routinely demonized in America as "Jihad TV" or accused them of actively supporting the Iraqi insurgency. The US has spent over $60 million to launch their own Middle-Eastern Television Network, Al Hurra, so that they can counteract Al Jazeera's message and build up the USA's public image in the Middle East.
They are planning on expanding their reach, and have an english website and planned an english satellite broadcast. There have been some setbacks, as their english site was hacked in its first week. This occurred at the same time they aired video of American POWs and corpses, and a supposedly "patriotic" American or group took the site down. They restored their arabic page, but their english page was down for a number of weeks as they rebuilt a new "fortified" version.
In early 2003 they brokered a deal with the BBC to share resources and bureaus. For example, the BBC can use Al-Jazeera's bureau and satellite connections in Kabul. In return, the BBC will provide additional training, advice, and will manage Al-Jazeera's english website.
In Winter 2005, it emerged that George W Bush and Tony Blair had seriously debated whether to bomb Al Jazeera's main offices in Qatar during 2004. A confidential UK memo exists that says Blair talked Bush out of it. At the moment, there's plenty of outcry over the matter, and it's still ongoing. Although the UK has denied such a plan, they have tried to suppress the story and threatened the UK papers with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, making everyone suspicious.
There are several ways to view Al Jazeera:
- In English: http://english.aljazeera.net
- In Arabic:http://www.aljazeera.net
- Through a translator site: http://tarjim.ajeeb.com/ajeeb/default.asp?lang=1
- An english site (that turns out to be completely unrelated to and unrepresentative of the channel): http://www.aljazeerah.info/
- Memory hole mirrored a copy of the original english site before it was brought down: http://www.thememoryhole.org/media/al-jazeera/index.html
- "Don't Bomb Us!" - A Blog written by Al Jazeera staffers http://dontbomb.blogspot.com/