I was invited on a tour of the Al Jazeera studios while in Doha last week, and snapped away as much as I could without being too much of a nuisance. The result is this short and somewhat disjointed tour of my own.
Soon after its launch in 1996, the network quickly and dramatically changed the television news voice of the Middle East and Arab world, giving people in the region an option other than their own state-run and censored news outlets. Ever since, and over the past six months in particular as popular uprisings swept through the region, it has made plenty of enemies in its immediate neighborhood. Simply stated, Al Jazeera’s coverage of those uprisings has been the best that any news organization in the world has provided.
In 2006 its English-language service, Al Jazeera English, was launched, and today has an estimated reach of 100 million households, with broadcast centers, in addition to its main base in Doha, in London, Kuala Lumpur, and Washington DC. It’s available virtually everywhere on the planet, except for the USA.
In the early part of the decade the Bush administration was openly hostile towards the network, going so far as spreading the farcical notion that it was an arm of al Qaeda. In 2001 its office in Kabul was hit and destroyed in a US missile attack. In 2003 its office in Baghdad was also hit by a US missile, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub and wounding another, even though Al Jazeera provided the US State Department with the coordinates of its bureau six weeks earlier. In late November 2005, the UK’s The Daily Mirror published details from a leaked memo saying that Bush had considered bombing Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters in 2004 with Marines were in the midst on an assault on Fallujah. Tony Blair supposedly talked him out of it. [Wiki story on the memo is here.]
The Bush era characterization is not the official view anymore, but major cable players –Comcast in particular– are still resistant to the idea of adding the Al Jazeera option to their US markets, and robbing US viewers of the best coverage of and from the Middle East. The network’s mounted a PR campaign to expand its presence in the US – details are here.
Al Jazeera is hardly perfect (show me a media outlet that is). They’ve made some big mistakes, and acknowledged them. It’s still largely funded by the Qatari government, which officially carries a ‘hands off’ approach, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find any real hard-hitting reportage on Qatari affairs. But in just half a decade, it’s managed to put a more genuine face on the Arab world, give a voice to the people there, and provide a much more accurate portrayal of the region. That’s something that was long overdue.