Future media historians in the Middle East will conceivably distinguish two distinct though related eras: pre- and post-Al-Jazeera. Few would dispute the station’s impact on free expression and the media in the region since its creation in 1996. However, despite its importance in the creation of an “Arab” public sphere, Al-Jazeera’s contribution to political change is, at best, limited. This seeming paradox remains an enigma to many analysts.
The creation of a “regional media public sphere” has been central to Al-Jazeera’s policy over the past ten years. Motivated by the success of the Qatar- based station – envious too, no doubt – a number of trans-terrestrial Arabic- speaking TV stations, chiefly Saudi, Egyptian and Lebanese, were established in competition. Most of these modelled themselves on Al-Jazeera, in style if not in substance: challenging existing political, social and religious systems became the name of the new media game. The newly created virtual sphere of free debate and news access effectively rendered old-style state-controlled Arab media obsolete.
Al-Jazeera’s friends and foes span wide-ranging and geographically diffuse communities and players. It is the most popular news channel with Arab audiences, but also the media outlet most hated by Arab regimes. Empathy and enmity towards the channel are fluid and change with the climate of the day: today’s friend could become tomorrow’s foe and vice versa. Many US officials hailed the channel in its early years as the beacon of Arab freedom, but since the war against Afghanistan in 2001, the standard official US line on Al-Jazeera has become unreservedly aggressive. On the other hand, Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street communications chief who complained bitterly about the station’s coverage during the war in Iraq, later changed his mind; he became an admirer of the channel after visiting its HQs in Doha and confessed “I was wrong about Al-Jazeera” in the Guardian.
In Arab circles, praise and blame, pros and cons are administered in fairly even doses by liberals, Islamists, leftists, pan-Arab nationalists and others, each of whom finds in it both what they seek and seek to avoid. Even Israelis are in two minds about Al-Jazeera. It is the first Arab media outlet that ever gave them a platform on which to convey their views directly to Arab audiences. But it infuriates them, too, by transmitting live, often shocking images of the brutality of the Israeli occupation and its measures against the Palestinians.
Perhaps the only sector of the general audience that remains unequivocally and enduringly hostile to Al-Jazeera are the Arab regimes. Its remorseless coverage of the incompetence of these regimes has been intolerable for Arab ruling elites. The channel has transmitted reports about almost every Arab country exposing government corruption, mismanagement, suppression of opposition, violations of human rights and the purchase of Western support to face down popular anger and discontent. Because of this, Al-Jazeera reporters have been, and are still, banned from reporting in and from many Arab countries: at certain periods, they have been barred from fully half the Arab states.
Its reporting from Afghanistan marked the turning point in the “internationalisation” of Al-Jazeera. As the only media agency allowed by the then ruling Taliban to stay in the country in the run-up to and during the war, the channel was the exclusive source of media information and coverage from within Afghanistan once the country was invaded on 7 October. Its coverage of the smart and not-so-smart US bombardments of Afghan targets, including the death of many civilians, visibly angered the US administration. It was accused of allowing the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to use it as a propaganda outlet. With the rise of tension in the course of the war, Al-Jazeera’s offices in Kabul were bombed by US forces on 13 November 2001. The US said it was not deliberate: many believed otherwise.
Al-Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad were also destroyed: on 8 April 2003 its offices were bombed and one of their journalists, Tareq Ayyoub, killed. The Iraq war has further worsened the relationship between Al-Jazeera and the US and its Iraqi allies. As the conflict became bloodier following the 20 March allied invasion and the euphoria of the symbolic toppling of Saddam’s statue, Al-Jazeera continued to stream videotapes of kidnapped Westerners and detailed descriptions of its attacks produced by members of the insurgency. It also transmitted speeches by bin Laden in person and other leaders of Al-Qaida. Al-Jazeera argued that these materials were highly newsworthy and were always carefully edited to remove their propaganda aspects; US officials and their Iraqi allies who had assumed power in Baghdad remained critical. In August 2004, hostility to Al-Jazeera culminated in the closure of its Baghdad offices and a ban on its reporting.
In the course of its first decade, Al-Jazeera has hacked a successful if controversial course throughout uncharted terrain – an experience that has yielded various, and sometimes contradictory, outcomes. During the same period, the verbal cut and thrust around Arab democratisation has been unprecedented. In the late 1990s, the number of Arab intellectuals, NGOs, political parties and associations advocating and campaigning for democracy were on the rise. After 9/11 and the US linkage between the “lack of democracy and the spread of terrorism”, these were complemented by a “surplus” of democratic reform initiatives pressed on the region from outside. External initiatives such as the “Greater Middle East Project” have been countered by internal initiatives such as those launched by the Arab summit in Tunis in May 2004. Both initiatives underlined the role of the media in supporting or undermining the process of democratisation in the region. On 15 July, Al-Jazeera followed up by placing the promotion of democracy and human rights high on its new “code of ethics”.
No one disputes that the channel has changed the media landscape in the Arab world, pushing the boundaries of political debate, challenging taboos and raising the ceiling of free speech. This new media environment is still in the making. At the same time, the expectation that Al-Jazeera alone could have an equally powerful impact on the institutions of government and the lack of political freedoms was unrealistic. While Al-Jazeera speedily became the main platform for genuine political debate and the airing of grievances, it was not the direct actor in socio-political change many hoped it would be. In the eyes of many Arabs desperate for change, the channel became the main force behind political change, a responsibility Al-Jazeera never took upon itself and which it recognised was not any part of the standard media brief. Political and social change is a more complex process that transcends the power of the media alone.
For those who expected Al-Jazeera to effect such political change, any balance sheet of the channel’s achievement has a negative look, an unfair assessment in the light of what can and should be expected from the channel. The lack of political change in the Arab world, or its frustrating slowness, must be attributed to many factors; the media, including Al-Jazeera, is merely one agent of change and must be measured against how it performs its duties as the “fourth estate”, not on how well it fulfils those of the other three: the legislative, the judiciary and the executive.
However, the reason why this appropriation of responsibility has been shouldered onto a free media in the Arab world is the startling dysfunction of the separation of powers. In almost every Arab country, the legislative, judicial and executive powers have been fused into one sole authoritarian power: the executive. When the media – the fourth estate, the watchdog on those in power – functions with a significant degree of independence, it can raise the significant issues of the day and criticise the polity. It is the job of the rest of the polity, the legislative, the judiciary and the executive to take up those issues exposed by the media and take them on to the next phase. The fate of the matters raised by Al- Jazeera in the new “public sphere” is for them to fall into a political void. Between the single supreme conglomerate power on the one hand and the fourth estate on the other, there is a vast abyss, a vacuum into which all the initiatives and advances achieved by Al-Jazeera have fallen.
One major, if unintentional side effect of Al-Jazeera’s commitment to offering an open platform to all the voices in the region is the radicalisation of Arab public opinion. The dominant voices across the Arab world are those of the Islamists, the moderates as well as the fanatics. They have been key players in the major events that have affected the Arab world over the past few years: 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, Al-Qaida, the war in Iraq, the situation in Palestine, the rise of Hamas, etc. It has been virtually impossible for any credible media outlet to discount the views of these players, however radical and however resented in certain quarters.
The fundamental cause of the radicalisation of the Arab street is Western, mainly US, policies in the Middle East. Under George Bush and the neo- conservatives, those policies, whether vis-à-vis Palestine, Iraq or the continuous support of Arab dictators, have greatly fed radical tendencies and created new ones. The end result is a poisoned atmosphere where radicalism and anger have swept public opinion. The introduction of an open platform, such as that provided by Al-Jazeera, into such an environment, has allowed radical discourse to reach a much wider audience. The option of silencing the voices of Islamist radicalism by depriving its spokespeople of a platform would not only betray the channel’s own motto, but also ignore the principal actors in current Middle Eastern politics and present a distorted reality, precisely as the state-controlled media in the region did for decades.
Given the speed of events involving radical Islamists and radical Americans, Al-Jazeera was faced with a dilemma: be fair to all parties, or succumb to pressure and silence the unwanted voices. A damage-control formula seemed difficult to reach. In many cases Al-Jazeera may have failed to maintain the delicate balance between the need to give the radical voices the chance to present their views and being indirectly used by them for rhetoric and propaganda. This is a form of “collateral damage” incurred in the course of a bigger project that has, by and large, been bound by the basic parameters of a free and objective media.
In a nutshell, any media outlet in or about the Middle East today would find it virtually impossible to convey objectively the realities of the region and the feelings on the Arab street toward Western-related policies without transmitting views and opinions that are loaded with Islamist rhetoric and propaganda. Al- Jazeera has reflected Arab anger, not created it.