Profile: Al Jazeera

Revolutionizing Middle Eastern Media and Perceptions

The exterior of the broadcast center of the Al Jazeera English news channel on March 22, 2011 in Doha, Qatar.
Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Basics

Al Jazeera, the 24-hour, Arabic-language satellite television news network viewable throughout the Middle East and most of the world, went on the air on Nov. 1, 1996. Al Jazeera’s English-language network went on the air in November 2006. The network is based in Doha, Qatar, the small Arab, peninsular nation jutting into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia’s eastern midsection. “Al Jazeera” is Arabic for “the peninsula.” The network is heavily funded by Qatar’s royal family. Boycotts and pressure from other Arab regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia, keeps advertisers away and prevents the station from becoming self-sufficient.

Al Jazeera’s Viewership and Reach

Satnam Mapharu, Al Jazeera’s public relations chief, says the network’s combined Arabic and English services has 2,500 staff members and journalists from 40 countries. The network broadcasts from four centers — Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington D.C. It has bureaus around the world. The station claims that its English-language service reaches 100 million homes. Its Arabic service has an audience of about 40 million to 50 million.

How Al Jazeera Was Born

Luck played a big role in Al Jazeera’s creation and expansion. In 1995 Qatar’s Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa overthrew his father and immediately set to reforming the country’s media and governance. His aim was to transform Qatar into a Persian Gulf version of Switzerland. He thought good publicity would help. So would opening up the emirate’s media. An Arab version of CNN would attain both objectives. The BBC in 1994 had started just such a station in Qatar, with Saudi money. The Saudis soon discovered that the BBC’s independence wasn’t what they were paying for. The venture dissolved, leaving 250 BBC-trained journalists unemployed. Qatar’s emir swooped in, hired 120 of them, and Al Jazeera was born.

“The result,” The New York Times’ John Burns wrote in 1999 , “has been a sensation in the 22 Arab countries where Al Jazeera’s broadcasts can be seen. In Algiers’s Casbah, in Cairo’s slums, in the suburbs of Damascus, even in the desert tents of Bedouins with satellite dishes, the channel has become a way of life. In its 30 months on air, it has drawn viewers in droves from the mind-numbing fare offered by the region’s state-run networks, whose news coverage often amounts to little more than a reverential chronicle of government affairs.”

Banned, Boycotted and Bombed

Al Jazeera’s style of reporting candidly and aggressively from throughout the Arab world was a new experience for Arab regimes. Those regimes often didn’t react happily. The Algerian government prevented Al Jazeera’s correspondent from working there for a brief period in 2004. Bahrain banned the station’s personnel from operating from there between 2002 and 2004. On Nov. 13, 2001, U.S. missiles destroyed Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul.

One month later, one of Al Jazeera’s correspondents in Afghanistan, Sami al Hajj, was apprehended by Pakistani authorities and charged, falsely, with having a forged passport. He was turned over to American authorities, who shipped him to the Pentagon’s Gantanamo Bay prison camp, where he’s been held ever since, without charge or proper representation. On April 8, 2003, American forces bombed Al Jazeera’s office in Baghdad killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub.

In March 2008, the Israeli government imposed a boycott on Al Jazeera reporters working in Israel. Israeli authorities charged Al Jazeera with showing bias in its reporting of Israel’s clashes with Hamas in Gaza.

Al Jazeera and the Bush Administration

The Bush administration makes no secret of its disdain for Al Jazeera. It criticizes the station for broadcasting video clips of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures, as well as for its alleged anti-American slant. The criticism, more general than specific, is simple-minded and largely misinformed, however. The station does carry video clips from al-Qaeda figures, but in the context of its news-gathering responsibilities—and in the absence of other stations’ willingness, in the United States especially, to broadcast the material. American stations have seldom refrained from re-broadcasting Al Jazeera’s clips.

Al Jazeera’s alleged anti-American slant is also a simplification. The station is unquestionably not pro-American. Nor is it pro-Israeli. But its experiences with regimes across the Middle East, including with the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and its Hamas counterparts, have earned it equal-opportunity disdain. More recently, Al Jazeera has been losing its aggressive edge to curry favor with the Qatari and Saudi regime.

Problems with the English-Language Service

In January 2008, Britain’s Guardian reported that “Al-Jazeera’s troubled English language news channel is facing a “serious staffing crisis” after scores of journalists left or have not had contracts renewed amid claims of a revolt over working conditions.” Resignations have reportedly occurred across the board due to the expenses of running the English-language network. “There are also renewed reports of tensions between al-Jazeera’s Arabic language channel, which has been on air since 1996, and the more recently launched English outlet. Sources have added that executives on the main Arabic al-Jazeera network are trying to exert more control over the English language outlet, which is mainly staffed by western journalists.”

But the station was also preparing to open bureaus in Gaza and Nairobi, and expand its marketing in the English-speaking world. In September 2007, Al Jazeera hired Phil Lawrie, formerly CNN’s vice president for commercial distribution, to “to spearhead the effort as Director of Global Distribution,” according to an Al Jazeera news release .