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A popular broadcaster on a mission

June 26, 2017

Al-Jazeera is Qatar's patron and instrument of power. Now the news broadcaster finds itself in the middle of the conflict brewing with Gulf neighbors; for rulers in Riyadh, it has long been a thorn in the side.

Symbolbild - Al-Dschasira
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Ulmer

Al-Jazeera's 1999 interview with then-No.1 terrorist Osama Bin Laden was a media coup. No number of international warnings or the FBI's $5 million bounty for the al Qaeda leader could dissuade the Qatari-funded broadcaster from going forward with the interview. Millions of people across the Arabic-speaking world tuned in to hear what the most wanted man in the world had to say.

The controversy was no accident. To the contrary, Al-Jazeera has built itself on the pursuit of ratings and headlines. Then and now, it has stood for attracting the largest audience possible as well as promoting the political agenda of its Emirati benefactors.

While Bin Laden had been interviewed previously, it was the first conducted by a broadcaster from the Arab world. Gulf states were outraged, most of all Saudi Arabia, where Bin Laden is from. In the interview, he criticized the Saudi royal family and threatened the country with attacks. He called for global jihad.

Poison on a silver platter

For the Saudis, the interview was Qatar's original sin. Regardless of Al-Jazeera's reputation for high quality, "it provides poison on a silver platter," said the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. From that point forward, the Saudis made it their mission to obstruct Al-Jazeera wherever possible, said Hugh Miles, a journalist and Middle East expert.

Diverse audience reaction

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and its neighbor, Qatar, including its Al-Jazeera network, extend well beyond national security concerns. Al-Jazeera provides Arabic-speaking and specifically Saudi audiences a view that can defy the official Saudi stance, according to a book about the broadcaster by political scientist Shibley Telhami. That critical reporting stays focused abroad; Al-Jazeera does not subject its home government to the same journalistic spotlight.

New journalistic standards

Outside Qatar, however, the broadcaster has raised the bar for Arab media. It is the first Arab news organization to report from Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Its reporters covered the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Al-Jazeera is regularly present in the Gaza Strip when hostilities flare between Israel and Hamas.

Al-Jazeera's political programs are also something new for the Arab world. Journalists question politicians with a directness never before attempted. Al-Jazeera enables its audience to engage directly with prominent and controversial figures, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatari-based, Egyptian-born chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who has his own program on Al-Jazeera.

Reflecting public opinion

Since the turn of the new millennium, these formats have revolutionized the media-audience relationship, according to Telhami, writing that Al-Jazeera's "success is thanks most of all to reflecting the hearts and minds of the public, not trying to form them."

It is in the Qatar government's interest that Al-Jazeera sway public opinion across the Middle East, especially in light of the United States maintaining major military installations in the country. Qatar has also spoken openly of normalizing relations with Israel. Neither sits particularly well with Arab audiences.

Looking for support

Qatar further diverged from its neighbors with Al-Jazeera critically and extensively covering protests across the Arab world. Saudi Arabia and its allies viewed this as a threat to stability. In their view, reporting the events were tantamount to supporting them, which has led to the current demand to shut Al-Jazeera down.

Al-Jazeera strongly rebukes the demand and denies the bias accusation. "We are not beholden to any group, ideology or government,” said Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al-Jazeera English. "We offer a variety of viewpoints," which Al-Jazeera's journalists will continue to do, adding, "We hope that other media organizations support our call to defend freedom of the press."

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East