After 9/11, Al Jazeera immediately assumed a more significant role on the global media stage. The news station’s privileged access to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—and its position as Osama bin Laden’s preferred videotape recipient—placed Al Jazeera leaps and bounds ahead of sources like CNN and BBC (both of which have relied on feed from Al Jazeera). The station quickly came to serve as America’s primary window to the Middle East.
In the most recent issue of Islamica, Silvia Gaiani dissects Al Jazeera’s rise to international prominence. Gaiani, a Bologna, Italy-based journalist and scholar, credits the station’s prolonged success to its coverage of issues with pan-Arab appeal. It’s also come to be considered an accurate source of local news in countries with highly censored media. If there was a riot or protest, Gaiani notes, the news used to spread by word of mouth. Now, it’s Al Jazeera.
The unexpected by-product of Al Jazeera’s success, Gaiani argues, is that “[f]or the first time in modern history, the flow of information is no longer just from West to East.” This is a point that cannot be understated, especially now that the network has branched out into English, effectively doubling its market from 40 million Arabic-speaking viewers to 70-80 million. And its influence should only rise as Al Jazeera eyes the Urdu-speaking market of South Asia.
Even though the network has yet to broadcast in the United States, its entry could be exactly what American news needs: a voice that forces the hand of top domestic networks to reshape their coverage of the Middle East.