Depending on how you see it, the channel is either setting new standards for independent journalism and media quality in a region where journalism has for decades been under a political stranglehold, or it is an apologist for violence and extremism and subject to easy manipulation by terrorist groups.
Some even think it could be both.
Certainly, the network has been in the political crossfire since the late 1990s. It has been vilified by governments in the region and, more controversially, it has undone claims by the United States and its allies that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mission in defence of human rights to inspire democracy throughout the Middle East.
These have been turbulent years for journalists working for independent Arab media. Many have been targeted, killed and injured in the fighting in Palestine and Iraq.
Others have been taken hostage by terrorists or detained without charge by United States forces, amid allegations of torture. Media that do not toe the line whether in Iraq or elsewhere are summarily banned. Al Jazeera has been prominent among the victims.
In their defence, independent broadcast networks say they are at the vanguard of a revolutionary change that is sweeping across the Arab media landscape.
Certainly, much Arab broadcasting, particularly by satellite, has broken up previously closed societies creating standards of transparency that have shaken the old guard in the Middle East.
They have introduced the full spectrum of on-air debate about issues that were formerly taboo.
Challenging discussions on the rights of women, political pluralism, and social freedoms have become routine features in a resurgent broadcasting landscape.
“Challenging discussions on the rights of women, political pluralism, and social freedoms have become routine features in a resurgent broadcasting landscape”
Previously unheard of innovations include live phone-in contributions from the Arab street, and interviews laced with controversy involving opposition political leaders and commentators from all sides in the Middle East, including Israel. In this work Al Jazeera has been a pace-setter.
These broadcasters are shaking the foundations of an old-fashioned and creaking structure of censorship and information control, but at a price.
From its earliest days Al Jazeera, for instance, has been boycotted, abused and outspokenly attacked by conservative Arab regimes.
That was to be expected from autocratic rulers, jealous of their privileges and power and with good reason to feel threatened.
Their tradition of media was more lapdog than watchdog; they were bemused by this new style of journalism. They did not take kindly to being nipped in the heels by impertinent new media.
Most governments across the Arab world have at different times complained about Al Jazeera.
In some cases ambassadors have been withdrawn from Qatar’s capital, Doha, either to protest at the appearance of their political dissidents on talk shows or to underscore complaints about the disrespectful way leaders have been portrayed.
In 2002 Jordan recalled its ambassador over a programme that was seen as an affront to the Hashemite ruling family.
The Jordanian authorities closed the local Amman office of the network. Algeria, Kuwait, Tunisia, even Palestinians under Yasser Arafat’s authority, have all complained about the network.
It has stirred regional resentments beyond the Arab family. Last year Iran closed the Al Jazeera operation in Tehran accusing the network of stirring up unrest that led to disturbances in the southwest of the country.
In every one of these cases the network has denied involvement in local politics. It has condemned the closure of its offices and says it will resolutely stick to its ethical and independent editorial policies.
But if grumbling in the region had not been enough to contend with, it was the barrage of complaints from the US from 2001 onwards that made headlines and has done most to create the aura of controversy that surrounds the station today.
“It was the barrage of complaints from the US from 2001 onwards that made headlines and has done most to create the aura of controversy that surrounds the station today”
The American attitude has little to do with ruffling of political feathers in the Middle East – indeed, in other circumstances Washington would welcome such feisty journalism – but the Bush administration has been angered over the network’s reporting of the Middle East; its distinctly Arab perspective; and its editorial focus on the suffering and hardship endured by the victims of occupation in Palestine and Iraq.
The mood was summed up by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, who on 15 April 2005 called Al Jazeera’s reporting “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” following its defiance of the US army who ordered reporters out of Falluja in the middle of a military siege.
This outburst was one of many dating back to a time just after the September 11 bombings in 2001 when the US had reportedly asked the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to use his influence to soften Al Jazeera’s editorial line.
The Americans alleged the television station provided airtime for experts hostile to the US, but probably causing more anguish was the fact that the station had become Osama bin Laden’s favoured way of getting his point of view across to Arab and Muslim viewers and, beyond them, to a worldwide audience.
The station might not be cheerleading for terrorism, but its opposition to invasion and occupation has been too visible for US military and political taste.
This frustration boiled over into a series of attacks that raised protests from international press freedom groups.
These include: the US bombing of the Kabul offices of Al Jazeera in 2001; the assault on the Basra hotel where Al Jazeera staff were based in April 2003; the unexplained killing of journalists by US troops, including reporter Tariq Ayoub who died in the US attack on the Baghdad offices in April 2003; the killing of Rashid Wali, an Al Jazeera technician during clashes between the US Army and Shia militia; and the banning in Iraq in 2004 of Al Jazeera and a second Arabic channel, Al-Arabyia, by the interim administration in Iraq.
Such is the bad-tempered atmosphere created around the phenomenon of Al Jazeera that press freedom groups defending Al Jazeera, such as the IFJ, have been accused of defending “terrorist media”.
Colleagues hold up a poster of
But what are “terrorist” media? It’s a term that is highly contentious. Some might apply it to Al-Manar, the television network in Lebanon, which has links to Hezbollah, the political and armed group actively engaged in violent attacks on Israel, but even this is not without controversy.
Press freedom groups have contested bans on the channel by France, for instance, saying that they undermine the right to free expression.
Al Jazeera is not in the same league. It has come a long way since its launch in 1996 when its primary benefactor, Sheikh Hamad, abolished Qatar’s ministry of information and put up about $150 million to back his pledge that Al Jazeera could report the news freely.
Shortly afterwards, when the BBC World Service closed its own Arabic-language channel, a number of former BBC staff joined the fledgling satellite operation.
Balanced or biased?
Today with dozens of offices and correspondents scattered across the globe and free from the shackles of censorship and intrusive government, the station offers its audiences in the Arab world and beyond much needed freedom of thought, independence, and room for debate.
“Al Jazeera’s defenders accuse the Bush administration of hypocrisy in its efforts to stifle the channel”
As the first Arab broadcaster to break unwritten customs about not criticising other Arab regimes, viewers have got something other than pro-government propaganda.
But it has still come under fire for what some see as the anti-Western tone of much of its reporting.
Some journalists and commentators ask whether the station is a balanced news source or a biased outlet for inciting Arab world opinion against the United States. Is it really an independent news gatherer, or a tool in the hands of media-savvy terrorists?
Al Jazeera’s defenders accuse the Bush administration of hypocrisy in its efforts to stifle the channel and suppress its unwelcome news coverage.
They point to the evidence that it has become the most-watched news channel in the region; that its unrestrained and uncensored news coverage breaks new ground; that its commitment to ethical journalism is evident for all to see in its broad range of programming covering sensitive social, political, and cultural topics.
Domestic blind eye
They say that although Qatar pays the Al Jazeera bills, the station has maintained its editorial independence.
Nevertheless, unlike the BBC – which was locked in a desperate battle with the British government over policy in Iraq – the network has not had to apply that sort of tough scrutiny of Qatari affairs.
Certainly, there has been no robust criticism of the ruling Al-Thani family and some of the tough stories about life in Qatar and other Arab countries.
For instance, stories on the plight of immigrant workers in the region, do not appear consistently on the news agenda.
It would be a stern test of Al Jazeera’s independence were it to campaign vigorously on a subject that is largely taboo and to speak up for a group that has no voice in many Arab countries.
Al Jazeera has also been taken to task for sensationalism and unduly vigorous reporting of violence and is often criticised for using the term “martyr” to describe those who are killed by Israelis, although editors say they use the term for all who die fighting a “cause,” not just in the occupied territories.
However, the criticism that rankles most with journalists is the accusation that the station has become the “mouthpiece” for Osama bin Laden and Islamic extremists.
They insist that bin Laden is a party to the global and regional crisis. Without his point of view and that of others who think like him, the integrity and objectivity of journalism would be lost and the story would be unbalanced.
That is a challenging opinion, even in journalism, where the notion of objectivity is fiercely debated among professionals.
“The context in which Al Jazeera works may explain the different pressures it faces”
There are no absolute rules here. Despite its attachment to balance, it is true that after September 11 the station says it has been prudent, even cautious about what it broadcasts and perhaps more sensitive to the publication of inflammatory or outrageous opinion.
The famous interview with Osama bin Laden by Taysir Allouni after the New York and Washington attacks, for instance, got more of a run on CNN but was never shown on Al Jazeera.
The context in which Al Jazeera works may explain the different pressures it faces.
In the Middle East many people view Western media as extremely partisan, particularly over coverage of the Palestinian crisis.
There has been a sense of enmity with respect to Arabs and Muslims in Europe and the US which has angered many.
The explosive response this year to the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad both within Western media and the press in Muslim countries provided fresh evidence of how the media cultures of the Middle East and the West, far from converging, are still far apart.
Western calls for censorship of Al Jazeera backfire, not only because they threaten the values of press freedom, but because they highlight resentments about Western attitudes to the Arab world.
Al Jazeera is by no means perfect. Like all news organisations it makes mistakes on a daily basis. The best it can do is to correct them, try to learn a little more about the complex and difficult issues it is covering and move on.
But the network is not a terrorist organisation, it possesses no arms. It makes its mark by breaking new ground, by challenging governments who manipulate and control information, and by providing an alternative perspective to a largely American-dominated world view of current affairs.
That is something that the rest of the world must learn to live with.
Aidan White has been general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, the world’s largest journalists’ group, for almost 20 years. A former journalist, he is a leading commentator on media ethics and journalists’ rights. In recent years he was the moving force behind the creation of the International News Safety Institute.