Al Jazeera is an Arabic-language international news network owned by the state of Qatar. It operates under the Al Jazeera Media Network, a media conglomerate, and is headquartered in Doha. The network is best known by its station identification, Al Jazeera. As per Qatari law, the patent holding of Al Jazeera is classified as a “private foundation for public benefit.” This means that while the parent company receives funding from the Qatari government, it maintains editorial independence. This organizational structure allows Al Jazeera to operate autonomously.
During the Qatar diplomatic crisis in June 2017, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt demanded the complete closure of the entire Al Jazeera conglomerate. This demand was one of thirteen made to the Government of Qatar. Some organizations and nations, including Saudi Arabia, have criticized the channel, accusing it of promoting “Qatari propaganda.”
In Arabic, the term “al-ǧazīrah” literally means “the island.” However, in the context of Al Jazeera, it specifically refers to the Arabian Peninsula, which is known as “شبه الجزيرة العربية” (šibh al-ğazīrah al-ʿarabiyyah) in Arabic. This term is commonly abbreviated to “الجزيرة العربية” (al-ğazīrah al-ʿarabiyyah).
It is interesting to note that the Arabic name “al-Jazira” (الجزيرة), meaning “the island,” is also used to refer to Upper Mesopotamia, another region that is mostly surrounded by water. There are also various geographical names such as Algeciras, Alzira, and Algeria that have similar roots.
History Al Jazeera
On November 1, 1996, the Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, currently known as AJA, was officially launched. This significant event took place shortly after the BBC’s Arabic language television station had shut down. The closure of the BBC channel was prompted by various factors, including attempts by the Saudi government to censor certain content, such as a graphic report on executions and dissident viewpoints. In response to these developments, emerged as a pioneering news outlet in the region, providing an alternative and independent voice in the media landscape.
In his book “Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West,” Hugh Miles revealed that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, played a crucial role in sustaining Al Jazeera during its initial years. He provided a loan of QAR 500 million (equivalent to US$137 million) to ensure the network’s financial stability for the first five years. The ownership was a combination of shares held by private investors and the Qatari government, reflecting a mix of private and public ownership. This support from the Emir and the participation of both private and government stakeholders helped establish Al Jazeera as a prominent and influential news channel in the region.
On November 1, 1996, Al Jazeera made its debut as a television network, providing 6 hours of programming per day. Over time, the channel expanded its broadcast hours, reaching a total of 12 hours by the end of 1997. Initially, Al Jazeera’s terrestrial signal allowed for local viewership in the immediate vicinity, and it was also accessible through cable networks. To further extend its reach, Al Jazeera utilized satellite technology, enabling its transmission to a wider audience. Notably, satellite access was initially restricted in Qatar and several other Arab countries, with private individuals prohibited from owning satellite dishes until 2001. However, was accessible via satellite across the Arab world and offered its services free of charge to viewers.
During the launch of the Al Jazeera Media Network, the primary satellite provider for the Middle East was Arabsat. However, during the initial stages, Arabsat could only allocate a weak C-band transponder to Al Jazeera. This type of transponder required a large satellite dish for reception, limiting the network’s accessibility. However, a significant development occurred when a more powerful Ku-band transponder became available. This was made possible as a peace offering after Canal France International, the previous user, unintentionally transmitted 30 minutes of explicit content into ultraconservative Saudi Arabia. The availability of the Ku-band transponder offered improved broadcasting capabilities and increased its potential audience reach.
Although was not the first broadcaster in the Middle East, several others emerged after the launch of the Arabsat satellite in 1985. Arabsat, a satellite venture jointly owned by 21 Arab governments and based in Saudi Arabia, played a crucial role in expanding satellite broadcasting in the region. The significance of live television in covering major events became evident during Operation Desert Storm, which was extensively covered by CNN International.
While many local broadcasters in the region exercised caution and avoided content that could embarrass their respective governments (including Qatar, which had its own official TV station), positioned itself as an unbiased news source and a platform for open discussions on topics concerning the Arab world. Al Jazeera aimed to provide a different approach to news reporting, focusing on transparency and impartiality, which set it apart from other broadcasters in the region.
After its launch, Al Jazeera quickly gained attention and stirred controversy with its unique approach to presenting diverse perspectives, as reflected in its motto, “The opinion and the other opinion.” It is unclear exactly when Israelis speaking Hebrew were first featured, but this event marked a significant departure from traditional Arab television.
The channel’s talk shows, including the popular and confrontational program El-Itidjah el-Mouakass (The Opposite Direction), sparked frequent debates on moral and religious issues, further fueling controversy. Conservative voices in the region’s press strongly criticized Al Jazeera for its programming content. Neighboring governments lodged official complaints, issued censures, jammed terrestrial broadcasts, and expelled Al Jazeera correspondents. In 1999, the Algerian government reportedly even cut off power to several major cities to censor a broadcast of El-Itidjah el-Mouakass.
The channel also faced commercial consequences as some Arab countries reportedly pressured advertisers to avoid placing advertisements. These efforts reportedly achieved significant success, impacting the channel’s financial viability.
During the Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign in 1998, Al Jazeera stood out as the only international news network to have correspondents on the ground in Iraq. This gave them a unique advantage in providing coverage of the events unfolding during the campaign. As a result, exclusive video clips became highly sought after by Western media outlets. This early instance foreshadowed a pattern that would continue in the future, with Al Jazeera gaining recognition for its ability to access and provide valuable on-the-ground footage and reporting.