There are two countries in the Middle East which are being increasingly perceived as powers to reckon with. The first is the Islamic Republic of Iran which has since the days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 matched up to the might of the United States of America. Ironically, the other country is the tiny nation of Qatar which has brought about a wave of changes in the entire geopolitics of the region by institutionalizing a powerful and autonomous news network besides being brave enough to vouch for hosting the FIFA World Cup in the heat of the Arab land.
The usage of the word ‘ironical’ is intentional as Qatar happens to be a Sunni majority country as opposed to the Shia majority Iran. As far as the political structure is concerned, both the countries exhibit a very strange kind of authoritarianism. Even though Iran is a functioning democracy, the Constitution of Iran empowers the Supreme Leader of Iran, by and large a religio-political authority, to have the final call on all matters of governance and administration. Qatar on the other hand is far less democratic and is one of the few nations of the world which is credited with the rather unceremonious title of being an “absolute monarchy.”
In order to counter the growing influence of the Western Media in regards to the representation of the people living in the Orient, specifically the Arab World, the Emir of Qatar financed the launching of Al Jazeera in the year 1996 following the disputed closure of BBC’s Arab News Channel. Al Jazeera’s claims towards maintaining editorial independence are based on the finer nuances of its funding mechanism. The “Emiri Decree’s” which finance operations at Al Jazeera come by way of loans (like the “500 million Qatari Riyals” granted by the Emir in 1996 to kick-start the network) instead of direct government subsidies.
Ideologically speaking, Al Jazeera is generally viewed as a left-of-centre media organization which is more or less critical of the expansionist interventions of the United States in the region of Middle East which happens to be quite a mercenary in terms of mineral and oil wealth. However, domestically Al Jazeera can be termed as a news network which belongs to the liberal school of thought since it has gone out of the way on several occasions and taken up issues which would go usually unnoticed in conservative Muslim-majority societies. Al Jazeera’s reportage of the War in Afghanistan was its first supposed “claim to fame”. During the tumultuous war time, Al Jazeera aired videos of several terrorists including Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. While this lead to heavy criticism of the news network, a plus point of this exercise was that Al Jazeera was applauded as having given an opportunity to both the sides to speak. Al Jazeera’s maverick coverage of war events continued during the extended conflict in Iraq in 2003.
As Al Jazeera grabbed several awards at various international media functions, it also expanded its operations by launching Al Jazeera English in November 2006 and Al Jazeera America in January 2013. Coming to the core issue of the legal status of Al Jazeera, a news report published in the Gulf News on 13th July, 2011 reported that Al Jazeera was planning to turn into a “private organisation devoted to public interest” but this spectacle is yet to occur as the Emir of Qatar is still the one who is empowered to call the shots at Al Jazeera as was reflected recently when the News Director of the organization ordered the reediting of a video clip on the Syrian conflict to include the comments of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani.
In terms of audience reach, Al Jazeera claims to have a firm audience base of 40 million in the Arab World. A research conducted by Allied Media Corp stated that the bulk of Al Jazeera viewers watch the news network for an average of 2-3 hours every day. The research pointed out at the alarming yet misogynistic nature of the Arab society since the male viewers clearly outnumbered the female viewers by a large margin. We can conclude by stating that even though Al Jazeera is brilliantly managed and is quite an exception when scrutinized through the lens of its background and history but it would still have to improve a lot in order to gain greater credibility and acceptance in the West which is possible only if Al Jazeera restraints itself from excessively raking up issues cornering around the twin themes of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Arabism which are the hot favourites of its large audience.