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The Vicissitudes of Al-Jazeera TV Network

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No one need be surprised by news of the demise of AJAM: Al-Jazeera America. In 2013, people unfamiliar with the history and politics of the Doha-based Al-Jazeera media group welcomed the American edition as a valued addition to international(ized) news sources. Early enthusiasm was likely based on an outdated reputation of the original Al-Jazeera’s satellite network, launched in 1999 and funded by Qatar’s rulers. That Arabic language service dazzled the world when it arrived, its reputation for hard-hitting news stories reinforced by the Jehane Noujaim’s 2004 film “Control Room”.

The original (mother) Al-Jazeera offered news coverage and commentaries by non-Europeans– talents generally unheard and unimagined from Arabs– concerning their world affairs.

Why AJAM was set up is a mystery. Of course the American public could benefit from wider perspectives. But AJAM did not offer that; it exhibited no enlightened Arab or Muslim viewpoints, neither in its productions nor editorials. Neither were Arab and Arab American staff in evidence in its productions.

If American viewers don’t tap international sources like Euronews, France 24, Press TV (the Iranian English language channel), or Russia’s RT, to name major English news sources beyond CBC (Canada) and the UK’s BBC, why subscribe to AJAM? Long before, in 2006 Al-Jazeera English (also Doha-based) was launched; it has established itself as an innovative and distinctive network. Originally accessible in the USA online  and by satellite, it boasts a strong international team who produce hard hitting programs like “Witness” and “Empire”, with a network of correspondents across the globe. It attracts left-leaning audiences for its critical approach to American policies and its support for the Palestinian struggle, with coverage from Occupied Palestine generally unseen on American networks. Its website also carries insightful opinion pieces, many by well informed American Arab writers whose perspectives you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

(With the founding of AJAM, Al-Jazeera English became unavailable in the US online.)

The original Al-Jazeera (Arabic) news channel has changed dramatically since its spectacular arrival in 1996. Then it was marked by a high professional standard of journalism and an aggressive approach to international affairs previously unknown in the Arab lands whose exclusively Arab staff equals –no, excels—British and French Arabic language channels. (Although, Al-Jazeera Arabic initially drew its technical and editorial staff largely from the BBC.) It attracted Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian and Egyptian expatriate journalists whose homelands were either in turmoil or where opportunities and facilities were limited. Al-Jazeera tapped dynamic, creative and courageous Arab journalists from around the world; its work generated new pride among the Arab public, encouraged by the quality public dialogue happening within its own ranks. Arabs’ economic resources were finally being put to good use. By 2003 the network boasted 70 correspondents and 23 bureaus around the world, from Cairo to Jakarta, Islamabad to Kabul, London to Moscow.

Initially Al-Jazeera Media Network, although funded and managed by Qatar’s ruling family, seemed to be independent of government control; it appeared to be beyond US interference too. Indeed Washington suggested the network was a mouthpiece for terrorists, when for example, after 2001, it regularly aired videos produced by Al-Qaida. American military attacks were launched on Al-Jazeera twice. Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office was bombed and its correspondent Tarek Ayoub was killed in American strikes during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before that, in the early days of the US assault on Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera’s Sudanese cameraman was held by US authorities at their Guantanamo prison.

Although Qatari and other Gulf area leaders escape criticism by Al-Jazeera, other regional dictators do not; at times, e.g. in Algeria and Jordan, its correspondents were banned. Although by 2003 satellite TV was ubiquitous and every Arab home has had access to Al-Jazeera news which also reported direct from Jerusalem (with a sympathetic eye to Palestinian aspirations). Its broadcasts brought Israeli officials and commentators into Arab homes for the first time.

As the company grew in popularity—a reputation that’s declined since the Arab Spring–it greatly expanded its services. Al-Jazeera Media Network is now a vast communications empire with several sports channels, a children’s channel and a documentary channel, all commercial free. Before it opened AJAM, Al-Jazeera established a Balkan unit and a Turkish unit.

Al-Jazeera’s appeal for its early presentations of regional political issues waned among Arabs as the US occupation of Iraq turned ugly, and after 2011, when with the rise of the so-called Arab Spring, Qatar’s policy towards Libya and Syria moved in synch with Washington’s. Indeed, the Doha news channel explicitly advocates regime change in Syria and Libya.

Meanwhile Al-Jazeera enjoys considerable soft power through its sports and documentary channels. Screened documentaries, many produced by US filmmakers critical of American policies, are popular with the Arab public. But the sports channels likely draw most viewers. As a depressing political status quo settles across the Arab world, public need for escapist entertainment is stronger than ever, and Al-Jazeera is there to help.

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Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

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