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Aljazeera's growing influence

The launch of Aljazeera English has spearheaded a trend to more critical news reporting, says Rageh Omaar, presenter of the daily documentary series Witness on Aljazeera English.

Omaar said that the launching of the Aljazeera network had encouraged many media outlets around the world to be bolder in criticizing governments. He gave the example of the Dubai-based Pakistani news channel, which follows the Aljazeera model in presenting the news and had decided to investigate the military government of Pervez Musharraf who later resigned.

In a recent seminar at Green Templeton College, Omaar argued that since Aljazeera launched, western governments, and particularly the U.S. government, have started to realise the huge role that satellite channels now play in the Middle East. An illustration was the decision of newly elected U.S. president Barack Obama to give an exclusive interview to the Arabic satellite television channel Alarabia after his election to get across his message to Arabs and the Muslims around the world.

Aljazeera offices were bombed by the U.S. military in Iraq in 2003 and in Kabul in 2001. The channel was accused by the former U.S government as enjoying close proximity to terrorists after airing tapes of Al-Qaeda leaders. Donald Rumsfeld, the ex-U.S. secretary of defence, described Aljazeera as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable" in its coverage of the Iraq war. Rumsfeld's denouncement came after Al-Jazeera had reported that the assault of Coalition forces on the insurgent stronghold of Falluja was terrorizing civilians.

The situation has dramatically changed after the publishing of the Abu Ghraib photos, Omaar said. The Bush administration called Aljazeera headquarters in Doha "begging" to air an interview with their officials to explain their position on the Abu Ghraib Scandal.

This reversal of government attitude revealed the influence of the controversial media network, which has changed the media landscape in the whole region. Since its launch in 1996, Aljazeera has presented controversial views regarding the governments of many Arab states which has attracted the attention of a Middle East audience that was not used to such coverage on their state-censored national TV stations.

"It was the first rock in the guardhouse," said Omar, who also considered Aljazeera as a bridge where competing strategies, thoughts, believes, and policies can often be in conflict and offend each other. "But it's important to see and hear the other prospective," he added.

Aljazeera has since expanded its television network to include Aljazeera English, the Aljazeera documentary channel, a sport channel, and a children channel. Aljazeera is available in 300 million houses around the world.

Reviewing the circumstances in which the Qatari-funded channel was born, Omar argued that Aljazeera reflected the social, political and multicultural changes that the Middle East region has undergone.

Aljazeera has reflected the demographic changes in the Middle East where there has been an increase in the population under the age of 30. It also reflects the growing education opportunities in the region as people are travelling more, and western investors are attracted to the region in greater numbers, Omar said.

He pointed out that Aljazeera has scooped exclusive interviews and footage due to its trained and skilled correspondents. For example, both Aljazeera Arabic and Aljazeera English have covered closely the recent war in Gaza while many international news media were not allowed to have access to the city when it was under Israeli military siege.

He also said Aljazeera was subject to a lot of criticism for airing interviews with Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. He was at pains to stress that Aljazeera aimed to provide the audience with a different perspective, as well as giving a voice to the voiceless.

Focusing on the southern hemisphere – whether its conflict or its development – gives Aljazeera an advantage over other media outlets, not just in terms of news reporting but also with regard to in-depth analysis.

However, Omar accepted the criticism that Aljazeera English should pay more attention to the policies in western world. He also agreed that Aljazeera still faced difficulties in reaching audiences in Asia, like China and India.

Omar, who is a former BBC world affairs correspondent, also confessed that reporting stories from the south with a positive and less gloomy angle had become one of Aljazeera’s editorial concerns.

Answering a question about the influence of Qatar as a government on the output of the network, Omar said that in fact there had been only a few reports about Qatar. He added that Aljazeera coverage had affected diplomatic relationships with Qatar. Aljazeera is banned in three Middle Eastern countries Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Regarding the different editorial agendas of Aljazeera Arabic and Aljazeera English, he maintained that the channels are intended for a different audience (Aljazeera Arabic addresses a Middle East audience while Aljazeera English aims to inform the rest of the world). They have separate budgets and strategies, explained Omar. But he did not deny religious and cultural sensitivities, giving the example of the story of the British teacher Gillian Gibbons in Sudan, which Aljazeera had chosen not to cover.

Report compiled by Amel Al-Ariqi, RISJ Journalist Fellow