On a visit to Doha, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak wanted to satisfy his curiosity about the most famous satellite TV station in the Arab world, one that has annoyed him and many other Arab rulers. It was past midnight when he arrived unannounced at al-Jazeera's studio, located in the compound that houses Qatari Radio and Television. After touring the station's compound, he turned to Safwat Sharif, leader of Egypt's vast media empire, and exclaimed: "All this trouble from a match box like this?" (1)
Nothing distinguishes al-Jazeera's modest studios from the hundreds of new buildings in Doha except its exceptional security measures and official procedures. Al-Jazeera is the first Arab TV station based on Arab soil that is expressly critical of Arab regimes and governments and even dares insult them occasionally. This paper will attempt to address several questions about this new phenomenon. How was al-Jazeera born and how did it become what it now is? What kinds of changes has it brought to Arab media, and what has been its impact on the Arab people? What is the content of the programs which have made it famous? What are the criticisms leveled against it?
EMIR HAMAD BIN KHALIFA AND THE NEW MEDIA IN QATAR
The foundation of al-Jazeera is best explained within the framework of a series of reforms instituted by the new emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, after his assumption of power in June 1995. A relatively young man of 44 when he replaced his father, Shaikh Hamad belongs to a new generation of Arab leaders more open to political and social ideas familiar in the West. To accomplish the transformation, the emir brought with him a new generation of Qatari leaders. The reforms have been not only political, but social and economic as well. The emir allowed all Qataris (men and women) to vote for members of an (advisory) Municipal Council (March 8, 1999). This was the first time women had been allowed to vote for members of any political body in any of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). (2) The emir of Qatar has also announced his intention to hold general elections for an Assembly, the first of its kind in Qatar, and has formed a committee to produce a permanent constitution for Qatar by July 2002. One of the most significant reforms sponsored by the emir was abolition of censorship over the media in Qatar. This took final shape on March 30, 1998, with the abolition of the Ministry of Information, which had been responsible for media censorship. (3) This set free the press, radio and TV in Qatar and paved the way for al-Jazeera. This new freedom also allowed the Qatari press to compete to attract better journalists and a wider audience. Despite these reforms, however, there are still certain "red lines" for the Qatari press, and they rarely go beyond them. One is criticizing the ruling...