Remember early in the Iraq War when the Bush administration tried to paint al Jazeera and al Arabiyah as "consorting with the enemy?" Like most of its arguments, the Bush administration wasn't very convincing. While I can't vouch for al Jazeera's Arabic service, I have watched its English service since its debut November 15 and found it very balanced in its coverage. It offers refreshing views of the Middle East and Asia, including stories rarely reported by Western news organisations.
Based in Doha, Qatar, the news channel broadcasts from studios in Qatar, Dubai, London, Washington and Asia. Some of the best BBC correspondents have moved to al Jazeera, including Rageh Omaar and Stephen Cole. Long-time CNN correspondent Lucia Newman and others have also joined al Jazeera in their slick professional sets and studios around the world. In addition, Sir David Frost, Riz Khan and Irish journalist John McCarthy have their own shows. McCarthy, who was formerly held hostage in Lebanon, is currently hosting a six-part series on the world's religions called "God's Business."
Al Jazeera's English news also features special segments including Witness, with first-hand reporting of current issues. In one recent segment, an Iraqi Kurd living in the West returns to his home town of Kirkuk, to vote in the first Iraqi election. He must come to grips with the devastation of his hometown, after war and after his fellow Kurds were forcibly moved to a nearby town when the late Saddam Hussein sent 425,000 Arabs to settle in Kirkuk. The documentary shows the hope of some Kurds for a better Iraq and the fury of others at Western intervention in Iraq and deteriorating security.
Another powerful Witness segment focused on Canadians adopting children from a Russian orphanage, featuring extensive interviews with the adoptive parents, the children and people at the orphanage. It followed the children during their adjustment to living with their adoptive parents, learning to speak English and adapting to a new school system.
Despite its popularity - ten years on, more than 40 million Arabs watch its Arabic service - al Jazeera continues to be dogged by controversy. The BBC reported today that a journalist working for al Jazeera's Arabic news has been arrested in Egypt for allegedly fabricating videos of police torturing suspects. Huweida Taha Metwalli was stopped on her way to Qatar, with 50 videotapes in her luggage seized, according to the Egyptian interior ministry. The reporter has been charged with "tarnishing Egypt's reputation and harming Egyptian national interests," the BBC said. Hussein Abdel-Ghani, al Jazeera's representative in Egypt, said reconstructing scenes with actors was "a well-known method in the production of documentaries and al Jazeera is not the only network to talk about torture."
In 2006, Egyptian Imad Kabir was filmed in jail, apparently being sodomised with a stick by police officers. The graphic footage - allegedly taken by one of the abusers - became public in November. Kabir's lawyer says the assault came in January 2006 in Cairo's Bulaq district, after Kabir intervened in a dispute between a policeman and his cousin. Kabir's case was taken up by Egyptian bloggers, as well as the international human rights community. Kabir has been imprisoned for three months - in relation to the same incident - for "resisting authority."
In an interview last November BBC-trained al Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmad al-Sheikh summed up his channel's journalistic ethos in this way: "Be accurate, factual, be there first - that's not necessarily most important - and be with the human being all the time - you don't stay at the top getting the views of politicians and diplomats."
Al Jazeera's Arabic service's main rival is Dubai-based al-Arabiya, financed by Saudi Arabia and to counter al Jazeera's influence. Al Jazeera's impact and popularity have pressured state-run television stations to update output to compete. Several Arab governments were forced to lift, if only partially, media controls.
Analysts believe al Jazeera is responsible for politically-educating ordinary Arabs and for raising awareness and political knowledge of both Arab and world affairs. It is also credited with raising expectations of the masses from their governments. However, its reporting has made it unpopular with some Arab and Western governments.
Al Jazeera was banned from reporting in Iraq in August 2004 and its bureau has not been allowed to reopen. The station's programs have led to several Arab countries recalling diplomats and its bureaus being closed or attacked in Arab countries.
American officials have criticised broadcasts of messages by Osama bin Laden, as well as the channel's Iraq war coverage. Former US Defensee Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the channel of attacking the image of the US "day after day after day." Meanwhile, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, reportedly posted an internet message accusing al-Jazeera of being a "mouthpiece for the Americans."
Al Jazeera bureaus literally have come under US fire - first in 2001 in Afghanistan campaign and then during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, causing the death of a reporter. George W. Bush is reported to have contemplated a strike against the Doha headquarters in 2004. One al Jazeera employee was arrested in Pakistan and has been detained without charge for five years in Guantanamo Bay
The station is still under boycott in some Gulf states. Saudi Arabia's pressure on companies not to advertise on the channel has affected its profit margins. It remains reliant on financing from the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa.