It has surprised everyone by the success it has achieved as a modern medium because its launch was what I consider an inspirational idea which was to go beyond the region and into to the international arena.
We are not the first nor will we be the last to write about this phenomenon, and we do not say what we say about Al Jazeera as a matter of boasting, although we have many justifications for being proud because the achievement was, by any professional standard, tremendous as much as was the overcoming of the obstacles was successful.
But, as we celebrate the passing of 10 years since the birth of a channel which has matured and come of age while still young, I would like to use the event as an opportunity for deeper reflection on the results achieved so far, and to look forward to a future involving more pioneering precedents which others would aspire to catch up with if they can.
What are the starting points from which the continuous momentum generated by the channel has emerged and what are the conclusions we can come up with from its pioneering experience?
Freedom to work
There were several starting points but the most important, which is often not emphasised by researchers, was the realisation of the need of the Arab audience for a new credible channel from an Arab country to fill the space which has been monopolised by foreign channels and stations for decades.
I do not say this to seek favour, but I also emphasise, that had it not been for that vision, and the moral and material support which we have been receiving from His Highness, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, we would not, as professional journalists been able to achieve what has been achieved in reality.
For no Arab journalist and broadcaster has previously enjoyed the same amount of freedom in practising his profession in his own country, according to criteria agreed internationally, as has been available for those who are at Al Jazeera.
“No Arab journalist and broadcaster has previously enjoyed the same amount of freedom in practising his profession in his own country”
There is another important starting point which defined the course taken by Al Jazeera and made it a prime mover politically and socially in the Arab arena which denied the existence of the other.
That is the slogan “The opinion … and the other opinion” which was adopted by the Channel and which I was personally its author.
It was not a rhetorical or aesthetic concoction although one could have chosen some of those colourful ringing words which have no substance.
To be frank and honest, I feared that this theme will not be acceptable because it would commit the channel to a certain path involving difficult confrontations which would challenge the familiar and traditional concepts in Arab media.
But, as it was a summary of ideas discussed in meetings of the founding board of management, before launch, its acceptance was further evidence of the sincere intention behind a serious proposition of this kind by the sponsor of this pioneering march. Henceforth, it has become evident that Al Jazeera, from its inception, has broken away from the traditional Arab media and carried Arabic public opinion with it.
“It has become evident that Al Jazeera, from its inception, has broken away from the traditional Arab media”
The third starting point was the fact that the channel was launched with a professional and editorial framework in the hands of elite journalists and broadcasters who have been among the most capable and experienced in the local and Arab arena.
Add to this the willingness by everyone concerned, whether journalists or technicians, to co-operate in confronting the challenges at the different fronts, where some have been working hard but quietly, it was imperative we would achieve that distinction compared with available Arab media which were not up to the level of responsibility although they were much older.
The fourth which distinguished Al Jazeera was its approach in dealing with issues and current affairs and its adoption of a high degree of objectivity on the basis that the channel has no stance of its own over any issue, aiming to present the news as it is and to present the different points of view in a balanced way.
“A matchbox!” Yes, but one that ignited a fuse which could not be extinguished despite the many attempts to silence us from the first week of action.
It caused what can only be described as a quake which shook the concepts of Arab media, television, radio and press, as the audience started to hear news in a language and style which were unfamiliar to them from an Arab country before 1 November 1996.
The surprise was pleasant and the response was beyond expectation; it was as if the handcuffs had been removed and fists were thrust into the air and voices proclaiming there was no more fear of censors.
The channel’s credibility has equalled international news channels that are decades older than Al Jazeera.
As a result, confidence in the channel grew steadily and the range of its coverage has increased, attracting further attention and interest by the reliable information service it has been providing.
What then has been achieved during the past 10 years since the launch of what became a media giant at the Arab and international levels?
When answering this questions one should point out that Al Jazeera was not content with its instant fame but continued to develop on various fronts, expanding the number of its offices and correspondents around the world.
Its distinctive logo has increasingly been appearing on the screens of other channels as they quote “Al Jazeera Exclusive” reporting.
It added more branches such as aljazeera.net (in Arabic and English), Al Jazeera Training Centre, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.
“Its distinctive logo has increasingly been appearing on the screens of other channels as they quote “Al Jazeera Exclusive” reporting”
Also launched under the same logo, were Al Jazeera Sport, Al Jazeera Children, Al Jazeera Direct, Al Jazeera English and soon Al Jazeera Documentary.
Alongside these developments there was evolution in management transforming the channel into an institutionalised network utilising modern communications technology and adopting modern systems in dealing with staff affairs and the outside world.
There is no doubting that the first viewers attracted by Al Jazeera were an Arab public longing for a trusted news source.
Later on it caught the attention of official circles, governments and regimes which were surprised by the popular response to local developments and issues which Al Jazeera discussed that had not been dicussed in such a manner before by official media.
When politicians, heads of state, prime ministers, and other officials began to appear on Al Jazeera’s screen adopting a defensive position rather than the familiar offensive one, the viewer started to realise that policies, could be challenged.
I think that the translation of this phenomenon will not stop there and be confined to mere demonstrations and protests, but it will lead to the rewriting of constitutions in Arab countries enshrining human rights, for males and females alike.
It will lead eventually, although after few years, to redrawing the relation between the Arab individual and the state.
With the rush of those concerned and worried to match and compete with Al Jazeera, some tried to catch up but to no avail, because neither their starting points nor vision were based on principles and their aims and objectives did not come from good intentions.
We were variably accused of being agents of Zionist and other foreign intelligence services even of promoting “normalisation” or belonging to this movement or that party.
Some have resorted to closing our offices in the hope that Al Jazeera will change its professional course and deviate from the spirit of its slogan of impartiality which it continues to espouse.
“The channel has become similar to a live parliament where different opinions are debated on air”
This aspect has disturbed some and we were targeted by heads of state and governments, Arab and non-Arab alike, as they attack states or regimes they are at loggerheads with.
Perhaps they wanted Al Jazeera to become a tool to polish their image and promote their actions. They were sorely disappointed.
The concept of “the opinion and the other opinion” has broken many a taboo and who before the era of Al Jazeera would have dared to even think of such an approach in Arab terms.
Democracy and reform were at the heart of this concept and were a continuous focal point in discussions and debates as Al Jazeera sought to present as many different points of view as possible.
The channel has become similar to a live parliament where different opinions are debated on air.
Perhaps mistakes were made in certain instances, but these were the result of individual shortcomings and never represented Al Jazeera’s position as an organisation. Naturally those who cannot tolerate hearing views different from their own would not be happy with such an approach.
I was asked in an interview, with a well-known Saudi magazine, in the light of the success achieved by Al Jazeera within few years of its launch, what new name would I choose for the channel if asked to do so.
I tried to think of something that would reflect what Al Jazeera has achieved and the pioneering and moving role it has played in awakening Arab media and official circles from their imposed state of hibernation, and found no better name than “Al Mihmaz” (The Prod).
What can be deduced from these starting points, developments and stages which Al Jazeera went through?
Can they provide vision for the future? How can the experience be utilised to achieve more excellence? I will attempt to answer these questions based on my long broadcasting experience (radio and television) and on my close knowledge of these developments, events and achievements since the successful launch.
As an Arab journalist I say:
“Give me my freedom and let loose my hands”, as Umm Kalthoum would sing, and I will show everyone what I can achieve and with it dazzle the world.
For, I am no less able than those who have dominated the media for decades during which they have often acted as the sole source of news.
When professional freedom of action became possible for Arab journalists they excelled and have risked their lives, sometimes paying the ultimate [rice for their profession.
“There are still areas for more improvement”
Give me proper professional training based on expertise and I would develop talent and create qualified personnel.
Give me the material and technological means and I will reach the ends of earth and race my competitors to the hotspots exactly as we did in Baghdad, Jenin, Falluja, West Africa and other places.
Give me the moral support and I will surpass rivals and incorporate the other and give him the space to express their opinion.
All of the above was provided by the Al Jazeera project in varying degrees. The experience was not totally free from errors and shortcomings as is the case with any challenging project.
For, although in the last three years it went through a stage of internal and external development, from building an institutional cadre and opening more offices with attempts to develop programming and production, there are still areas for more improvement.
There is no doubt that the performance of any establishment, especially the media, depends on the team spirit, and this aspect should be always remembered when considering such performance.
If a journalist fails to write their report or story accurately and clearly, and if the technician fails to produce an attractive screen, these failures rebound on the channel even if its presenters are the most able.
Change and development are required but in measured steps. This is necessary in the light of the new developments in journalism and media generally, not only in the methods of presentation and captivation of audiences, but also in the technologies of delivery.
“Al Jazeera’s success since its launch has become one of the greatest challenges it faces”
Therefore, we cannot just stand still and sit on the laurels of past successes and achievements, especially when Al Jazeera’s success since its launch has become one of the greatest challenges it faces.
However, in the race with competitors, Arabs and foreign alike, we may find attraction in speeding the pace of change.
In this there may lurk the danger of straying from the principles on which the channel has been established simply to add new colour or glittering style without substance.
There are media channels which after decades of operation have kept the tenets and symbols which are the pillars of their existence and authenticity.
When reviewing this pioneering march by Al Jazeera with the success it has achieved so far in stirring the stagnant waters in the political and social scenes regionally, and concerning Arab, Islamic and developing world issues internationally, I dare say, even if I were to be accused of exaggeration, that had it not been for the slogan “The Opinion … And the Other Opinion”, Al Jazeera would have become just another Arab channel, singing within the flock, no more.
Jamil Azar has been with Al Jazeera since its launch. As well as being a newsreader and programme presenter, he is the channel’s chief language monitor and a member of the editorial board. He came up with the motto “the opinion and the other opinion”. His work with the BBC extended from 1965 to 1996 during which he held various positions and responsibilities, including producing programmes such as Politics Between the Questioner and the Respondent, and Arab Affairs in the British Press.