The New Face of Al Jazeera
After years of a near-monopoly in the televised Arab media, Al Jazeera has inspired countless imitators throughout the Arab world. The only competitor that has come close is Al Arabiya. Jazeera still holds a majority market share, a remarkable accomplishment after more than ten years. And Jazeera has forced the Arab governments to at least consider the possible media consequences of their actions, something that would have been unthinkable before the network's 1996 launch.
Jazeera's pandering to the so-called Arab street feeds off and into the anger of a part of Arab society that is spoiling for a fight--people who are angry about what they consider Western decadence and the oppression of Muslims. It may also offer solace or diversion to the many who are poor and politically powerless, and who feel that their government does not address their concerns in any way.
What Jazeera misses is the middle-class Arab population that isn't angry, that has given up on politics and doesn't have time to call in to these programs. They try to ignore their governments, which have so little to offer. And when such people turn on the television, says Nidal Mansour, they expect entertainment. For those who regularly watch Al Jazeera, the constant parade of blood and guts may even have an inuring effect. "Al Jazeera turned death into yet another boring soap opera," says Mansour.
In a region so controlled for so long, Al Jazeera created a mainstream, Arab-centered narrative for the Israel-Palestine conflict and others in the region. But for all its achievements, the grip of repressive Arab regimes seems to be as tight as ever. Ten years of breaking taboos, promoting reform, exposing corruption and rigged elections has meant those governments have to work a little harder to cover up their abuses. But power is still very much centralized. Jazeera has a tangible impact on public opinion, but that public has--so far--failed to mobilize and seriously challenge the dictatorships.
"Arab governments saw this kind of [free] media change nothing," says Faisal Yassiri, Al Jazeera's former Baghdad bureau chief. "It's just coffeehouse talk."