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Al Jazeera Celebrates 20 Years of Unrivaled Coverage and Influence

Despite a slightly diminished status, the network, which changed the face of Middle Eastern media, has cause to celebrate.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Al-Jazeera's English-language channel's newsroom in Washington D.C.
Al-Jazeera's English-language channel's newsroom in Washington D.C.Credit: Bloomberg
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Anyone who didn’t make it last week to the Intercontinental Hotel in Doha, the capital of Qatar, missed a performance by stand-up comedian Elie Samoun. Samoun, aka Eli Simchon, is an Algerian-Moroccan Jew who for years partnered with Dieudonné, the comedian who epitomized French anti-Semites. The two parted ways in anger not only because of the anti-Semitism, but due to financial disagreements.

However, it seems that Samoun is managing quite well without Dieudonné. A performance at the Doha Intercontinental, with tickets ranging from $50 to $80, is not bad publicity. Interestingly, advertising for the performance mentioned that French wine would be served there. It seems that this emirate, whose leaders are supposedly Muslim Brotherhood benefactors, has no problem with French wine, perhaps because it’s known that what transpires in Qatar’s hotels remains in these hotels, including the consumption of alcohol.

But the biggest show in town took place a few days earlier, when satellite TV station Al Jazeera – established on November 1, 1996 by Qatar’s previous leader, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani – marked its 20th anniversary in Doha.

In a speech in honor of the occasion, Sheikh Hamad noted the station's achievements. It currently employs more than 4,000 professionals in 80 branches across the world. Among other things, he mentioned what, at the time, was considered to be a revolution in Arab media, fomented by the station: “It freed the Arab viewers from relying on the foreign media which was biased against Arab interests and aspirations."

Al Jazeera wasn’t the first Arab satellite station, but the Mideast media revolution can definitely be ascribed to it. Over two decades it has become the primary source of information for more than 350 million Arab viewers. Moreover, it has sparked a significant change in communication between Arab regimes and their citizens: The network shattered the monopoly on information held by most of the regimes, and gave voice to (and associated images with) opposition forces, thus bringing to the fore topics that national networks had refrained from addressing, exposing the ostensible Arab consensus in all its failings.

The Al Jazeera newsroom in Doha, Qatar.Credit: Reuters

At its peak the station also managed to rattle the American administration, by showcasing the horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when Western media had no access to the battlefields. Concerns over upsetting images shown on Al Jazeera led U.S. warplanes to bomb its broadcasting center in Iraq, killing one of its senior correspondents.

The struggle waged against the station by rulers in the Arab world – whether by shutting down its offices in their respective countries, by arresting its correspondents or even by imposing sanctions on Qatar – was to no avail. Even without active correspondents on the ground, Al Jazeera managed to transmit information which drove Arab leaders crazy.

It is hard to think of another media outlet that has managed to cause such deep fissures between Arab states. “Qatar is a TV station with a country” it was once said about the emirate, which has not only managed to become the nation with the highest per-capita income in the world, but has turned a media tool into a strategic weapon.

Arab leaders have turned most media in their countries into propaganda mouthpieces, but Qatar has put on a powerful, original and different show. It has leveraged itself into a powerful position from which it can harm its rivals by means of broadcasting images and reports.

Al Jazeera is not an even-handed organization. It has an agenda, which it promotes unabashedly. But the same can be true of most media outlets in the West, whether public or private.

For its part, the American administration has always wondered how to relate to it. On one hand, the reporting at Al Jazeera is perceived as anti-American, but on the other, Qatar is one of the most important allies the U.S. has in the Middle East. Hillary Clinton could not have given the network a better compliment when she said, in 2011: “Like it or not, this is an effective network. It broadcasts real news.”

Al Jazeera has found its way to thousands of Arab satellite stations, which created channels that bypassed censorship even before social media started doing the same. However, the political-journalistic symbiosis and the governmental control that originally gave rise to the network has also caused its diminishment over the last three years – particularly due to its massive support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its venomous criticism of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. The result is that Al Jazeera, once welcomed by intellectuals and then by the public, which saw it as the standard bearer for democracy, has lost many viewers. But, it is still alive and kicking, and when it comes to terrible wars such as in Syria and Iraq, it has no competitors in terms of coverage.

Thus, its 20th anniversary is definitely a cause for celebration.

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