This Just In: Qatar's Satellite Channel

By Wu, Steven | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

This Just In: Qatar's Satellite Channel


Wu, Steven, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

When the Qatari al-Jazeera Satellite Channel began broadcasting in 1996, it advertised itself as a forum for diverse views. Unfortunately, it was only the latest of several Middle Eastern satellite channels to make the same lofty claim. The other channels have all fallen, to a certain degree, under government control, and many analysts feared that JSC would suffer the same fate. In the 3 years since its inception in Qatar's capital, Doha, JSC has proven these analysts wrong.

Text:

Modernization, Culture, and the State in East Asia This just In:

Qatar's Satellite Channel

When the Qatari al-jazeera Satellite Channel (JSC) began broadcasting in 1996, it advertised itself as a forum for diverse views.

Unfortunately, it was only the latest of several Middle Eastern satellite channels to make the same lofty claim. The other channels had all fallen, to a certain degree, under government control, and many analysts feared that JSC would suffer the same fate. In the three years since its inception in Qatar's capital, Doha, JSC has proven those analysts wrong. It has become, in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, "the freest, most widely watched TV network in the Arab world." Simultaneously beloved and reviled, JSC has become a unique phenomenon in the Middle East-a platform open to all views, but subject to none.

This unusual channel began operation under extraordinary circumstances. In 1995, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Thani overthrew his father, then Qatar's emir, in a bloodless coup, One of the new ruler's first actions was to disband the Information Ministry, which was responsible for media censorship. He also contributed US$ 150 million to launch what eventually became the JSC. Soon after its formation, a program on the channel insulted the Kuwaiti ruling family, prompting Kuwait's Information Minister to visit the Qatari emir. The emir explicitly told the minister that JSC would remain autonomous despite its initial funding from the state; Kuwait's relationship with Qatar and JSC has been strained ever since. Despite the political drawbacks,the Qatari emir's official hands-off policy toward JSC ensured that the channel could continue to broadcast politically sensitive material.

JSC has consistently taken advantage of the emir's permissiveness. Many of JSCs broadcasts feature political debates, commentators, and roundtables with content that could not be printed or broadcast in other Arab forums. One of JSCs most popular and controversial programs, The Opposite Direction, makes a point of bringing to the table two parties with views as widely divergent as possible. On JSC, pitting Islamic fundamentalists against secularists is not out of the ordinary, nor is a heated discussion between dissidents and government officials. Even the Qatari government has been severely criticized in some of JSCs shows. Because JSC airs live, such debates are difficult to censor. Thus, viewers see the unedited footage, with all the screaming, fist-shaking, and insults that have become the trademarks of these debates.

Despite their incendiary style, JSCs programs have become very popular in the traditionally conservative Arab world. This can be explained in part by the astonishing growth of satellite television in the Middle East. In some Persian Gulf countries, satellite viewership is as high as 70 percent; JSC itself is accessible to 60 percent of Middle Eastern households. Even those who do not have access to satellite dishes, such as those in Iraq where they are banned, watch JSC programs by buying videos of the shows at local bazaars. While the spread of technology has certainly helped make the JSC more available to Middle Eastern households, the fact that there is such a high percentage of viewership in areas where JSC programs are available suggests that mainstream Middle Eastern society has become more accepting of progressive ideas and genuine debate. …

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