Earlier this week, Al-Jazeera marked its 25th anniversary since it was first aired. Launched on 1 November 1996, Al-Jazeera’s transformation from small Arabic-language channel to a household name across the world is remarkable, not because of its past quarter-century achievement but also from the region it started out broadcasting from—the Middle East. In the mid-nineties, the Middle East did not have an independent news channel. Local media were owned and controlled by the state. The heavy censorship effectively prevented any political debate on matters affecting people’s lives. No vibrant civil society and political opposition could operate in such heavily controlled media landscape.
Al-Jazeera’s model of reporting has been predicated on the getting the views of the common man on the street. Western-backed Arab kings and military autocrats could no longer shape the narrative and agenda of stories aired. Views and counterviews were broadcasted equally. It was a liberating moment for the Arab world. Already deeply distrusted for broadcasting state propaganda, it didn’t take long for the region’s state-controlled TV stations to be rendered useless.
Funded by the Qatari government, Al-Jazeera enjoyed significant editorial independence, a feature that underpinned its uniqueness. At the outset, many doubted whether the network will have a genuine editorial independence. It is not easy to say that it is hundred percent independent, but it is also noteworthy that its editorial board has tried their best not to be influenced by the Qatari government’s endowment and largesse. Thanks to Al-Jazeera, the tiny, super-rich Gulf state continued to wield an outsized soft power, first in the Arab world and later across the world. Qatar started to host political dissidents who fled from autocratic nations, despite being an absolute monarchy itself. It also started flexing its financial muscle by allegedly financing certain political factions in different parts of the world. The newly acquired diplomatic powerhouse status put Qatar at odds with its Arab neighbours, chiefly other Gulf states and military-dominated governments of the region.
The launch of Al-Jazeera English in 2006 marked the network’s foray into the world beyond Arabic-speaking nations. The channel adapted a global outlook in its reporting, very different from its Arabic sister channel which is an entirely different beast. The new English channel recruited big-name journalists from across the world, many of them from English-speaking nations. Other smaller channels were later launched including, Al-Jazeera Documentary primarily featuring documentaries’; Al-Jazeera Mubasher, broadcasting live footages of global events, underscoring the network’s vast resources at its disposal. The global footprint has enabled Al-Jazeera to report from under-reported parts of the world like Africa. The constant coverage of political events and strong presence on the ground, for example in the Sudan-an Arabic-speaking African nation which saw repetitive uprisings-is a testament to the network’s unparalleled presence in the developing world.
While it is easy to notice Al-Jazeera’s pan-Arabist, and to some extent pan-Islamist, approach to reporting events unfolding in the Arab world and beyond, the fact that it remains the most globally recognisable non-Western quality media outlet is something the Global South has to be proud of. And you don’t have to be Arab or Muslim to feel that pride. Even when CGTN and TRT World were launched with significant budgets by the governments of China and Turkey respectively, they still haven’t managed to match Al-Jazeera’s global presence and name recognition. The Western media organisations still remain not only the most dominant, but also the best in terms of their quality and depth of their resources. However, Al-Jazeera is no longer an outlier in this club of giant media corporations.
Major events which happened over the past two decades and half have also shaped the network’s operations. The second Gulf war put the station in the global map of media outlets. The war on terror gave the network a head-start for being an Arab station and for its unique ability to report from the ground as Kabul and Baghdad were bombed, making it the primary source of news even for Western media outlets which quickly recognised the network’s ability to be in the field before any other station. The Arab Spring also marked the most consequential moment for the network after it sided with protesters on the streets of Arab cities. This has however come with a great cost for having its reporters arrested, injured or killed and its offices bombed. And when Qatar faced a regional blockade and was threatened with invasion for continuing to sponsor Aljazeera, it didn’t budge. The world would have lost a great voice if it had.