Is Al-Jazeera paving the way for a democratic Middle East?

Foreign Affairs & Security
Friday, July 15, 2016
Charlotte Chase


The 2010 Arab Spring ushered in a monumental shift towards a preference for democratisation in the Middle East, posing challenges to the established authoritarian regimes.

The rise of Arab news channel, Al-Jazeera, played a major role in both influencing and reporting this change. Set up in 1996, the Qatar-based company has provided an Arab voice to the once Western, particularly American dominated, broadcasting arena.

It has grown to be a serious rival of both the BBC and CNN, previously the largest organisations covering the politics and events of the region.

The station is predominantly funded by the Emir of Qatar, who guarantees its $30million operating budget. Therefore, Al Jazeera is not reliant on Western donors for survival. The voice of the Middle East has been returned back to its people, enabling the Arab Spring to flourish with the ferocity witnessed. Consequently, Al-Jazeera has become one of the most scrutinised media outlets in the world due to the West’s scepticism of Arab funded media.

However, the belief the news outlet would be more vulnerable to manipulation by authoritarian regimes has led to Al Jazeera’s fastidious determination to present all sides of the debate: its motto is “the opinion, and the other opinion.”

Throughout the political turmoil in the region, this aspect of Al-Jazeera has remained steadfast, enabling it to continue opening lines of political communication previously thought untouchable. Criticism has arisen of this desire for unrivalled impartiality, as it is detrimental to the democratisation of the region. As necessary of any truly unbiased broadcaster, they must allow all stakeholders – even extremists – the platform for debate.

Controversially, Al Jazeera aired 22 major statements by Osama bin Laden from 11th September 2001 until 21st January 2011. Arguably, this has provided an endorsement of such extremist views that the region is trying to dispose of. Despite this, impartiality remains essential in a region with such fraught religious and political divisions. Thus, the platform Al-Jazeera gives to the dichotomy of political opinion across the region must remain in order for it to cement itself as a pillar of information, rather than a political tool.

Al Jazeera has also acted as a media beacon within the Middle East, promoting the value of Arab journalism to the Western world. Its Arab language website is the most visited website in the Arab world and one of top 200 most visited websites in the world.

Further, the organisation has access to many events, speakers and opportunities for footage that for Western journalists are simply unobtainable. This provides a unique insight into the Arab world by offering greater understanding of the region by those who live within it. This knowledge of the political dynamic has helped to open the region to Western ideas, as well as cementing Arabic culture.

A once hugely divided region has now found homogeneity in a media source they can call their own. Al Jazeera has provided a narrative which binds Arabs together, not necessarily in terms of similar opinions, but through gathering the region for discussion of the same issues.

Such a dramatic rise to influence, coinciding with the push for democratisation, ensues debate regarding the extent to which Al-Jazeera has contributed to the rhetoric of democratic reform. Arguably, the determination of Al-Jazeera to report the politics of the Middle East with impartiality has enabled it to promote and widen political debate, proving vital in initiating the desire for the removal of authoritarian regimes.

The potential for Western organisations to over-scrutinise could prove fatal to the future success of Al Jazeera and thus be detrimental to the beacon of democratisation that now shines in the Middle East.

Western media needs to credit the value of the Arab broadcaster in order to ensure that it is able to continue its work broadening minds and perspectives, and fostering the democratic discussions that have initiated the fall of decades-old authoritarian regimes.

To ensure that the process of democratisation is able to continue not only in the Middle East, but the rest of the world, Western media must not quash the alternative values of different cultures whilst seeking to spread the standards of freedom of the press that we hold dear.

Al Jazeera is a testament to a region beginning to forge its political identity by giving a voice to its people.

Charlotte Chase is a student at the University of Exeter and an intern at the Bow Group