I’ve been studying and writing about Al Jazeera since its early years, sometimes with concern, sometimes with appreciation. My 2008 book “The Al Jazeera Effect” explored the political significance of regional satellite television news networks in the Arab world and beyond.
Although the politics of Al Jazeera remain controversial, I believe shutting down any news organization weakens the viability of a free press – particularly in a region where democracy has so much difficulty gaining traction.
A critical eye
When Al Jazeera launched in 1996, it shook the Arab media landscape.
At the time, stodgy, government-controlled television newscasts were the norm. They featured uncontroversial reporting with low production standards. Suddenly, there was a channel that offered relatively uncensored coverage of the region’s politics with the sleek look of Western news programs like those on BBC and CNN.
Most importantly, when there was a big story within the Arab World – such as the Second Intifada, the 2000 Palestinian uprising against Israel – Arab audiences no longer had to turn to Western broadcasters to get analysis about what was happening. Instead, they saw Arab reporters covering the news with a pro-Arab slant. Al Jazeera English, which was founded in 2006, prides itself on covering more stories and perspectives from the “Global South” than other news organizations.
More broadly, the channel became controversial because of its coverage of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The George W. Bush administration considered its coverage inflammatory for highlighting civilian casualties in those conflicts, with government officials charging that Al Jazeera was stirring up opposition to U.S. efforts in the region.
Yet Al Jazeera’s free-wheeling, pan-Arab approach has also been a source of ire for Middle Eastern rulers who prefer to control the news that reaches their citizens. Al Jazeera has reported critically about these governments, especially those that are now acting against Qatar. Its talk shows have debated topics such as religion and women’s issues in ways that have redefined the concept of “free speech” in the Arab world.
There are, however, limits to Al Jazeera’s journalistic doggedness. Despite Al Jazeera’s eagerness to question the ruling classes of most Arab countries, the Qatari royal family isn’t covered with the same level of scrutiny. Rather, the channel has been seen as a de facto part of Qatar’s foreign policy apparatus.