Of the 22 Arab countries in the Middle East, not one is truly democratic, but now, for the first time, the hereditary rulers and authoritarian leaders who have controlled the region for generations are facing a challenge to their power, one that is lifting the curtain of government censorship the Arab people have lived behind for decades. Ed Bradley reports.
This story originally aired in May, 2001.
The challenge is coming from Qatar, one of the smallest countries in the world, an upstart desert kingdom on the Persian Gulf, and from a tiny TV network with a big mouth. It's called Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel, and it's the first 24-hour television news network in the Arab world. It is also the first Arab news organization that is independent and uncensored.
Al-Jazeera has more than 50 correspondents working in 31 countries throughout the world. Like most television networks, it broadcasts sports, the weather and cultural programming. But what makes Al-Jazeera must-see TV for Arabs is its emphasis on news, investigative reports and documentaries, plus a wide range of talk shows that discuss subjects that, in most Arab media, are strictly taboo. According to Jian Al Jacuby, an Iraqi journalist who works in the newsroom, for Arabs, Al-Jazeera is revolutionary.
"It's the first time maybe in Arab world you are hearing and looking for a news bulletin. It's news. In all Arab countries, there's no news on their television," he says, noting that in other Arab countries, media is controlled by the government.
Al-Jazeera offers journalists unprecedented freedom to report the news the way they see it, without government censorship. Since going on the air almost five years ago, that reporting has earned Al-Jazeera a reputation for groundbreaking journalism from an Arab perspective. The network has also made its mark by broadcasting interviews and speeches with the most controversial figures in the Arab world.
"Arab people, for a long time, they just wanted somebody to listen to them. That's what importance of Al-Jazeera: to let people talk," says Al Jacuby.
Al-Jazeera broadcasts from a nondescript building in Doha, Qatar, a country few people had ever heard of before the emir of Qatar, Sheikhh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, created the network.
The goal, he says, was "to provide knowledge and new ideas to the Arab world. It needed to be an independent network that is not controlled by the state."
Al-Jazeera may not be controlled by the emir, but his government bankrolls it with a $30 million annual subsidy. Sheikhh Hamad is known as a reformer and a political maverick. When he took power almost six years ago, he began implementing democratic change immediately. One of his first acts was to abolish the Ministry of Information. "I wanted to move my country towards free speech because it is the right path, and it would benefit my country," he says.
His country already benefits from an abundance of natural resources tha have made the people of Qatar some of the richest on the planet. Doha is in the process of being transformed from the capital of a sleepy, traditional Gulf sheikdom into a modern city, but one where Qatari women still walk covered from head to toe, and camel racing is one of the most popular national sports.
The enormous reserves of oil and natural gas gives Qatar power beyond its size and population. But it is Al Jazeera that makes the tiny sheikdom a household name in the region, the most powerful voice in the Arab world.
Al Jazeera is carried by satellite to an estimated 35 million people in the Middle East. Over the last decade, satellite dishes have sprouted like mushrooms on rooftops from Cairo to Casablanca, the West Bank and beyond, including some places where you wouldn't think it was possible, like Bedouin tents in southern Jordan. It's part of an information revolution that allows Al-Jazeera to bypass government censors and broadcast directly into people's homes throughout the Arab world.
Every Tuesday night, millions of families in the region sit down to watch "The Opposite Direction," the most popular and controversial talk show in the Middle East. It's hosted by Faisal Al-Qasim, a Syrian who talks about everything from sex, religion and corruption to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The show can sometimes get heated.
For example, Al-Qasim did one show on polygamy, which gives Muslim men the right to have more than one wife. One woman said that the practice is an anachronism that should be abolished. Another woman thought abolishing it was outrageous. Finally, she'd had enough and got up to leave in the middle of the show.
"Al-Jazeera is definitely very dangerous as far as the Arab governments are concerned," he says. "Because al-Jazeera is dissecting, let us say, issues and problems, which have been covered under the carpet for ages. We Arabs have so much dirt buried under the carpet, so Al-Jazeera is revealing all that dirt, politically, culturally, socially, religiously, all that."
According to Al-Qasim, until Al-Jazeera went on the air, if Arabs wanted credible news from their own world, they had to listen to Western news reports. Not anymore: "Now we Arabs, we see things and we report them. Things have changed. Things have changed. For the first time, the Arab media has the upper hand, particularly Al-Jazeera. They have the upper hand in reporting what's happening in Palestine."
Al-Jazeera's coverage of that last issue has pulled in millions of viewers throughout the Middle East, who, for the first time, have been watching the uprising, the Intifada, live.
Correspondent Walid Al-Omary says credibility is the reason. "The credibility of Al-Jazeera is very high in the Palestinian people because they hear the facts that they didn't hear from any other media - Arab media," he says. "They trust us. We give them the facts. If Palestinian shoot Israelis, we will say that the Palestinian who started thithings. If it's Israelis, we will say they're the Israelis."
Al-Omary works out of Al-Jazeera's bureau in the West Bank town of Ramallah, but he also covers both sides of the conflict, often putting him in the middle of things, which in this part of the world is the wrong place to be.
Al-Omary knows from personal experience. He's been wounded by Israeli rubber bullets. He's reported from the middle of some of the worst fighting, within target range of Israeli gunships retaliating for the deaths of two Israeli soldiers murdered by a Palestinian mob.
"To be objective in this area is not easy because we live here, he says. We are part of the people of here. And this situation is, belong to us also, and we have our opinions."
On air, he refers to Palestinians who are killed in this fighting as martyrs. When it is pointed out that the Israelis would call them terrorists, he says: "This is a problem for the Israelis. It's a point of view."
What does he call Israelis who are killed by Palestinians? "We call it that: the Israeli is killed by Palestinians."
Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Intifada is credited with igniting pro-Palestinian demonstrations all over the Middle East. But when the network broadcast opinions from Arabs calling on their leaders to do more for the Palestinians, Arab governments reacted angrily, especially the Egyptians, who accused Al-Jazeera of trying to incite violence.
Mohamad Abdul Monem, a former spokesman for the president of Egypt, believes that Al-Jazeera is subversive and that it's deliberately trying to destabilize Arab governments. But he also says that al Jazeera is not a threat to the Egyptian government, only a nuisance.
"They are undermining us. They are undermining Egypt, undermining Saudi Arabia, undermining all the Arab countries. They are separating the Arab world. It's no good,"
What has Al-Jazeera done that has upset so many people? "I think people are not used...to hear things which they don't like, especially the top people, including me," says Sheik Hamad Bin Jasim Al-Thani, Qatar's foreign minister. He receives most of the many complaints about Al-Jazeera.
Every single Arab country has complained to Qatar about Al-Jazeera. Some have even recalled their ambassadors and closed down its bureaus. The Palestinians briefly shut down the one in Ramallah a few weeks ago. But Qatar's foreign minister thinks Al-Jazeera is doing something good: "We are giving the people around us, in the Arab world, something which they need."
"Democracy started. Either the leaders like it or they don't like it. Either you open the door or they break the door. It's a matter of time, in my opinion."
Despite all the criticism from Arab governments, Al-Jazeera strongly denies it has a political agenda. The network says that all it's trying to do is report the news.
Are they afraid of you, the Arab governments? Says Al-Qasim: "They are not afraid of Al-Jazeera. They are terrfied by Al-Jazeera and the programs broadcast by Al-Jazeera, because they think that free media means democracy."
© MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved