In its 20th anniversary, what has made Al Jazeera distinctive?

 02 Nov 2016 - 5:20

Dr Noureddine Miladi
Before the mushrooming of Arab satellite channels and the speedy development of social media networks, Al Jazeera provided a refuge for Arab viewers. Since its inception in 1996, its key selling point has always been its daring news reports about political and economic corruption and human rights abuses in the Arab wold. News analysis and discussion programmes unheard of on Arab mainstream broadcasting channels became the new thriving Arab public sphere. 
This breakthrough reminds of the arrival of Napoleon to Egypt who brought with him the printing press to the Arab region. Since then, a new age in the communication and dissemination of news and knowledge was inaugurated.
For decades state television in the Arab world was highly entertainment-oriented and saturated with propaganda for the ruling government officials. The Arab Human Development Report of 2003 described the bleak picture of scores of Arab media outlets say: ‘...on official news and on senior political officials. Certain news values predominate… News reports themselves tend to be narrative and descriptive, rather than investigative or analytic, with a concentration on immediate and partial events and fact”.
So from the outset Al Jazeera attempted to change this stagnant scene and inaugurated a new chapter of Arab journalism this time it is homemade and prepared by local and grass root expertise. None of this phenomenon has been the result of external influences or foreign consultancy. 
Time is according to Makkah not Greenwich, which signified from the start the Eastern origin of the channel and its terms of reference. Makkah time symbolised it unconventionality and distinction from all global broadcasting channels. Few had probably questioned this choice for being against the tide, but they would have surely realized that this was part of what makes Al Jazeera what it is, an exceptional raison d’être.
On Al Jazeera’s news and current affairs programmes Arab regimes became sacred no more. Dictatorial regimes such as Ben Ali of Tunisia, Gaddafi of Libya or Mubarak in Egypt became unable to hide their policy failures and their media machines unable to stand in front of Al Jazeera’s flood of broken taboos. 
Yet the channel’s daring journalism backfired and led to mounting pressure from Arab rulers as well Western governments. According to few Arab politicians, it was viewed as spreading friction in the Arab world, for a large part of the Arab public it represented voice of the voiceless, a platform for people who do not have one, to some others it was none but a nest of dissidents funded by the Israeli and American intelligence, an arm of the Qatari foreign policy, and finally to few Western politicians it was the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood or even Al-Qaeda. Yet for Arab journalists, intellectuals and political/human rights activists, it was perceived from the beginning as a platform for freedom of speech, a strong media outlet that may help initiate social, political, and cultural changes in the Arab world.
Furthermore, Al Jazeera has paid heavy prices in terms of its material and human resources. Its offices became the target of bombing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza. Also its journalists where the subject of killing such as Tariq Ayyub, Ali Hassan Al Jaber, Atwar Bahjat, who lost their lives as a price for reporting the truth. In spite of all the above, Al Jazeera did not back off, but it prides itself to be the ‘voice of the voiceless’. This is where the Arab street discovered that they can ultimately express themselves freely after decades of clamping down on all forms of anti-regime or anti-establishment expression. The threshold of free speech among the Arab public was suddenly lifted. Since then, the balance of power has started to shift between oppressive regimes and the Arab public. Such regimes who used to capitalise on censorship of information and total control of media outlets including independent newspapers have found themselves for the first time on the defensive. 
On the other hand, Arab viewers became not anymore dependent on CNN, Monte Carlo, BBC World, DeutscheWelle to learn about news in the world. Reporting the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, the war in Afghanistan in 2001 the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Arab Spring events have been seen from a different zoom lens, the Arab perspective.
But Arab state media have also changed considerably because of Al Jazeera’s effect. Hence, the swift development in Arab state broadcasting, which varies from one country to another, has been viewed as an attempt to reclaim the credibility of state controlled networks. 
There are now over 800 satellite channels broadcasting in Arabic or in other major languages for Arab audiences, and transmitted through ARABSAT, Hotbird, Nilesat, Suhail, Astra among others. All of these channels across the Arab world thrive with vibrant content about local and regional issues. Through these unprecedented programmes on Arab TV, Al-Jazeera opened the scope for free and sometimes noisy debates on some of the most sensitive issues in Arab society - such as human rights, Arab-Israeli conflict, gender equality and democracy. 
It has been argued that the Arab Spring revolutions could not have happened in the absence of the 24 hours rolling news media via satellite TV in addition to social media networks. Arab audiences who were historically known to rely on Western media as their sources of information and entertainment, Radio Monte Carlo, the World Service of the BBC and Voice of America, found in Al-Jazeera a fulfilling alternative. 
This has been part of the shining history of the Al Jazeera’s phenomenon during the last twenty years. It will be interesting to see the developments such network will witness in the next twenty given the speedy advances the world is witnessing in digital technologies spearheaded by social media. 

The writer is a university professor of media and communication He can be reached via email: [email protected]