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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 July, 2004, 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK
Al-Jazeera debates its future
Peter Feuilherade
BBC Monitoring

Young Iraqis watch al-Jazeera in Baghdad
Young Iraqis watch al-Jazeera in Baghdad
A media conference held by the Arab TV news channel al-Jazeera in Qatar this week tackled the thorny issue of what role, if any, the broadcaster should play in spreading political reform throughout the Arab world.

Over 100 broadcasters from around the world have been debating reform, democracy and the media at the al-Jazeera Media Forum.

The station enjoys an audience of over 35 million viewers in the Middle East and is probably the only institution of its kind able to reach so many Arab hearts and minds.

Media analysts have described it as the most popular political party in the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera claims its slogan - The Opinion and the Other Opinion - reflects the right of differing voices to have their views heard.

That is a tradition which was quite alien to broadcasting in the Middle East before the channel was launched in November 1996.

Now there are more than 750 staff at its Doha headquarters, with another 180 working at 24 bureaux and representative offices around the world.

However, those staff recently admitted they have been at loggerheads over the channel's objectives.


Al-Jazeera's veteran presenter Jamil Azar argued that all media had an obligation to be involved in politics.

The channel had been very effective in bringing Arab points of view to other parts of the world, and of showing international developments from an Arab perspective, he said.

In the context of Middle Eastern politics, al-Jazeera has achieved most in changing the attitudes of the Arab media - for example by interviewing Israeli politicians.

But the impact of Al-Jazeera on the global media scene has not yet fully dawned on Western governments, or on the Western media, Azar said.

"We have to be biased towards the Arab nation, we are part of it," said another al-Jazeera journalist.

Jamil Azar
Jamil Azar argues the media should be involved in politics.
Within al-Jazeera, however, different schools of thought exist among journalists.

"We must distinguish between news and opinion", presenter Ghassan Bin Jiddu cautioned fellow journalists.

For Ahmed Sheikh, Al-Jazeera news chief editor, the real question is whether the media's role is to reform, or merely to inform.

His personal view, Sheikh said, is that al-Jazeera should not play the role of a political party although it could contribute to the reform process.

Other broadcasters believe that reform and democracy in the Middle East should not be limited to the media.

Arab democracy had to evolve to the stage where members of the media were no longer viewed as a threat to be targeted or killed, one journalist said.


Meanwhile Waddah Khanfar, al-Jazeera's managing director, would like to see his channel translate its audience growth into income.

The channel, which started with a $150m loan from the Qatar government eight years ago, has never broken even, in part because of an advertising boycott inspired by several Gulf governments.

Its running costs are estimated at $30m a year.

Al-Jazeera has recently commissioned a feasibility study on becoming a private company and possibly floating its shares on the Qatar stock exchange.

Meanwhile, Khanfar wants to expand al-Jazeera globally.

The network plans to launch a documentary channel, a children's channel and an English-language all-news channel.

"Once we have a network in which several of the channels are not necessarily controversial, we should be able to offer alternatives to the advertising community, which until now has largely looked the other way for political reasons," Khanfar said in a recent interview for the Transnational Broadcasting Studies journal.

The dilemma for al-Jazeera now is how hard to strive for mainstream commercial success, and risk losing its unique character which has made it dominant among pan-Arab satellite broadcasters.

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