AJA (Al Jazeera Arabic) did not set out to be controversial but to be different. To do that, it had to introduce new standards of broadcast journalism -- new to a region that had been stymied by official national media that played the tune of a cluster of small dictators with big egos. With its new brand of counterpoint journalism, AJA was as much a liberating factor in mainstream broadcast Arab journalism as it was for the mass of Arab viewers. As it pursued a hard- nosed independent editorial policy, AJA ruffled quite a few feathers. In defending its independence, the channel sustained many slanders, ranging from accusations of being an Israeli tool for airing the views of Arab opposition figures, to US charges of acting as the "mouthpiece" of Osama Bin Laden for broadcasting his taped video messages. For all that, it paid a heavy price in staff casualties and assets as it stood its ground in Kabul, Baghdad and Madrid. It continues to defy harassment by several Arab governments.
The Arabic language Al-Jazeera was indirectly born out of a failed media partnership between Saudi Arabian financial moguls and the BBC that was designed to introduce an Arabic language news programme broadcast by the BBC. When the short-lived marriage broke up in 1996 over Saudi objections to the BBC's free journalistic standards, it produced a group of professional Arab staff whose BBC training inspired them to establish a free Middle East media project. They found their niche in Qatar's new satellite TV channel initiative that was launched in 1996, the same year the Saudi-BBC partnership was terminated. Soon they lent their expertise to it and became its core staff. It was from this perspective that AJA saw its mission. It welcomed the rewards of an independent, credible brand of Arab television journalism and endured the consequences with equanimity. Before long, AJA achieved international recognition.
AJI faces a different set of challenges. While AJA benefited considerably from the "CNN format" and the professional discipline of immediacy, particularly during its exclusive coverage of the invasion of Afghanistan, AJI would not fly as the Arab CNN to the world. It took CNN 11 years to establish its footprint as the leading international satellite news channel. Now the "CNN effect" is wearing off and the network has been outstripped in domestic ratings by Rupert Murdoch's neo- conservative cable television Fox News Channel. The "CNN effect" was eroded by the post-11 September phenomenon of a fragmented and strongly polarised world, shaped by the US's lone superpower-borne simplistic classification of "either you are with us or against us." When the invasion of Iraq took place three years ago, CNN too fell in line and was embedded with the military. As the Rev Jesse Jackson put it later on "Fox and Clear Channel are organising war rallies. Our media was in bed with the tanks." It was his way of lamenting the absence of an independent source of news information for the American public.
I continue to think that one of Bush gang's most regrettable blunders since 9/11 has been their alienation of al Jazeera, and their inability to recognize what a revolution the channel itself represents in the Middle East. There was an article in the New Yorker magazine (I think it was) a few months ago which described a group of men in rural Egypt gathered around a tiny black and white television with an aluminum foil antenna, hanging on every word of a debate between Arab intellectuals. Such a thing, of which we have channel upon channel here in the U.S., is radical and new in the Arab world. The U.S. has utterly failed to recognize or engage with this phenomenon in any positive way.