November 2007 marks the first year anniversary of the official launch of the English language offshoot of the outspoken and often controversial Middle Eastern broadcaster Al Jazeera. Although the exact date of the launch of the English language channel is fairly unlikely to be remembered, much less commemorated, the fact that both critics and supporters of al Jazeera are likely to agree on is that during the year since it's inception, Al Jazeera English has shaken up, if not revolutionized the realm of twenty four hour news broadcasting in English, for not one but multiple reasons.
Al Jazeera's original Arabic language channel has, in its decade long existence been a thorn in the side of many in positions of authority. The lively debates on Al Jazeera that provided a platform for dissidents and intellectuals, the in depth reporting on the weaknesses and shortcomings of the governments of the Middle East that had hitherto remained a virtual taboo subject on the state controlled media, the open and candid exposure of rampant corruption and human rights abuses, all proved too much for many an Arab government. The television station, credited widely with putting the tiny but affluent Gulf state of Qatar on the radar screen, has at various points in it's history been banned or at least restricted from broadcasting in a slew of Arab states – Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, with even the government of the newly ''liberated'' Iraq at one point restricting access to Al Jazeera journalists. All bans, each controversy and every single restriction placed on the path of Al Jazeera served only to enhance it's wildly popular appeal in the Arab world – with Arab journalists provided with a level of freedom and independence that they had never tasted before, the popularity of Al Jazeera seemed to reach record heights. Freedom of speech, the independence of the media and the spirit of independent inquiry, it seemed, no longer was the monopoly of the democratic West – for once, these lofty ideals seemed to penetrate even the most traditional and socially conservative of regions.
It may seem rather ironic and far fetched in retrospect, but the fact remains that prior to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Al Jazeera had even earned open admiration from Washington. The station had played host to a number of leading US politicians, from Condoleezza Rice to Donald Rumsfeld. The self styled aim of spreading freedom and democracy across the Arab world may not have been as central to the agenda of the Bush administration at the time, but in Al Jazeera Washington saw a journalistic outlet that was unafraid to question, dissect and eventually break down the taboos of a region that was ripe for political change.
It was only during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan that the United States began to see Al Jazeera in a different light. With the horrors of the September 11 attacks fresh in the minds of many in the United States, indeed across the Western world, the human cost of the US invasion of Afghanistan, the civilian casualties sugarcoated as ''collateral damage'' – the side effects of overthrowing the reviled Taliban was a virtual taboo in the minds of many, especially, but not exclusively in the minds of Americans. Al Jazeera's coverage of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, that was unafraid and unperturbed in showing graphic images of Afghan civilian casualties may have touched a raw nerve in the minds of many, but in doing the unthinkable, Al Jazeera was, in essence, doing what it had been doing best for years – challenging the taboos, depicting the course of events, without any apparent concern for potential reprisals. In doing so, it may have done the realm of journalistic enquiry a great service – but not without a price. In November 2001, Al Jazeera's Kabul office was destroyed by a US missile strike. The station may have been down, but not quite out, and with no resulting casualties amongst it's staff, the station may well have thought that it's audacity during the Afghan invasion that solidified it's position as the news channel of choice for the Arab street may well have come at an acceptable price.
But Al Jazeera's candid coverage of the Iraq invasion barely three years after Afghanistan, it's determination to focus heavily on the human cost of the US invasion that contrasted diametrically from the conveniently whitewashed coverage of the mainstream US media that ''embedded'' itself with the invading forces, it's interviews with critics of US, European and Arab governments alike, its broadcasts of taped messages from Osama Bin Laden, that, incidentally were mimicked by virtually every Western news organization worthy of mention, it's graphic depictions of Allied casualties – in short, it's determination to project the sheer reality of the headlines as known to those in the frontline of news events made it the bad boy of the journalistic world par excellence. As if the horrors of the Iraq war were not enough to put up with, television viewers the world over had to endure the unsavory sight of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fulminating against the network, bitterly attacking it's coverage of the Iraq war as ''vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable''. But as cynics and critics of the Iraq war, both at the time of the invasion as well as four years on have asked, is it not the duty of professional journalists to tell their audiences about the realities on the ground, no matter how it plays in the arena of public opinion? And by depicting the human cost of the Iraq war, both to Iraqis and Allied soldiers, was Al Jazeera so deserving of such vitriolic condemnation simply for doing the journalistic duty that it's Western counterparts had chosen to shirk in the name of appeasing nationalistic or at least diffident viewers back home ?
Al Jazeera did indeed pay a hefty price for it's iron willed gutsiness. It's Iraq correspondent Tareq Ayyoub lost his life in a US bomb attack on it's Baghdad office, a tragedy that served only to blacken the image of the US military, especially when it emerged that the Al Jazeera authorities had made it a point of informing them of it's office's exact location. A tragic error? A deliberate attempt to silence those who dared to speak the truth about the human cost of the Iraq war? Perhaps the truth will never be known, but one thing is certain – for better or worse the events of 2003 served only to cement Al Jazeera as a news organization to be reckoned with, a television station that knew no fear, and certainly no taboos. Nearly five years after the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld may be gone, the war he helped engineer largely discredited in the eyes of US and world public opinion by the failure to find the purported weapons of mass destruction that served as an impetus for the invasion. But in what could be deemed a form of sweet revenge, the television station he vociferously vilified in front of the world's television views not only went from strength to strength, it also made inroads into the very heart of Washington's centre of power by launching an English language sister station that broadcasts the world over, from, among other places, Washington DC, it's office a mere stone's throw from the White House itself.
Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera's sister channel has continued the tradition of fearless journalism espoused by it's Arabic counterpart. A mere twelve months after it's launch, it reaches, at last count, a staggering eighty million homes across five continents ( interestingly with the notable exception of the US and Canada ), targeting a global audience of around a billion English speakers. As the first and only non Western twenty four hour news organization, it seeks to present world affairs from a truly global perspective, as opposed to the decidedly Arab slant of it's Arabic language parent company. The aims of Al Jazeera English include ''reversing the North to South flow of information'', ''setting the news agenda'' and ''fearless journalism''. To understand the mission, objective and functioning of Al Jazeera English requires an understanding of both the similarities as well as differences between the English and Arabic stations.
Al Jazeera English, like it's Arabic counterpart strikes it's viewers as being unafraid of challenging and questioning taboos, as well as providing a platform for divergent, often diametrically opposing viewpoints on air. Just as Al Jazeera's Arabic channel permitted dissidents and critics of various Arab governments to openly challenge the region's status quo, and square off those arguments with representatives of those governments, Al Jazeera English has also shown itself unafraid to provide a voice for critics of the world's powers. In recent months, guests on channel's flagship Riz Khan show (possibly the world's most open discussion forum with live viewers phoning in from across the world) have included the likes of anti war activist Cindy Sheehan, Jewish American academics that distance themselves from the US's support for Israel's occupation such as Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, critics of Pakistan's Musharraf such as former cricketer Imran Khan and representatives of Egypt's dissident Kaffiyeh movement. The views of such individuals that are allowed an opportunity to question the morality of the status quo are contrasted when the station interviews spokespersons from various government, effectively allowing an opportunity for the channel's viewers to listen not only to the voices of the dissidents of the world, but also the views of the powerbrokers. The opinion and the other opinion, was the motto of Al Jazeera's Arabic station, a tradition that seems to have been carried on into it's English language offshoot, albeit not in so many words.
The pantheon of Al Jazeera English's showcase reporters may seem reminiscent of a who's who in the realm of journalism. From the United States, a nation where even the very name of Al Jazeera elicits knee jerk accusations of bias and sympathy towards terrorism comes Dave Marash, a veteran with the respected ABC network, who perhaps more than anyone else has tried to refute Al Jazeera's critics' allegation of being a terrorist mouthpiece. Josh Rushing, a former US Marine who served as a spokesperson for the Allied Command in Qatar during the 2003 Iraq invasion, whose disgruntlement with the war effort motivated him to author his memoirs titled ''Mission Al Jazeera''. Rushing may have been attacked by Fox News' Sean Hannity as a ''traitor'' for his decision to accept Al Jazeera's job offer, but in an unapologetic style worthy of an Al Jazeera determined to seek the truth, he now endeavors to tell the American side of the story to a global audience with documentaries chronicling US affairs. Neighboring Canada gifts the refreshingly sarcastic Richard Gizbert whose program Listening Post covers the exploits and transgressions of the world's media, journalists and bloggers and their coverage of world affairs. Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom, long a bastion of journalistic stalwarts like the BBC and Sky News is home to any number of Al Jazeera's stars including CNN veterans Riz Khan and Stephen Cole, the legendary Sir David Frost whose interviewing record makes him the veritable equivalent of Larry King, Shulie Ghosh whose weekly Everywoman goes behind the scenes and beyond the headlines to highlight women's issues from the developing world. Not to mention the BBC's Baghdad correspondent during the 2003 invasion Rageh Omaar. From Down Under hail the likes of Amanda Palmer, presenter of the light hearted ''The Fabulous Picture Show'', anchorman Kamahl Santamaria and Afghanistan correspondent Dan Nolan. And in case a Middle Eastern voice was deemed lacking on a television station that was voted the fifth strongest international brand by brandchannel.com, Al Jazeera English even sports a good number of Arab journalists most notably Washington based anchorwoman Ghida Fakhry and Inside Iraq presenter Jasim Al Azzawi.
The truly multinational, multiethnic and multicultural background of Al Jazeera English's hall of fame is certainly no accident. It is the hallmark of an Arab news network determined to shake of it's ethnic image and cast itself in the mould of a truly global news network with it's head in the global village even if it's roots are decidedly Middle Eastern. An international brand with an Arab heritage that it chooses to build on, and yet seek not to be defined by. Al Jazeera English may mark the coming of age of a station vilified by it's critics as ''Terror TV'' – the voice not of the Arab street whose grievances were dismissed, ignored and maligned as extremist but rather of the global perspective of news events that includes, but does not limit itself to the points of view of the Arab/Muslim/developing worlds.
By allowing Arab dissidents and anti establishment figures who were not afraid to challenge the region's entrenched system of power, Al Jazeera trail blazed a tradition of open enquiry and free expression in a region starved of both. By allowing the voices of the activists, critics and opponents of the world's rulers an opportunity to air their contentions and grievances, Al Jazeera English may well prove a pioneer for a development at least equally of not even more exciting - the legitimization of the point of view of millions, perhaps billions of denizens of the so called Third World, who for decades have had their voices and opinions ignored by the world's media and press, centered as it has been in the global North. Al Jazeera gave a voice to Arab dissidents who were dissatisfied by the state of affairs in their respective societies. Al Jazeera English seeks to amplify the voices of millions of people across the developing world whose issues, problems and concerns have been silenced by the indifference of the power brokers who call the shots in today's day and age. What Al Jazeera English tries to convey is the message that the points of view of the dispossessed, the voiceless, the downtrodden, the underdogs no longer deserves to be dismissed as irrelevant or even for that matter, mindless extremism. And whatever the degree of success of the entire Al Jazeera enterprise in the future, one thing remains clear - the voice of the other that Al Jazeera has successfully endeavored to legitimize will be silenced by neither bans nor bombs.