"Al Jazeera Is Biased"
True, but no more so than Fox News or CNN. Al Jazeera employs the same stringent editorial processes as the Western media, but it ends up with a different product. During the war in Iraq, Al Jazeera's tone was notably sympathetic to the Iraqis and hostile toward the Americans. Similarly in Afghanistan, the Taliban was often presented as the noble underdog and America as the vengeful, colonial aggressor. A general cynicism about Arab regimes allied to America is detectable, and though Al Jazeera has employees from many religions, including Jews, the network is clearly sympathetic toward the Palestinians.
This bias in no way invalidates the network's news. Knowing it is scrutinized more rigorously than any other news channel in the world, Al Jazeera is fastidious in presenting all sides of a story. Certainly compared to most other Arab news stations, Al Jazeera remains a model of professionalism and objectivity. Journalists around the world treat Al Jazeera with the same respect they treat news from any other major international news network. Al Jazeera has sharing agreements with CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, BBC, Japan’s NHK, and Germany’s ZDF, all of which regularly use Al Jazeera's footage and reports.
If Al Jazeera has a bias, it is a commercial one. Despite the fact that it enjoys an estimated annual budget of around $100 million, subsidized largely by the gas-rich Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar, Al Jazeera wants to win audience share and it wants to sell advertising. The network has consistently lost money since its launch, which is unsurprising, as no Arab channel makes a profit. The network targets a particular demographic (namely Arab men over the age of 25), and, like the mainstream cable networks or FM radios stations in the United States, it tries hard to pitch itself to viewers by luring them with dramatic trailers and lead-in segments. They often feature montages of violence from the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, or Iraq, accompanied by pounding music. Critics argue that such montages are deliberately inflammatory. The network counters that it is not its job to sanitize images of war. What is indisputable is that Al Jazeera has different standards of taste from Western networks when it comes to showing casualties.
"Al Jazeera Is Censored"
Not yet. Al Jazeera occupies a peculiar space in the Arab media. It presents itself as a beacon of free speech and editorial independence in the region. Yet, the chairman of the network's board of directors is Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, the former Qatari deputy minister of information. There’s no question that Al Jazeera remains heavily dependent on the emir. And he has proved to be an unflinching sponsor. When he came to power in 1995, the emir calculated that hosting a popular television network would help Qatar shore up Western support in the event that Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia should decide to invade. The gamble paid off, both for Al Jazeera and for the emir.
Despite its dependence on the state, Al Jazeera regularly criticizes Arab regimes, including Qatar's. For example, when a coup to depose the emir was foiled in February 1996 and the plotters put on trial, proceedings were televised live on Al Jazeera -- a first in the Arab world. Al Jazeera's viewers had a front-row seat when the defense counsel claimed that the defendants had been subjected to torture, and when a spokesman from Amnesty International who had been invited to attend the trial attacked the Qatari criminal justice system. Talk shows on Al Jazeera have discussed whether it was right or wrong for Qatar to host an American air base. At the height of the intifada and in the run-up to the war in Iraq, when America's allies were being hounded in the Arab world, politicians, guests, and callers frequently attacked Qatar on Al Jazeera.
Yet there remains a deeply held belief from government ministries right down to the Arab street that the Qatari ruling family is the real power behind Al Jazeera. The exact nature of the relationship remains opaque, but it is a testament to the vision of the emir that, so far at least, he has been tolerant. Whether he will continue to keep his fingers off the channel remains to be seen.
"Al Jazeera Wants to Compete with CNN and the BBC"
Yes, and it plans to. Although it wasn’t part of the original launch plan back in November 1996, the network’s incredible success during the past decade has prompted the emir to expand his goals for Al Jazeera. This fall, a sister English-language station, called Al Jazeera International, or AJI, will launch around the world. It expects to reach 30 to 40 million households on its first day. AJI is directly competing with BBC World and CNN International for the world’s English-speaking audience of 1 billion people.
Although it has hired a large number of Western journalists, it won't look much like CNN. The network's coverage will "follow the sun" throughout the day, airing from Kuala Lumpur for 4 hours, Doha for 11 hours, London for 5, and Washington for the remaining 4. Reporters and editors in each locale will present news from their region’s perspective, and the entire world will watch the same satellite feed at the same time. "We're the first news channel based in the Mideast to bring news back to the West," says Nigel Parsons, managing director of AJI. "We want to set a different news agenda." And CNN and the BBC are taking the new global competition seriously. The BBC has unveiled plans for an Arabic-language television news service, slated for launch in early 2007, and both networks are busy reassessing how they cover news in the developing world.
"Only Arabs Will Watch Al Jazeera International"
Not so fast. This venture is the biggest challenge yet for the network. Whereas the launch of the Arabic Al Jazeera network meant competing with the likes of Egyptian, Lebanese, and Saudi television, Western networks are much meatier competition, and Al Jazeera will face them on their home turf. In English.
For its part, AJI has said it will focus on developing-world issues and use more indigenous reporters and freelancers than other channels. It is widely expected to win large market share in Asia, where the Al Jazeera brand already enjoys a favorable reputation and where many more people speak English than Arabic. Pakistan has 160 million Muslims, and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, has 215 million Muslims, many of whom will be interested in following events in the Arab world closely.
Of course, it won't be so easy to break into America. Even securing distribution for AJI has been tough: As of press time, not one U.S. cable company had offered to carry the channel as part of a general news package. Ironically, it is the world's freest media market that poses the biggest challenge to Al Jazeera.
None of which changes the fact that Al Jazeera has permanently reshaped the landscape of world news to and, soon, from the Arab world. In a region where the United States is engaged in a protracted war in one country and the West as a whole faces a nuclear impasse in another, it hardly makes sense to simply turn the dial -- and remain confined to an echo chamber of recycled opinion. If Al Jazeera International hits the airwaves this fall, America would do well to tune in.