Breaking Barriers or Burning Bridges? - The Al-Jazeera Story

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The Al-Jazeera phenomenon

The Qatar-based television news station Al-Jazeera ('the island') was established by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in November 1996. The Sheikh took power in 1995 at age 44 by coup, ousting his own father. As part of his sweeping changes Al- Jazeera was commissioned with a start-up grant of $137 million.

The network was resurrected from the ashes of a failed venture between the BBC and Saudi Arabia. With its polished productions; experienced, professional staff - many veterans of the BBC - all native Arabic speakers; its programming was liberated from the state-controlled censorship that had dominated Arab media - and it was free to anyone with a satellite dish (Reynolds, G., 2003).

Its mainstream online Arabic news site,, was launched in January 2001, followed by its English sister site two years later. However the English site was shut down by hackers the following day, probably due to its graphic portrayal of dead US soldiers.

The site was quickly restored and continues to provide hard-hitting, visually explicit news.

Considering its wide-reaching influence, Al Jazeera's newsroom is insignificant. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited in 2000, he asked incredulously "All this noise comes from this little matchbox?" (Zednik, R., 2002).

The smallest of Al Jazeera's three broadcast studios sits behind a glass wall, where anchors read five-minute newscasts every hour. On the opposite side of the room an illuminated map of the world, flanked by thirty-two television screens, serves as a backdrop for the newscasts. In between are forty-eight computer terminals (ibid).

The Al-Jazeera network has shown rapid growth from six hours a day to twelve then, in 1999, to twenty-four hours. It employs 500 people, including seventy journalists. Of its twenty-seven bureaus are offices in Washington, New York, London, Paris,