Al Jazeera English

Fresh outlook from the Middle East

By Ceylan Yeginsu

Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani replaced his deposed father in 1995 as the emir of Qatar, the global profile of the tiny Gulf state has risen sharply – thanks largely to Al Jazeera, the satellite channel that the new emir created and financed in late 1996 as an Arab version of CNN.

The emir hired 120 journalists from a BBC Arabic-language satellite TV service that folded after an editorial controversy caused its Saudi financiers to pull out. The programming they produced on Al Jazeera quickly sent shock waves through the Arab world. It included such rare sights as Israeli guests speaking Hebrew and debating Arabs on TV.

That programming also helped spark a media renaissance in one of the world’s most repressive regions. Though Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel dominates, the Saudi-financed Al Arabiya and hundreds of other satellite services now compete for the Arab audience. They offer a wide range of views, underwritten by Middle Eastern governments, political parties, religious groups and other interests in the region.

But while Al Jazeera was hailed by its audiences, it was often condemned, or even banned, by Arab governments. And in the U.S., President George Bush’s administration painted Al Jazeera as an anti-American network that sympathized with terrorists. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once accused it of  “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” reporting about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Anti-Al Jazeera sentiment in the U.S. was so intense that when Qatar launched a second Al Jazeera channel in 2006, this one in English, Jewish organizations protested and American cable companies refused to carry it.

Fast forward five years to 2011, and Al Jazeera English has still barely cracked the U.S. cable market; it’s available only in Washington D.C. and two regions of Vermont and Ohio. Most Americans who want to see it must rely on an Internet livestream that can be balky and buggy.

But in the rest of the world, Al Jazeera English’s profile is huge. It’s available in 220 million households worldwide. And the current U.S. administration takes a decidedly different view – at least of the English-language channel – particularly in the wake of its much-praised coverage of the Arab uprisings of early 2011.

Al Jazeera English has been “really effective” at “changing people’s minds and attitudes,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock, instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news.”

Clinton may not have been endorsing Al Jazeera’s viewpoint, but she was clearly acknowledging its reputation for professional, serious journalism.

“Al Jazeera English is a world news leader now,” said David Marash, a longtime ABC correspondent who joined the channel  as an anchor in 2006 but left two years later over “irreconcilable editorial differences.” Despite the unhappy separation, Marash said in a recent interview that he urges Americans to give the channel a look. “Al Jazeera English has more reporters in more places than anyone else,” he noted.

And it tells stories that offer “visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously,” said an effusive Robert Kaplan in an article for The Atlantic titled “Why I Love Al Jazeera.”

Kaplan wrote his valentine to AJE two years ago. More recently, after watching the channel’s coverage of the Arab uprisings, a chorus of prominent Americans have publicly agreed, and 40,000 U.S. viewers (most of whom presumably watched the Internet livestream) sent e-mails of support when the channel urged Americans to demand that their cable companies carry it.

Al Jazeera English was the world’s first English language news channel to have its headquarters in the Middle East. Its core mission is often described by its journalists as giving “voice to the voiceless.”

“We have great resources and we are prepared and in place before anyone else,” said AJE Iraq correspondent Rawya Rageh, who was on the ground reporting from Egypt January 25, the first day of  this year’s protests. Rageh was quickly joined by more than a dozen  AJE journalists, as other news services scrambled to get on top of the story.

Rageh and other AJE reporters almost never appear on the Arabic service, and the news lineups are determined by separate staffs for the two channels. For half the day, AJE’s programming originates in its Doha headquarters; the rest of the day’s news is anchored from its other global centers, in Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington, D.C. AJE’s website says it is the most watched news channel on YouTube, receiving 2.5 million views per month.

Those who praise the channel often note its efforts to contextualize news. On Inside Story, a program that dissects the day’s top news story, the anchors get analysis from experts around the world.

AJE’s correspondent network, based in more than 70 bureaus around the world, regularly reports from countries seldom seen on U.S. network TV. A water shortage in Oman prompted an up-close look at water harvesting methods.

The program Africa Uncovered explores the entire continent, highlighting issues such as the plight of women in Mauritania, where women and girls are  subjected to gavage, or force feeding, because Mauritanian men consider obesity an asset in marriage.

While these programs win praise, the English Al Jazeera channel is still a target of critics who say it pursues a political agenda in the Middle East – including promoting revolution in the Arab world this year.

That’s a charge denied by AJE Cairo correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin. “Al Jazeera wasn’t a voice of the revolution, but maybe a microphone,” he said. “We didn’t ignore the voices that were there.”

Mohyeldin can be scathing in his descriptions of U.S. media coverage of the Middle East. “So shallow,” he said in one of several informal New York events where he spoke shortly after the Egypt revolution. In Libya in particular, said Mohyeldin, many in the U.S. media  “do not know what the hell they’re talking about.”

But for now, at least, the reporting that Mohyeldin and his AJE colleagues do remains invisible to most Americans, except on the Internet livestream. Despite the channel’s aggressive wooing this year of cable giants Comcast and Time Warner, no deals to offer Al Jazeera English have been concluded.

Ahmed Al Omran, Solange Mougin and Ceylan Yeginsu reported on Al Jazeera English.