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Al-jazeera is probably the most successful news television network, with an Arabic origin, in terms of number of viewers. In fact, it is arguably the most watched news television channel in the Arab world. It has a rising viewer following in the rest of the world especially in the English speaking developing countries. The channel originated from Qatar under the funding of the Emir of Qatar who wanted to create an independent news channel (“Who is Aljazeera?”). He wanted his country to be different from the traditional Arabic countries.
The word Al-jazeera is an Arabic word meaning the island and the naming of this television channel was after its origin, Qatar that is an island. The naming may be symbolic in that the channel claims to be the only politically independent television network in the Middle East and thus an isolated case in the Middle East television world. Most of the other Arabic networks are heavily controlled by the political regimes of the respective regions. Having been founded and funded by a non-democratic government, one may wonder how it can be politically independent. Can the Emir fund it and still allow it to carry out broadcasts without bias? Such questions and the controversial content of the channel make most people doubt its editorial independence.
However, over the years Aljazeera has acquired the trust of many of its viewers especially from the Middle East although a notable portion of the rest of the world also trusts the channel. The approach taken by Aljazeera in collecting and broadcasting information may be controversial but more people are appreciating and trusting Aljazeera.
The channel has no editorial control center and therefore each section is allowed to air its contents independently. Two scholars, El-nawawy and Powers carried out a study of Aljazeera. They concluded that the television network is able to air controversial issues in a way that does not create more disharmonies.
History of Al-jazeera
Al-jazeera was first launched in 1996 and the station aired all its broadcasts in Arabic until 2006 when an English version of the channel was launched. Earlier in 2003 before the launching of the English-language version (Al-jazeera International), an Aljazeera English site had been created and featured an English translation of the networks content.
The contents of Aljazeera Arabic and Aljazeera English channels are not at all similar and represent different news and comments. Initially, Aljazeera was categorized as an alternative media but media scholars have argued that Al-jazeera is a transformation of the alternative media. It is more inclined towards the mainstream media category.
Most of the staff members of Aljazeera are western trained and some have previously worked in the mainstream channels like BBC, CBC and CNN. Since the channel was founded after the shut down of BBC world service’s Arabic television network, it absorbed most of the workers left jobless by this action. It therefore took off on talent recognized and developed by the BBC.
With the Emir of Qatar providing the necessary funds, Al-jazeera was able to pouch talent from the established western media networks. In fact, the managing director of Aljazeera English, Tony Burman was previously the head of CBC’s news and current affairs operations (“Directors and Deputy Directors”). This is why scholars categorize Aljazeera as a mainstream channel. Alternative media channels hire ‘native’ reporters who are not experienced and well-trained journalists.
Al-jazeera was very popular with the Middle East residents in its early days of operation. It had brought about something the Middle East population had not seen before. They were used to national television networks that were heavily censored by the government. However, Al-jazeera was providing uncensored information and even criticizing and challenging the governments’ actions.
Al-jazeera also aired confrontational shows where it allowed guests to speak out their opinions. Caller sessions were also integrated in the shows further drawing the viewers’ interest. The channel however received criticism from some of its viewers and authoritarian bodies.
After the 2001 September 11 terrorist attack on the US, the channel aired videos from Osama and other extremists resulting in a lot of interest from the Americans (“Who is Al-jazeera?”). During the Iraqi war, it aired live coverage from its offices in Iraq. This catapulted it to international recognition. The channel was also the first to air the cell phone video covering the hanging of Saddam Hussein and footages of other situations, which mainstream news channels like CNN and BBC, were unable to cover.
These footages led to many criticisms towards Aljazeera. The Iraqi government accused Aljazeera of fuelling the war by airing videos depicting violence. Most Americans also accused Aljazeera of collaborating with terrorists since they could not understand how Aljazeera could obtain and air videos of terrorists like Osama Bin Laden making anti-American threats and other extremists holding hostages and making demands.
Al-jazeera continued to air videos from Al-jazeera amid disapproval from the American government. Following this, Al-jazeera was regarded as the terrorists’ mouthpiece and Bin Ladens’ channel of choice. These controversies led to Aljazeera increasing its viewer base but generating a lot of criticism from the same viewers.
In the Middle East, it is believed that the news channels are not independent from the government’s influence and these governments censor any content aired. The media cannot therefore air anything that is against the government and even the slightest anti government broadcast is considered as treason. When Aljazeera was founded, it was aimed at being free media that will provide accurate and impartial news to the world with a global perspective.
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With the backing of the Emir, the channel has continued to criticize other regimes. It also provides opportunities for individuals and bodies including terrorists to air their opinions. The channel has also been providing a much in-depth coverage of conflicts in the developing countries and the Middle East, which may not be covered to such an extent by the western mainstream media bodies.
Is Al-jazeera Independent?
During its early broadcasting days, it was hard for Americans to trust Aljazeera. This is because very few Americans understood Arabic and they could not trust what they do not understand. After the launch of the English version, more individuals that are non-Arabic could understand the broadcasts and make their own conclusions on whether they are independent or politically biased.
Perhaps the most direct indicator that Aljazeera is politically independent is when it was banned from various Arab world countries, for example, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, for criticizing and challenging the host governments. On the other hand, Aljazeera has been criticized for not broadcasting hard-hitting news originating from its host country Qatar. Aljazeera has been critical of most Arabian regimes. However, it barely covers politics in Qatar (Byrd and Kawarabayashi, 8).
Aljazeera English is available in the Middle East via satellite. It can be viewed in any Middle East country where it has not been banned. In the United States, it is available through subscription television and free to air DVB-S on galaxy 25 and galaxy 23 satellites. In Canada, it is provided by CRTC. Aljazeera Arabic is only available to the Arabic speaking countries via satellite. In Australia and UK, Aljazeera is available through satellite at no cost.
Online, Aljazeera English is available from their official website, Aljazeera.net and through YouTube where sections of broadcasts are uploaded. Aljazeera English section is providing live broadcasts worldwide. The Aljazeera online services through its official website are available at a subscription fee.
The Availability of Aljazeera through the internet enables people without satellite television to access their broadcasts. In the US and many other English-speaking countries, especially the developing countries, it is available without restriction and any one can view the broadcasts.
How Al-jazeera acquires videos from extremists holding hostages.
In the past, Aljazeera has broadcasted videos of extremist holding hostages and terrorists like Osama bin laden making anti-American threats. Some people even termed Aljazeera as the terrorist media (“terror television”). However, Aljazeera has defended itself by claiming that it does not air some of the videos, which it deems fanatical. All these videos are made available to the channel officials by either the terrorists or the kidnappers indirectly. The extremists for example drop the tapes near the gates of the stations office.
The tapes are also sent to the channels offices anonymously such that the senders cannot be traced. Aljazeera journalist may also offer the extremists conditions of anonymity to be able to acquire the video tapes but this is just speculation and no evidence is available to prove it. There have been claims that Aljazeera maintains a website for contacting extremists.
Other content aired by Al-jazeera apart from the news
In addition to news, Al-jazeera offers other interesting features. It has interesting talk shows where it features diverse types of guests and they are usually confrontational. They were the initial sources of attraction from the Middle East residents. The talk shows integrate caller sessions where uncensored calls are put through the guests from the viewers.
Al-jazeera English has of late launched other services apart from the news section in order to provide diverse content to its viewers. The increase in content diversity is probably meant to increase its viewer base. The new services launched include: Al-jazeera sports, Al-jazeera live, Al-jazeera children’s channel, Al-jazeera documentary channel and Al-jazeera training channel.
Al-jazeera sports’ is a sport channel that covers major sporting events and has obtained a large viewer base in the Middle East. This sports channel has several sections that air different sports events. It has become the most popular sports channel in the Middle East countries.
Al-jazeera live also known as Al-jazeera mubasher is a channel that broadcasts live conferences. The conferences are not broadcasted without any editing, commentary or translation. Subtitles are used in case any translation is needed. Al-jazeera children (JCC) as the name suggests is directed towards children. It is meant to be an education and entertainment channel for children.
Byrd, Kahil and Kawarabayashi, Theresse. “Aljazeera-The Opinion and the Other Opinion.” MIT’s Media in Transition 3. 4 May 2004. Web.
“Directors and Deputy Directors”. About US. Aljazeera English. 23 Oct. 2009. Web.
El-nawawy, Mohammed and Powers, Shawn. “Aljazeera: Clash of Civilization or Cross Cultural Dialogue.” Aljazeera English Research Project. n.d. Web.
“Who is Aljazeera, What is Aljazeera, Where is Aljazeera.” Aljazeera- Discussion and Encyclopedia Article. 2009. Web.