Al Jazeera English in Focus by Philip Seib
In the vastly expanded contemporary universe of journalism, Al Jazeera English developed with less fanfare than attended the first years of its parent, Al Jazeera Arabic. The news cacophony is louder and more distracting today than it was in 1996, when the Arabic channel was born. Having a lower profile worked to AJE’s advantage as the channel’s leadership sorted out issues of format, logistics, and management.
The lower profile is no more. With the Middle East revolutions of early 2011, Al Jazeera English established itself as the go-to site for breaking news. Even in the United States, where stodgy cable and satellite companies have refused to carry the channel, audiences found ways to watch it. AJE executive Tony Burman reported that as of February 3, traffic to AJE’s live online stream had increased 2,500 percent, with 60 percent of that coming from the United States.[i] As the tempo of events in Egypt increased, so did AJE’s viewership, on the air and online, reaching its peak when Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11.
Beyond this surge in prestige and audience, AJE’s current and prospective role in journalism and politics deserves serious consideration. The channel’s ambitions are significant, its achievements to date merit recognition, and its prospects are such that the channel could well become one of the world’s most authoritative sources of news.
To understand the political significance of Al Jazeera English, it is important to recognize the historical importance and regional influence of its Arabic-language parent. AJE is very much a child of the Arabic channel, and despite its level of editorial independence, this relationship remains crucial.
When Al Jazeera Arabic first went on the air in 1996, few observers expected the channel to amount to more than a quickly forgettable publicity stunt by a country that most people could not locate on a map. That dismissive attitude, which was found mostly in the West, was built on the false assumption that the Arab television news audience did not care where its information came from. In reality, there was a hunger among Arab viewers for news about their lives that they could trust and in which they could claim ownership. For too long they needed to rely on the BBC, CNN, or other non-Arab information sources to tell them what was happening or else they were dependent on news programming tightly controlled by Arab governments, featuring dreary-looking broadcasts and “news” that only the most credulous would accept.
Al Jazeera changed all that. First, it looked different. With generous financial support from the Qatari government, Al Jazeera was able to feature eye-catching state-of-the-art production values that held viewers’ attention More important was the content – an unprecedented expansion of pan-Arab journalism into topics that almost all other television channels in the region (with the exception of some in Lebanon) dared not address. By the time of the 2000 intifada, Al Jazeera had become the principal television source for news about Arabs reported by Arabs. Its coverage featured an Arab perspective, which some critics denounced as bias, but it was a slant that attracted and retained viewers.
As a result of the channel’s often fiery coverage, the emir of Qatar began hearing regularly from aggrieved neighbors, but Al Jazeera was rarely reined in. Subsequently, some Arab governments shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in their countries, a practice that continues today. In October 2010, the Moroccan Ministry of Communications withdrew accreditation from the channel’s staff in the country, citing a failure to follow “the rules of responsible and serious journalistic work.” The Moroccan authorities said that Al Jazeera’s coverage “seriously distorted Morocco’s image and manifestly damaged its interests, most notably its territorial integrity” in reports about Western Sahara, territory that is the subject of a continuing dispute between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.[ii] A few weeks later, the Kuwaiti government closed Al Jazeera’s bureau in that country, accusing the channel of interfering in Kuwait’s internal affairs by reporting about a violent police response to a public gathering organized by the Kuwaiti opposition.[iii]
Outside the region, the most significant government criticism of Al Jazeera has come from the United States, particularly during the George W. Bush administration, which objected to the channel’s coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, coverage that often emphasized the cost of conflict in terms of civilians’ lives. Nervous Western governments used the label “the Osama bin Laden network” to characterize Al Jazeera, a tactic that worked well among those who had never seen the channel’s newscasts and were ready to believe that it was part of an Arab terrorist conspiracy.
But in terms of audience loyalty, being perceived as an irritant to Arab governments and the United States did no harm to Al Jazeera. Attacks on the channel enhanced its credibility as an independent voice. Such controversies showed that Al Jazeera matters.
Perhaps most significantly, these varied factors contributed to an altered public sphere in the Arab world brought about by an “Al Jazeera effect” that extended beyond the Qatari news organization to numerous other regional satellite channels and then to Internet-based media that have empowered individuals and groups in unprecedented ways. “News,” which for so long had largely been a product of Arab officialdom, had become something that people were beginning to trust as being on their side, and therefore as a tool of intellectual liberation in a society that tended to frown on such.
After its first decade, Al Jazeera’s journalistic credentials and political influence were well established within the Arab world, but its reach was limited. To maintain and expand influence requires an audience that can grow. The direction for growth was clear. Only about 350 million people speak Arabic, but the most widely spoken language in the world is English.
With the channel so well known, and with its ambitions made realistic by its financial solidity, creating Al Jazeera English made sense. Understanding those ambitions is important. Put simply, Al Jazeera wants to change journalism, and by so doing, change international politics.
The two goals are closely related. Journalists who claim to have no political agenda are disingenuous. There is no reason to do journalism if your coverage has no effect. Whether the news story is about the failures of a local housing project or about global warming, the information journalists deliver should provide news consumers with knowledge that they can use to develop opinions and then act upon them. That is a political outcome. Critiquing governments’ performance has similar political ramifications. Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director general said: “We have to challenge centers of power. When they are trying to hide facts, people should learn that governments from now on cannot brush away stories and cannot hide the truth….”[iv] Few journalists would disagree with that.
By early 2011, Al Jazeera was moving forward with plans to further expand its array of channels by creating Al Jazeera Turkish, Al Jazeera Swahili, and Al Jazeera Balkans. None of these would have as large a language-based audience as Al Jazeera English, but the expansion is evidence of the overall Al Jazeera mission to upgrade international journalism and purposely extend its own influence.
Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, noted that AJE has a “shared heritage” with the parent Arabic channel; “We have the same DNA,” he said. He also said that this audience might be attracted by AJE being “comprehensive in our coverage of the Middle East,” adding that although plenty of other news organizations also cover the region extensively, audience members with an emotional stake in events there “don’t necessarily feel comfortable” with reporting by those without true grounding in the Arab world. In terms of having the credibility to build audience, he observed, the question may be viewers’ judgment about “which prism are we looking through?”[v]
The 2008-9 Gaza war coverage underscored the significance of the AJE prism. As the only English-language television news organization with crews inside Gaza, its reporting – replete with graphic images of Palestinian casualties, many of them children – was certain to find a receptive audience among those whose sympathies were with the residents of Gaza as well as those who were dissatisfied with Western news organizations’ coverage that came only from within Israel.
A case can be made that the Gaza coverage was simply good journalism, and any pro-Palestinian political impact was an unintended (although predictable) ripple effect. The Gaza story was a breakthrough for AJE in that its monopoly on on-site English-language reporting helped the channel build trust in its news product among an audience that was, because of language, familiar with Al Jazeera news only by reputation.
Al Jazeera was created partly to enhance Qatar’s public diplomacy, giving the state an identity that would be recognized by publics as well as governments, particularly in the Middle East. In a dispatch among the WikiLeaks documents released in late 2010, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Joseph LeBaron wrote: “Al Jazeera’s ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish. Moreover, the network can also be used as a chip to improve relations. For example, Al Jazeera’s more favorable coverage of Saudi Arabia’s royal family has facilitated Qatari-Saudi reconciliation over the past year.” Al Jazeera denied that it had been used as a political tool in this way, stating, “This is the U.S. embassy’s assessment, and it is very far from the truth.”[vi]
However, wielding influence ispart of what Al Jazeera does, and it does so overtly. Al Jazeera has created a training center which works with journalists from underdeveloped countries and a Centre for Studies, which is a think-tank that focuses on geopolitics.
In the end, the story of Al Jazeera English comes back to the mission of journalism. The channel seeks to deliver a journalistic product that is based on a nontraditional worldview. As it showed during the first months of 2011, it is fully capable of covering the world’s most important events. This is a sign that the channel is maturing in ways that will accrue to its own benefit and that of its viewers.
Philip Seib is a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and is Director of USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy.
[i] Tony Burman, “The ‘Al Jazeera Moment’?” thestar.com (Toronto), February 4, 2011, http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/933097–the-al-jazeera-moment.
[ii] “Morocco Suspends Al Jazeera Operations Indefinitely,” Committee to Protect Journalists news release, http://cpj.org/2010/11/morocco-suspends-al-jazeera-operations.
[iii] “Media Watchdogs Condemn Kuwait for Closing Al Jazeera,” Daily Star (Beirut), December 15, 2010.
[iv] “Al Jazeera Now,” transcript of On the Media, March 26, 2010, www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/03/26.
[v] Author interview with Al Anstey, Doha, January 4, 2011.
[vi] Robert Booth, “WikiLeaks Cables Claim Al Jazeera Changed Coverage To Suit Qatari Foreign Policy,” The Guardian, December 6, 2010.