IN NUMBERS

220 million: The number of households Al-Jazeera reaches worldwide

2,500 per cent: The increase in Al-Jazeera web traffic during the first three months of the Arab uprisings

Source: MEED

The Doha-based television station Al-Jazeera has been propelled back into the spotlight since the start of the year. Its coverage of the 2011 Arab uprisings has reignited debate over the controversial broadcaster. In its 15-year history, the station has been called the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden, considered a legitimate target for a US bombing raid and, more recently, rated the best news network in the region.

Al-Jazeera is not a tool of revolution … when [something happens] we are at the centre of the coverage

Wadah Khafar, Al-Jazeera

When Al-Jazeera was set up by the Qatari government in November 1996, it was hoped the broadcaster would bring unbiased coverage to events in the Middle East. At the time, the general feeling was that Western news media were more trustworthy than state-owned Arab news agencies. Al-Jazeera sought to change this by aiming to become the Arab world’s answer to the US’ CNN. It said it would offer independent, unbiased news from an Arab perspective.

Al-Jazeera state funded

Al-Jazeera was founded by the Qatar Media Corporation through a $137m grant from Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The network launched as a single news channel providing six hours of programming a day from its base in Doha. According to its logo, it presented “the opinion and the other opinion” and, in a first for Arab media, covered the Israeli elections and invited Hebrew-speaking guests onto its debate shows.

It is more like the Fox of the Middle East than the CNN. The difference is Al-Jazeera reporters … go to the front line

Walter Armbrust, University of Oxford

By the time it began 24-hour broadcasting in 1999, Al-Jazeera had an annual budget of about $25m. The network planned to become self-sufficient through advertising by 2001, but failed to do so. Both the government and the network are reluctant to talk about funding and revenues, but it is widely acknowledged the finances it receives from Qatar’s Arts and Culture Ministry far outweigh the revenues Al-Jazeera makes through advertising.

In 2002, the network received $40m in state support, while advertising revenues amounted to $8m. Other sources of revenue include cable subscription fees, broadcast deals with other companies, and the sale of footage.

Al-Jazeera country penetration*
Egypt 10
Tunisia 23
Algeria 24
Yemen 27
Syria 38
Morocco 39
Bahrain 44
Iraq 47
Saudi Arabia 51
Jordan 52
UAE 52
Libya 55
Lebanon 59
Oman 59
Kuwait 70
Qatar 70
*=Percentage of the population viewing Al-Jazeera. Source: Insead.

The lack of profitability has not held back the growth of Al-Jazeera. Today, it has four main broadcast centres in Doha, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur and 65 bureaus around the world. It reaches over 220 million households in more than 100 countries.

The network now comprises nine distribution arms, including five television channels, a website, a mobile service, a training and development centre and the Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies.

“Al-Jazeera has become the most prominent news network in terms of brand recognition in the Middle East,” says Walter Armbrust, a lecturer in Arab media at the UK’s University of Oxford. “It has a reputation for challenging the status quo and is one of the first networks people turn to when events happen in the world.”

The network has won respect globally through its front-line reporting. Its journalists have become famous for being the first to show up at newsworthy events.

Fomenting revolution

Al-Jazeera was the first international news agency to report on the Tunisian protests in depth. Most other agencies initially focused on the story of tourists fleeing from the country. The Tunisian government responded by banning Al-Jazeera.

The network retaliated by giving coverage to citizen journalists on the ground in Tunisia, quoting the public’s posts on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, and including people’s Youtube videos in its coverage.

Other networks, including BBC Arabic, had to play catch-up.

Al-Jazeera has been credited with bringing viewers close to the action, not just through its satellite channel, but also through its website and a blog, which it set up especially to cover the uprisings. Traffic to Al-Jazeera’s website increased by 2,500 per cent during the first three months of the political unrest in the Middle East. About half of the traffic came from the US, where the English-language news channel is only available on the internet.

But others have criticised the broadcaster for its coverage, accusing it of fomenting the popular uprisings. Similar complaints have been made of the Western media, but as a Middle East television network, Al-Jazeera was said to be betraying its Arab roots.

“Al-Jazeera is not a tool of revolution, we do not create revolutions, however when something of that magnitude happens, we are at the centre of the coverage,” Wadah Khafar, Al-Jazeera’s general-director told a conference in California in February.

“We were banned in Egypt. Some of our correspondents were arrested, but most of our camera people and journalists went underground voluntarily to report what happened in Tahrir Square. For 18 days our cameras were broadcasting live the voices of the people in Tahrir Square.”

Technological agility at Al-Jazeera

The network was able to demonstrate its technological agility, using its website to promote discussions, breaks news stories, upload coverage and provide a live-feed of its channels. People all over the world can gain access to its news content, either in English or Arabic.

During the Arab uprisings, Al-Jazeera had a huge increase in the following of its English-language channel, in particular. The network set up, Al-Jazeera English (AJE) in 2002, to increase its coverage and reach a wider audience.

AJE’s motto was to give a voice to the voiceless. While it draws on the heritage of its Arabic brother, both channels work independently of each other. London-based AJE is licensed by the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom and is subject to Western broadcasting standards.

The two channels have separate editorial boards, which meet occasionally. Both teams share the network’s bureaus and resources. AJE programmes are often translated into Arabic and shown on AJA – the Arabic news channel. Al-Jazeera plans to widen its network by launching an Urdu-language channel in 2012 for the Pakistan market.

There is a clear distinction between the editorial policy of AJA and AJE. The Arabic channel is far more nationalistic and not critical of its home state and backer, the Qatari royal family.

It was Al-Jazeera’s reporting of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US that first caused the station to lose some credibility and attract criticism from the West. It came under fire for displaying overtly strong Arab nationalistic sentiments, and, after airing video messages from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was accused of being a mouthpiece for Islamist terror organisations.

Al-Jazeera was no longer seen as a beacon of objective reporting, instead it was viewed as a propaganda tool for reviving Arab nationalism. During the March-April 2003 Iraq War, AJA referred to coalition forces as “invaders”, Iraqi insurgents were the “resistance” and the Iraqis who died in the struggle were called “martyrs”.

Leaked reports in 2004 revealed then US president, George W Bush, discussing bombing Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha during talks with Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister at the time.

In trying to please both the Arab world and the West, Al-Jazeera has fallen into a damned-if-it-does-and-damned-if-it-doesn’t situation.

It came under fire from neighbouring Arab states when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud refused to attend the GCC Summit in Doha in 2002. Al-Jazeera’s negative coverage of the kingdom was blamed for deteriorating relations between the two states. In December 2002, Arab media reported that Qatar’s foreign minister had been offered $5bn by unnamed Gulf states to shut down the television network.

Doha refused, but the station has frequently seen its operations closed down or banned in many countries in the region, including Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Yemen and Bahrain. Its offices in Kabul and Baghdad have been hit by US missiles.

Government mirror

Al-Jazeera has also been accused of bias in its coverage of the Arab uprisings. The network has remained almost silent on Bahrain’s brutal crackdowns. It gave little coverage to the Syrian protests initially, refraining from criticising one of the most nationalistic and anti-Israeli leaders in the region. Some analysts see the channel as mirroring the state of Qatar’s own diplomatic and political manoeuvring.

“Its bias in covering events is more on an emotional level than factual. It is therefore more like the Fox of the Middle East than the CNN,” says Armbrust. “The difference is Al-Jazeera reporters are courageous and go to the front line.”

And it is this courage that keeps Al-Jazeera relevant today. In an age when Western media are being constrained by health and safety laws, its reporters continue to venture where no one else dares. Its Arab connections also open doors that remain shut to US and European news channels.

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said while addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 2 March: “Al-Jazeera has been the leader, in that they are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective … In fact, viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news.”

The Arab uprisings have given Al-Jazeera the opportunity to demonstrate what is does best on the global stage. It now needs to find a way of retaining its newfound following when the world’s attention shifts away from the Middle East.