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October 2004
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Back Drop

by M. A. Siraj
Al-Jazeera shows the other side of objectivity to the West

Al-Jazeera, the only independent TV channel in the Middle East, the Baghdad bureau of which was closed by the US-backed Iraqi Government headed by Allawi, was founded in 1996. Based in Doha, the capital of the tiny Sheikhdom of Qatar, it has earned a reputation for being independent of any Government control and has even received instruction ‘to exercise restraints’ from the so-called champion of the free media, the United States. But despite the big boss’ displeasure, Qatar’s emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has given the Al-Jazeera a free reign to air the news and opinion without any control. It therefore provides a new perspective to the Arab opinion and does not even balk from inviting politician, thinkers from Israel. It thus fills an important gap in the world of opinion where Arab opinion gets omitted due to absence of democracy.

Al-Jazeera is currently enjoying a viewers’ audience of nearly 35 million Arabs. The secret of its success however lies in showing both sides of opinion in areas currently under American terror like Afghanistan and Iraq. It airs both pro- and anti-Saddam opinion in Iraq and provides coverage to Osama bin Laden and his zealots and jingoistic Americans in Afghanistan, something beyond the capacity of CNN and other purveyors of ‘free opinion’ in the West.

Shaikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani, chairman of Al-Jazeera says that the channel will launch three new channels which will include an English news channel and a children’s channel by 2005. It already has an internet news service on which is a great source of irritation for Western powers who have often employed hackers to put it off the web. It also has a media training centre in Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies and Polling.

Al-Jazeera’s code of ethics declares its goal to be ‘strengthening the values of tolerance, democracy and respect for liberties and human rights.’ This part of the declaration was made recently by channel director Waddah Khanfar at the first world forum on ‘Changing Media perceptions: Professionalism and Cultural Diversity’ hosted by Al-Jazeera to celebrate its 8th founding anniversary.

One reason why Al-Jazeera’s credibility has risen in the viewers’ estimation is because after September the 11 incidents in New York, the monopolised Western media too has come under unofficial censorship and other side of the opinion is rejected dubbing it ‘extremist’ viewpoint.

Most of Al-Jazeera’s journalists are old BBC hands. Al-Jazeera has paid a heavy price for its independence by way. Several of its journalists were killed in Iraq by advancing American armies and its offices were targeted for bombing by US planes.