12Arab Media and the Al Jazeera Effect

Lawrence Pintak

Introduction

In 2011, a popular uprising swept across the Middle East and North Africa, unseating tyrants, triggering civil wars, and threatening the royal families of the Gulf. It was a product of deep‐seated political and economic grievances against the region’s autocrats. It came to be known as the Arab Spring. But it has also been called “the Al Jazeera Revolution,” for the isolated protests that sparked the revolt would never have ignited a regional rebellion without the revolution in Arab media inspired by the Qatar‐based channel.

Call it the Al Jazeera effect. The launch of the Middle East’s first all‐news satellite channel in 1996 shook the very foundations of Arab journalism. Since the 1950s, Arab media had largely served as a mouthpiece for the region’s regimes. All broadcasting outlets and most newspapers were owned by Arab governments, tame political parties, or regime friends. The term “television journalism” was an oxymoron. Investigative journalism was unknown.

Then the young emir of Qatar, who had recently deposed his father in a bloodless coup, decided to invest $140 million in a new channel with a mandate to shake up the region – and give himself outsized influence – by speaking truth to power. The launch of Al Jazeera changed everything. Suddenly, television shows were discussing issues that ordinary people had only talked about behind closed doors. Political dissidents, militant activists and, most ...

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