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Senior producer Samir Khader takes a break from his duties at Al-Jazeera.
Arabic broadcaster Al-Jazeera (which means 'the island') keeps forty million Arabic viewers tuning in and at the same time risks being turned off by some of the very nations it's reporting on. It was censored by Iraqis and condemned by the British on the very same day during the Iraqi war.
Roots of an Arabic broadcaster Historically the Middle East has been known for state-regulated and state-controlled news services which espouse the government's current point of view. One of the few exceptions was the BBC's Arabic Television. BBC had signed a deal with Saudi-owned Orbit Communications to provide an Arabic news service. But the BBC's insistence on editorial independence clashed with the Saudi government's unwillingness to permit reporting on controversial issues. When the BBC broadcast a story on human rights in the kingdom which showed the beheading of a criminal Orbit pulled out it's financial support and the BBC's service was disbanded.
A few months later the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, launched an unprecendented campaign to end censorship in his country. With a 150 million dollar loan he established Al-Jazeera to provide the Arab-speaking world with a freer and more independent source of news. Many of the BBC's former staff were hired on the promise that there would be no government censorship or interference.
Controversial from the start Ever since Al-Jazeera first hit the airwaves in November 1996, the broadcaster has not only been making the news, it has become the news. Dubbed the 'CNN of the Arab world', it covered the Middle East twenty-four hours a day. Anything from rigged elections to government corruption is fair game on the network; this is what gives it credibility.
Al-Jazeera motto and the name of one of its most popular talk shows is 'The Opinion and the Other Opinion.' Its programs regularly feature debates on controversial issues by pitting one side against the other. The network also frequently interviews political dissidents of every persuasion including a 1999 interview with Osama bin Laden.
Although popular with its viewers, most Arab regimes have found something about Al-Jazeera to complain about. Qatari diplomats receive an average of four hundred official complaints a year about the broadcaster from other Arab states.
Al-Jazeera reporters were thrown out of Bahrain for covering anti-American demonstrations, kicked out of Jordan for revealing that King Hussein had taken money from the CIA before his death in 1999 and censored in Saudi Arabia for doing critical stories on the royal family. Saudi Arabia has even banned Saudi companies from advertising on Al-Jazeera affecting the network's bottom line.
LAW, WAR AND TV JOURNALISM Was Al-Jazeera's decision to broadcast footage of dead British soldiers illegal or inappropriate? Index on Censorship debates the issue. More
Al-Jazeera's rise in popularity Al-Jazeera was finally made famous in the West after the attack on the World Trade Centre when the network broadcast exclusive messages from Osama bin Laden.
Suddenly the rest of the world - and the U.S. government - took an interest in Arab politics. Within weeks Colin Powell summoned the Emir of Qatar to ask him to get Al-Jazeera onside with the U.S. on the war on terror. The Emir refused to intervene. Although often critical of Al-Jazeera's stories, the U.S. could not ignore its large Arabic audience. Major U.S. leaders like Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have since been interviewed by the network.
Today the network has more than thirty bureaus (including New York and Washington) and dozens of correspondents covering all four corners of the world. Its sister website, Al-Jazeera.net debuted in January 2001 and is at the top of the internet charts despite frequent hacker attacks. In 2002 it claimed 161 million visitors and has tripled it's audience since the onset of the war in Iraq.
Al-Jazeera's journalists have faced expulsion, imprisonment, even bombs. As coalition forces closed in on Kabul a U.S. missile flattened the Kabul bureau just hours after the staff had left. During the Iraq war a U.S. missile slammed into the network's Baghdad bureau killing one of it's top journalists, Tarek Ayoub.
In 2003 Al-Jazeera received an Index on Censorship award for the 'special contribution to the free exchange of information during the years of crisis in the Arab world' at the exact moment that it was condemned by Britain for broadcasting film of dead British soldiers.
Al-Jazeera today Despite its popularity among Arab viewers as a credible source of information about Iraq, the network is currently banned there. The new government complained that the network's ongoing coverage of the hostages threatened with execution caused further kidnappings.
Al-Jazeera currently has plans to launch an English-language news channel by the end of 2005 to counteract 'unbalanced' reporting by Western networks.
There has been interest in making Al-Jazeera available to a Canadian audience. The network can now be seen by some Canadians using 'grey market' technologies such as illegal satellite dishes.
A recent ruling by the CRTC approved the Al-Jazeera's distribution by cable companies but required any distributors of the network in Canada to guard against the broadcast of 'any abusive comment' - the first time the CRTC has imposed censorship rules on a television station. Advocates of Al-Jazeera complained that the ruling would discourage cable providers from broadcasting the channel.
-------------------- The seeds you won't sow are the plants you dont grow.
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