Al Jazeera Comes of Age

Al Jazeera has pretty nicelycompleted it long march up the media mountain of creditability andrespectability.  No single supplier isever able to avoid some level of interference somewhere, but all can aspire toa high standard and get it right most of the time.  This is true everywhere.

In Al Jazeera’s case, they arenaturally beholden to kowtow to the Saudis as described herein but generallythey get away with an effective free press model just about anywhere else.  Quite obviously reporters report andparticipate in events and this has given them a trusted voice in the Middle East.

We get upset listening to some fundamentalistwhack bar, but then we get upset listening to our own whack bars.  We can respect the right to have these guysheard and surely that can not be a bad thing. Listeners will not be persuaded unless they are already persuaded and insteadit hardens resistance to this type of folly.

A free press operates an ongoingdebate that slowly erodes irrational positions. Today, social media has made press censorship nearly impossible.

Thus we see Al Jazeera playing aleading role in two revolutions and in the present street level uprisingthroughout the Arab world.  They trulyhave come of age.

 Al Jazeera's news revolution

By Regan E. Doherty | Reuters – Thu, 17 Feb,2011 12:04 AM EST

DOHA (Reuters) - A journalist throws open the wide front door of AlJazeera's Dohaheadquarters, cell phone pressed against his ear. "They were arrested lastnight," he bellows into his phone. "We can't get through to theproducers. All the material was confiscated, and some of the equipment wasdestroyed."

Inside the newsroom, the atmosphere is alive with energy. Journalistssit transfixed to their monitors, which show live feeds from central Cairo -- where hundredsof thousands of protesters are on the brink of pushing another strongman frompower and where Al Jazeera crews have faced repeated police harassment anddetentions. Tapes are piled high in a corner, labeled in scrawling Arabic.

"This is our story," says one Al Jazeera English journalist,who asks not to be identified because he is not authorised to talk to themedia. "This is the story that proves to the naysayers of the world whatwe can do. We took the lead and everyone followed: CNN, Christiane Amanpour --in spite of harassment, having our tapes stolen, people being beaten up. If youwant to know about Egypt inthe U.S.,you're watching Al Jazeera."

Over the past few weeks, much has been made of the power of Al Jazeera,the Qatari news channel launched 15 years ago by the Gulf Arab state's EmirSheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani with the goal of providing the sort ofindependent news that the region's state-run broadcasters had long ignored.

It was Al Jazeera that first grasped the enormity of the Tunisiauprising and its implications for the region, and Al Jazeera which latched onto-- critics would say fuelled -- subsequent rumblings in Egypt. And audiencesaround the world responded: the network's global audience has rocketed. Duringthe first two days of the Egyptian protests, livestream viewers watching thechannel over the internet increased by 2,500 percent to 4 million, 1.6 millionof them in the United States, according to Al Anstey, managing director of AlJazeera's English-language channel.

"This is a real turning point for us, in terms of recognition ofthe integrity of the product we're producing, and showing that there is a truedemand for our content and information," Anstey told Reuters.

But even in its moment of triumph, questions about Al Jazeera remain.Despite its stated independence and brave journalism, the network unavoidablyplays a political role. Is it, as many in the region charge, sympathetic toIslamist parties such as Hamas and Hezbollah? Does it target some Middle East regimes while treating others more softly?And what role, if any, does its wealthy Qatari backer play in all this?

Perhaps ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said it best during avisit to Al Jazeera's Qatarheadquarters seven years ago: "All that trouble from this littlematchbox?"


Al Jazeera, Arabic for "the island", has earned theresentment of leaders in the Arab world -- as well as the admiration of manyordinary Arabs -- almost from the day it launched in 1996.

The first Arab network to put Israeli officials on the air, the channelhas also hosted guests as varied as Saudi dissidents, feminist activists andIslamist clerics. "When Israelis first appeared on our screens, peoplethought we were funded by the Mossad," one employee said.

In his final weeks in office, Mubarak made little secret of his angerwith Al Jazeera's broadcasts of the protests against his government. Thenetwork broadcast live from Cairo's Tahrir Square throughout the 18 days ofprotest, despite its office being closed, journalists beaten and detained, andtapes and equipment confiscated and destroyed.

In phone calls with western leaders during the uprising, Mubarakcomplained about Al Jazeera's -- and Qatar's-- role in fomenting unrest, according to senior political sources in Europe. Mubarak told them he believed the emir wasfocusing attention on the unrest in Egyptat the behest of Iran.It's a complaint that has been made before over the years. Executives of thestation dismiss the charge and say they are solely interested in goodjournalism.

Critics point to instances where Al Jazeera has pulled its punches asevidence of the political role it can play. Initially, the channel's coverageof Saudi Arabia -- the Arabworld's leading political and economic power -- was extensive, but in 2002 thekingdom withdrew its ambassador to Dohapartly in protest over Al Jazeera shows on Saudi politics. Relations betweenthe two states were restored six years later, and observers say Al Jazeeratoned down its Saudi coverage. A clash last March between the United Arab Emirates navy and aSaudi patrol vessel after a dispute over water boundaries, for example, wasn'tcovered by the network.

"They'd have brought on a world of trouble," said oneUK-based source, declining to be named because he feared it would hurt hisemployment prospects.

A July 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S.embassy in Qatar publishedby WikiLeaks puts it this way: "Al Jazeera, the most watched satellitetelevision station in the Middle East, is heavilysubsidised by the Qatari government and has proved itself a useful tool for thestation's political masters. The station's coverage of events in the MiddleEast is relatively free and open, though it refrains from criticising Qatar and itsgovernment. Al Jazeera's ability to influence public opinion throughout theregion is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikelyto relinquish. Moreover, the network can also be used as a chip to improverelations."

Al Jazeera insists the government has zero input. "There's been nointeraction from Qatarwhatsoever," Anstey says. "(In Egypt) we were on the ground veryquickly, with force, in the first minutes and hours, with total editorialindependence."

Editorially, the Qatari government is "completely hands-off,"he says. "Egyptian authorities have put a great deal of pressure on us tostop coverage from Egypt.But we're on the ground, talking to people in the square, to politicians. We'reresolute in the face of a considerable degree of pressure."

Some experts suggest that Al Jazeera, like media organisations in manyparts of the world, has probably already learned to exercise a degree ofrestraint rooted in self-preservation. "I think Al Jazeera itself conductsself-censorship to ensure no red lines are crossed," said David Roberts,researcher at Durham University in Britain. "But in general, theQatari government is not cherry-picking stories or censoring. They let them runwith any story they want, up to a certain point."


Washington initially welcomed the channel as anexample of burgeoning media freedom in the Arab world. But after the attacks onthe United States in 2001,the U.S.attitude began to change. The Bush administration accused it of propaganda andeven links with al-Qaeda. The U.S.military bombed Al Jazeera bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad, where onejournalist was killed. The United States has said both incidents wereaccidental, but some Al Jazeera insiders believe they may have been targeted.

The tone from Washingtonhas softened markedly since the change in the White House. President Obama hasacknowledged watching Al Jazeera English, and the Twitter feed of a StateDepartment spokesperson in recent weeks called for the release of detainedjournalists in Cairo.Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the network's Doha headquarters last year, a tour that wasdescribed by Al Jazeera officials as "cordial."

A State Department source told Reuters that Arabic speakers there have"quietly preferred" Al Jazeera "to any other news source basedin the Arab world, but I don't think we made it a very public preference, givenits nasty reputation in the U.S."

While Arab viewers dismiss the far-fetched notion that the channel isin bed with al Qaeda, many say Al Jazeera can appear sympathetic to extremistgroups such as Hamas, which defeated the more secular Fatah in Palestinianelections in 2006. That belief appeared to be underlined in January with AlJazeera's publication of leaked documents revealing that the Fatah-ledPalestinian Authority had offered multiple concessions to Israel in peacetalks. The revelations, which Al Jazeera shared with Britain's Guardian newspaper, madethe Palestinian Authority and Fatah look weak and led to the resignation of ChiefPalestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who has accused Al Jazeera trying to bringdown the Palestinian Authority.

Tensions within the Arabic-language channel were highlighted last yearwhen several female anchors resigned over its conservative dress code.


"It's electric," says a Doha-based journalist of theatmosphere in the network's headquarters as events unfold in Egypt. "Being in the newsroomis all hands on deck. We know that we're one of the only ones on the ground doingthis. People are chasing journalists in Tahrir Square shouting 'AlJazeera!'"

For a region whose authoritarian governments are usually able to squashstories they don't want published, Al Jazeera represents a sharp culturalshift, and, many believe, a positive one. Launched with a startup budget of$137 million and a target of generating revenue within five years, the networkwas able to draw talent from the just-folded BBC Arabic.

"They started with the right kind of culture," says MohamedZayani, professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author of a book on AlJazeera. "In terms of the way things were run, the structure was looser,less bureaucratic and red-tape laden. That was good, because it meant theycould get things done. It's something very important in the business of news,where time is of the essence."

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