In addition to supplying an important portion of the Arab world’s unprecedented surge of information, the channel’s coverage has been a factor in incremental but significant political change.
As the Wadah Khanfar, director-general of Al Jazeera Network, said last year General Director of the Al Jazeera Network Wadah Khanfar said last year: “Everyone is talking about change, reform, political transformation, and democracy in the Arab world. The realities are changing and so is what is dominating the news … The whole discussion taking place in the region has found itself on our screen.”
That has impact. According to a report by the US Institute of Peace, Al Jazeera and other satellite channels “offer a locus for the Arab street to vent, formulate, and discuss public affairs. They bring Arabs closer together, breaking taboos and generally competing with each other and their respective governments for the news agenda.”
No news organisation has the power to compel political change. The news media can, however, serve as a valuable stimulus, helping to galvanise activism and aiding in the construction of an intellectual framework that gives coherence to reform efforts.
In his book about Al Jazeera, Hugh Miles observed that “optimists theorise that satellite TV will sweep away traditional Arab obstacles to progress and dissolve seemingly intractable problems and that an ‘Islamic Glasnost’ will ensue …
“But to believe that satellite television is automatically going to make Arab societies democratic is to presume that the current state of affairs in the Arab world results from an information deficiency, which is not true.
“Except in the most authoritarian Arab countries, the news has long been available to the determined via the radio, and that has never brought about much democracy.”
Miles said that even if Arab satellite television viewers see something on the air that leads them to change their minds about an issue, “there is still no political mechanism in place for them to do anything about it”.
Miles makes a valid point, and expectations should be realistic when evaluating prospects for reform. Unless the fundamental processes of democracy are established – such as an open electoral process and transparent functioning of government – the impact of Al Jazeera and other news organisations will be limited.
But it should be kept in mind that audience size is important in itself and the significance of sheer numbers with easy, frequent access to diverse sources of information should not be underestimated.
When a critical mass has better access to information, political processes are more likely to change. Pressures will mount on those who govern, and only the most regressive leaders will wholly ignore the public’s wishes.
For their part, political activists should recognise that the media are tools to be employed in overhauling the engine of government. Those tools must be put to use; change will not happen spontaneously.
Al Jazeera’s long-term impact will be judged according to how its coverage fits into the larger political context of social and political change.
Along these lines Mohamed Zayani wrote: “One should be sceptical about the often ambitious transformative claims for new media as well as the claims about its democratising potential and its ability not just to increase and widen participation among the various social strata in the Arab world, but to transform social and political organisation.
Real change cannot be expected solely or mainly from the media sector. Democracy cannot emanate just from the media; the political systems and institutions themselves have to change, evolve, and adapt … We should not be under the illusion that satellite TV can dramatically change society or revolutionise its institutions.”
Similarly, Marc Lynch wrote: “What one enthusiast called ‘the Democratic Republic of Al Jazeera’ does not, in fact, exist. Al Jazeera cannot create democracy on its own, nor compel Arab leaders to change their ways. Television talk shows cannot substitute for the hard work of political organising and institution building.”
Looking at this from another angle, Mamoun Fandi notes that the proliferation of satellite television may create a virtual politics that citizens watch, like an event in an arena, rather than actually becoming participants.
“Governments in the Arab world,” wrote Fandi, “are encouraging the trend whereby the media become a substitute for real politics.”
Similarly, the 2004 Arab Human Development Report acknowledged that “formidable obstacles stand in the way of a society of freedom and good governance in Arab countries. And this is an undeniable truth. But at the end of this difficult journey, there lies a noble goal, worthy of the hardships endured by those who seek it.”
All that may be true, but scepticism should not be allowed to slip into the cynical fatalism of the “change will never happen” variety. Media might not make revolutions, but they certainly can contribute to them. In the end, the public’s willingness to act is the most crucial factor in reform.
As Al Jazeera celebrates its tenth anniversary, the Middle East provides fascinating illustrations of the ways new media can affect the political climate.
The reverberations of the American invasion of Iraq continue and attract much news coverage and angry attention.
A parallel story could be found in the assertions of electoral freedom in Iraq and Palestine, and other democratic manifestations (with varying degrees of success) in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, and elsewhere.
Reform seems to be developing momentum, sometimes on the level of headline-grabbing politics, as with the Iraq elections, and sometimes on a more incremental basis, as with the more significant presence of women in Kuwaiti politics.
The news media played a critical role in all this; satellite television showed Egyptians, Syrians, and others that real elections were taking place in Palestine and Iraq, and showed Saudi women, among others, that Arab women in some countries might actually be allowed to hold positions in government (as in Bahrain) and even drive cars.
One of Al Jazeera’s strengths has been its introduction of energetic and sometimes contentious debate into an Arab news business that was previously known for its drab docility.
The high production values of the channel’s newscasts and the lively exchanges in its talk shows have expanded the news audience and changed the nature of political discourse within the Arab public sphere.
Getting more people to pay attention to and talk about news is an important facet of larger issues related to democratisation. Overall, notes Bernard Lewis, television “brings to the peoples of the Middle East a previously unknown spectacle – that of lively and vigorous public disagreement and debate”.
The style and substance of Al Jazeera’s programming has led its audience to become more engaged with the issues addressed in coverage. This is largely due to the channel’s being trusted more than many of its competitors.
Critics of Al Jazeera, particularly in the West, often challenge the channel’s objectivity, but such criticism is irrelevant, missing the point in terms of the channel’s baseline strength.
Rather than judging the news product they receive according to standards prescribed by outsiders, most of Al Jazeera’s viewers consider credibility to be a news provider’s most important attribute, and these viewers want news that is gathered independently for Arabs by Arabs, and that sees events through their eyes.
In the new era of proliferating satellite television channels, state-controlled and Western broadcasters have found that they are at a significant competitive disadvantage in the Arab world because they are not as credible as Al Jazeera.
Furthermore, the presentation of news on Al Jazeera reflects a passion that is well suited for an audience that feels passionately about many of the issues and events that the channel covers.
Considering the many factors that will either deter or encourage political change, the authors of the Arab Human Development Report 2004 noted: “In Arab countries today, there seems to be a contradiction between freedom and democracy because many democratic institutions that exist have been stripped of their original purpose to uphold freedom in its comprehensive sense …
“There are some media outlets that are little more than mouthpieces for government propaganda, promoting freedom of speech only if it does not turn into political activity. Such captive outlets fail to stimulate intelligent and objective debate, enhance knowledge acquisition, and advance human development among the public at large.”
Only independent news media can contribute to knowledgeable political debate and participation, without which the prospects for democracy will diminish. All those involved in the information process – from the individual blogger to the big media corporation – must retain intellectual autonomy.
Government pressure is inevitable but it must be overcome if the democratic process is to gain a foothold.
During its first 10 years, Al Jazeera has shown itself willing to resist such pressure. Protests from governments, expulsions from countries, and interference with advertisers have all occurred and are badges of honour for Al Jazeera, evidence that the channel has retained its independence and done the work that journalists are supposed to do.
As Al Jazeera’s reach becomes more extensive through its channels in languages other than Arabic and its online offerings, it is likely to affect politics far beyond the Arab world.
This opportunity will present many challenges for Al Jazeera during its next decade. Within the Islamic world, the channel may increase the cohesion of the Ummah.
For the even larger global audience, forceful, conscientious coverage of stories neglected by other news organisations can reshape the world’s political agendas.
As sentinel of conscience and messenger of hope, the news media can give voice to those who otherwise would go unheard and in that way take significant steps toward democratisation and justice.
These issues raise many complex questions that have few precise answers. The news media’s role in progressive political change is hard to define with certainty because the path toward democratisation remains uncharted.
Those who move in that general direction do so with more faith than certainty. They may get there, and their chances of doing so will certainly be enhanced by the continuing evolution of media organisations such as Al Jazeera.
Philip Seib is a professor of journalism at Marquette University in the United States. He is the author of many books, including Beyond the Front Lines: How the News Media Cover a World Shaped by War. His forthcoming books include New Media and the New Middle East and The Al Jazeera Effect. He is co-editor of the scholarly journal Media, War, and Conflict and is series editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Series in International Political Communication.