Al Jazeera is the first 24 hour, all-news network in the Arab world (Sharp, 2003, p. 1). It was founded in 1996 by the Emir of Qatar who purchased the Arabic TV division of BBC News Service and funded it in the hope that modernized Arab media would make contributions to political liberalization in the Persian Gulf region, which was under the pressure of the U. S. policy (Sharp, 2003, p. 1).
The origin of Al Jazeera, which is intertwined with the government of Qatar, has sparked considerable controversies over its role in political propaganda. This paper aims to analyze the role Al Jazeera plays in the Arab world and its contributions to positive changes in the global media landscape. My argument is that in spite of its relationship with the Qatar government, Al Jazeera is counterhegemonic in many aspects, representing a new media force that is different from the mainstream media in the world. I opt to save the crucial question of whether Al Jazeera is under the political influences of the Qatar government for later discussion, and instead, look first at how a new media force has developed in a difficult situation.
The advent of Al Jazeera has changed the landscape of news media in the Arab world. Before Al Jazeera, news that was available to Arab audiences came from either state-owned media or Arab satellite channels, both of which were, to some extent, government-censored and government-controlled (Sharp, 2003, p. 1). However, Al Jazeera claimed to be free to report whatever has news worthiness (Miles, 2006, p. 23). Committed to its motto “The opinion and the other opinion,” Al Jazeera offered Arab people comprehensive views by reporting controversial events and figures. It was the first Arab television that let Israelis’ voice be heard (Miles, 2005, p. 37). In Al Jazeera’s most popular talk show The Opposite Direction, guests with different political opinions were invited, debating sensitive topics such as religion and terrorism, which were regarded as taboos before (Miles, 2005, p. 38). The program provided valuable opportunities for Arab people to be exposed to divergent political viewpoints and engaged in public discussions. Al Jazeera also gave airtime to controversial political figures for speeches, including Saddam Hussein, who was engaged in rebuilding the Iraqi regime and menaced neighboring countries, and Osama bin Laden, who at the time was already a wanted man in Libya (Miles, 2005, p. 51). From this perspective, Al Jazeera provided a public platform for opposite views regardless of accusations from Arab states.
Al Jazeera is counterhegemonic in terms of its efforts of breaking long-term social norms in the Arab world. The essence of hegemony, is the “relationships between and among the major information-diffusing, socializing agencies of a society and the interacting, cumulative, socially accepted ideological orientation they create and sustain” (Lull, 1995, p. 63). One of the “information-diffusing, socializing agencies” is media. Media plays a vital role in disseminating social ideology. The ideology of media permeates the society by means of “normalizing specific social relations” (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002, p. 163). Traditional Arab media was the mouthpiece of governments in Arab states (Rushing & Elder, 2007, p. 121), which implied that media served its governments as a tool for permeating ideologies in favor of governments. Thus, traditional media avoided negative news that would impair its government. The absence and exclusions of news is also considered as the ideological impact of media (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002, p. 163). Al Jazeera, different from traditional Arab media, has been striving to unfold a comprehensive perspective of what is happening in the Arab world. One example is that it criticized policies of Arab governments (Sharp, 2003, p. 2). Instead of marginalizing and excluding social taboos so as to strengthen social norms, Al Jazeera broke through mainstream media, bringing about new norms of broadcasting news in the Arab world. That is, whatever is newsworthy will be broadcast. Due to its consistent efforts, it has become a mainstream channel itself in the Arab world (Sharp, 2003).
News coverage of two events earned Al Jazeera a worldwide reputation. Al Jazeera’s access to Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and its broadcast of Bin Laden’s speech surprised the world, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (Sharp, 2003, p. 8). Western media had to heavily rely on Al Jazeera to get Bin Laden’s videotaped speech (Sharp, 2003, p. 8). Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 2003 Iraq War also earned its celebrity. Al Jazeera was the only major news network describing the Iraq War as invasion, expressing its denial of the legitimacy of the war (Miles, 2005, p. 241). While Western media was sensitive to air images and footage of the dead in the tricky period of wartime, Al Jazeera broadcast daily frightening pictures of corpses, with emotional statements on the background (Miles, 2005, p. 252). It was obvious that the majority of Western mainstream media supported the Iraq War, at least not openly objected the war. Whereas Al Jazeera strongly condemned the illegitimacy of the war and expressed its sympathy for Iraqi people.
Control Room by Jehane Noujaim, 2004. Control Room is a documentary film about Al Jazeera covering the Iraq War.
Comparing Al Jazeera with Western media in terms of coverage of the Iraq War, it can be concluded that Al Jazeera is counterhegemonic. Hegemony generates a broader implication in the transnational context, referring to the unbalanced political-economic-cultural relations between and among nations (Lull, 1995, p. 61). During the Iraq War, news media in Western countries was manipulated to vilify Iraqis, arouse patriotism and justify the war. One study demonstrated that in the United States nearly 55% of the evaluations of Iraqis in reports were negative (Kolmer & Semetko, 2009, p. 649). Western media was expert in selling its persuasive ideas to the rest of the world. If Al Jazeera did not provide first-hand information of the war from the perspective of Arabs, people would only get a glimpse of part of the war described by Western media.
Throughout the development of Al Jazeera, its objectivity has been questioned by both Arab people and Western countries since it was launched. Every controversial news issue Al Jazeera covered was suspected to serve some political power, be it the interview with Saddam Hussein, the speech of Osama bin Laden, or the Iraq War. Western media, especially the U.S. media, accused Al Jazeera of being the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden in the war of terrorists or Saddam Hussein in the Iraq War. One of the assumptions was that the influence of Qatar government contributed to Al Jazeera’s biased news coverage. Whether Al Jazeera’s editorial policy was dependent on Qatar government was unclear. However, it is unwise to totally negate Al Jazeera by only focusing on its shortcomings and neglecting its values. The objectivity of news is quite ambiguous. Objectivity is “a doctrine that perceives the separation of ‘fact’ and ‘value’” (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002, p. 132). In effect, objectivity can never be achieved because perceived newsworthiness is socially constructed and news is a social product made by people engaged in social activities (Croteau &Hoynes, 2002, p. 135). Al Jazeera was indeed biased in the coverage of the Iraq War because it took a side in the war, condemning the invasion and showing sympathy for the death of Iraqis. There was no doubt that Western media which criticized Al Jazeera for not being politically neutral was also biased itself. Although objectivity is unobtainable, it is of necessity to provide the voices of different sides. Western mainstream media only represented the perspectives of Western countries. Choosing to take the side of the underrepresented Iraqi people offers a different perspective of the war.
In conclusion, Al Jazeera is a new media force that has great influences inside and outside the Arab world. It has achieved the goal of breaking social taboos in the Arab world. Its global impact has increased in its confrontation with Western media. Overall, Al Jazeera is counterhegemonic.
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Lull, J. (1995). Media, communication, culture: A global approach. New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press.
Miles, H. (2005). Al-Jazeera: The inside story of the Arab news channel that is challenging the West. New York: Grove Press.
Miles, H. (2006). Al Jazeera. Foreign Policy, 155 (155), 20-24. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25462058
Rushing, J., & Elder, S. (2007). Mission Al Jazeera: build a bridge, seek the truth, change the world. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sharp, J. M. (2003). Al-Jazeera news network: Opportunity or challenge for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division (CRS). Retrieved from http://congressional.proquest.com.libproxy.temple.edu/congressional/docview/t21.d22.crs-2003-fdt-0049?accountid=14270
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