The 'black sheep' of global broadcasting has finally managed to unlock the American TV market's tightly guarded doors. Beginning with a footprint of 48 million U.S. households it is making not an easy but a promising entrance. During its 17 years of existence, the Qatari media outlet has been equally vilified and praised for its editorial guidelines and news coverage. Conversations around it would always reflect feelings of hatred or worship; either or both.
AJ has managed to haunt governments of sister Arab states and Western 'foes.' George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have called it 'vicious' and 'an al Qaeda conduit' (interestingly, a few years later Rumsfeld changed his tune and even granted an interview to AJE).
Regardless of mixed feelings, Al Jazeera is the trailblazer who broke the western broadcasting dominance and also "gave voice to those who couldn't be heard," especially in the Arab world and in years of war and bloodshed.
From day one its editorial policy was to break norms, not be afraid to provoke even fellow Arab rulers. It developed a pioneering model that laid the ground for influential and impactful journalism in the Arab world. AJA went immediately political. As Naomi Sakr argued has argued:
'When Al Jazeera emerged on to the scene during the second half of the decade (1990's), its appetite for airing controversy and reporting dissent shocked most Arab governments and rocked the hitherto steady broadcasting boat.'
Arab governments were so annoyed by the Qatari Emir's move and the network's coverage that many of the Maghreb countries withdrew their ambassadors from Doha or banned AJA from broadcasting. As the well-known Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda mentioned in a lecture at the London School of Economics: "Some even sent their ministers of information to the Qatari capital to try to talk the Emir out of it telling him that what he was doing was mad."
Thanks to AJA, for the first time programming that most Arabs were longing for was available: diversity of views, more information on issues they cared deeply about as Arabs and Muslims. For the first time news from the Muslim world would not be selected, covered, edited and presented by Western journalists. For the first time Arab viewers could see the bloodshed in Israeli confrontations with the Palestinians, footage that Arab national television networks would stay away from broadcasting not wanting to awaken their public's passion. By 2001, Al Jazeera had become the most watched Arab television station for news.
In 2005 I received a proposal to join Al Jazeera English as presenter and correspondent. At the time I was already a household name in my home country, Greece, with a ten-year career across mainstream Greek media and also as CNN contributor. Yet, there was no way I would bypass the opportunity to join a global broadcaster, a phenomenon in fact, a rebel according to some, that was successfully and fearlessly planting seeds of liberalisation into many sectors of the conservative Middle Eastern societies. I said yes. I packed my things, moved to Qatar, a strictly conservative Muslim country which at the same time was quite tolerant and respectful towards its non-Muslim ex-pats. I found myself being part of an amazing venture. A state-of-the art AJE building, with superb facilities (budget was never an issue with AJ), fine journalistic talent from all over the world, the network was a fascinating Tower of Babel with regards to nationalities, languages, personal and professional backgrounds -even hidden agendas. And -- not surprisingly -- the clouds of political controversy hovering above the renegade entity were as thick as the frequent sandstorms in the Gulf are. Al Jazeera has certainly been instrumental in the proliferation of media in the Arab world. Reporting on Islamic affairs, be it in the Middle East or anywhere around the globe, was never easy; conservatism is an intrinsic element of the social fiber in the Arab world.
Al Jazeera allowed for more voices to be heard. It introduced a number of (previously unthinkable) democratic elements to Middle Eastern societies. It gave voice to those who had every right to openly and publicly discuss their problems, concerns. It shed light on stories previously untold and allowed the promotion of multiple and diverse views. It also taught people about things like civil society, human rights, voting, and freedom of choice.
Who would ever believe that AJE would break the homosexuality taboo (homosexuality is not only a sin, but a crime under Islamic law) by airing stories and interviews with Muslim gays? Al Jazeera is a cultural, political and social phenomenon.
In 2007, I moved from Doha to AJE's London bureau and I went flat-hunting. At the time little would I know that working for Al Jazeera was regarded more as a stigma in some Western countries. There were property agents who would turn down my applications solely on the grounds that they thought I was working for 'al Qaeda's network.' Within the last five years AJE has managed to become not only acceptable, not only watched by friends and foes alike, but it is now embraced and welcomed by a number of countries around the world. It is praised even by the likes of Hilary Clinton.
Al Jazeera continues its global expansion. Both horizontally (through its global network Al Jazeera English) and also vertically by launching regional networks such as Al Jazeera Balkans, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) and with Al Jazeera Turk underway.
AJAM will look to bring news diversity to the American audience, challenge stereotypes and false perceptions and the network's image problem in the US.
Al Jazeera America comes with a promise: they will cover the story but they will never spin it. Okay, sounds good, let's see.
Will you be watching?