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Al-Jazeera in English

The popular Arabic satellite TV channel launches a version in English from 15th Novermber onwards on the eve of its 10th anniversary on 1st November. For those of you who are wondering "what is Al-Jazeera?" here is its impact and popularity. Arab governments have recalled diplomats because of it, the USA has allegedly targeted its offices with bombs, but over 40 million Arabs watch it. The Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite TV channel celebrates its 10th anniversary on 1 November and has announced the launch of its long-planned English service on 15 November.

The "Arab CNN" has gained popularity and respect with close-up coverage of issues close to Arab hearts such as the second Palestinian intifada and the Iraq war, as well as exclusive broadcasting of tapes by Osama Bin Laden. Coverage unprecedented in the Arab media, ranging from pictures of a Palestinian boy being shot dead by Israeli soldiers in his father's arms to interviews with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, have all added to its popularity and credibility.

BBC-trained al-Jazeera editor-in-chief Ahmad al-Sheikh summed up his channel's journalistic ethos in this way: "Be accurate, factual, be there first - that's not necessarily most important - and be with the human being all the time - you don't stay at the top getting the views of politicians and diplomats." Several competitors have been launched, although they have failed to knock al-Jazeera off the top spot. Its main rival is Dubai-based al-Arabiya, financed by Saudi Arabia and launched in 2003 to counter al-Jazeera's influence.

Major impact

Al-Jazeera's impact and popularity pressured several state-run television stations to update output to compete. Several Arab governments were forced to lift, if only partially, media controls. Analysts believe al-Jazeera is responsible for politically educating ordinary Arabs and for raising awareness and political knowledge of both Arab and world affairs. It is also credited with raising the expectations of the masses from their governments.

However, its reporting has made it unpopular with Arab and Western governments.

Al-Jazeera was banned from reporting in Iraq in August 2004, and its bureau has not been allowed to reopen since. The station's programmes have led to several Arab countries recalling their diplomats and its bureaus being shut down or attacked in Arab countries. American officials have criticised the broadcasts of messages by Osama Bin Laden and the channel's Iraq war coverage. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused the channel of a lack of balance and of attacking the image of the US "day after day after day". Meanwhile, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq, reportedly posted an internet message accusing al-Jazeera of being a "mouthpiece for the Americans". Mr Sheikh has said "People say we are the channel of the insurgents. It's not true. We are the channel of everybody. We are critical and balanced."

Under fire

Al-Jazeera bureaus have also come under US fire literally - first in 2001 during the Afghanistan campaign, it is claimed deliberately, and then during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, causing the death of a reporter. President Bush is reported to have contemplated a strike against the Doha headquarters in 2004. The station is still under boycott in some Gulf states. Saudi Arabia's pressure on companies not to advertise on the channel has prevented it from becoming self-financing. Ten years after launching, it remains heavily reliant on financing from the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa. After al-Jazeera introduced its code of ethics in 2004, it also began to tone down its broadcasts of graphic footage of carnage in the Middle East. Neither this change of tone, nor a growing number of interviews with US, British and even Israeli officials, commentators and guests, have diminished its success in attracting ever more viewers.

While many US and UK politicians demonise al-Jazeera, the West's few Arabic-speaking diplomats prefer instead to engage with the channel. Their hope is to persuade at least some of the 40 million viewers to hear a different point of view and make up their own minds.

Source: BBC
Tags: Al-Jazeera Media Journalism
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