DOHA: Al-Jazeera, which on Tuesday decided not to air video of a killing spree in France, has been known from the outset for providing a platform for dissent, a reputation heightened by its coverage of the Arab Spring.
And although it rose to fame for showing video messages by slain Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the network decided not to air footage of the killing of seven people, including three children, by an Islamic extremist in southwest France “out of respect for the dead.”
The Doha-based satellite network was relentless in its coverage of the Arab Spring, with daily 24-hour reporting of the street protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and the rebellion in Libya, which toppled long-time dictators.
Al-Jazeera has also become the target of criticism from the once friendly Syrian regime for its extensive coverage of protests in a country ruled for decades by an iron-fisted dynasty.
For its coverage of the Egyptian revolt, the pan-Arab television network was awarded a top prize in the breaking news category by the Online News Association last September.
Owned by the ruling family in the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, Al-Jazeera was launched in 1996, broadcasting into the homes of millions of Arabs that until then had relied primarily on state-run channels for their news.
The network’s coverage of the recent Arab uprisings further reflected its antagonistic relationship with most Arab regimes and its tendency to provoke controversy.
In the more than 15 years since its creation, Al-Jazeera has had its offices shut down, its bureaus ransacked, its journalists arrested, and its signals jammed by governments throughout the Arab world.
And in January last year, when a decades-long silence was broken and millions of Arabs surged into the streets demanding freedom, the satellite news station gave the average Arab citizen a platform for free expression.
Most Arab citizens, that is.
The network in Arabic failed to provide a similar platform for Shia protesters demanding democratic changes in neighboring Bahrain, a sign that despite claims of independence, it will not challenge its owner’s interests.
Today, Al-Jazeera has more than 65 offices around the world and a global network of some 400 journalists.
It offers 24-hour news channels in Arabic and English, a documentary channel, around a dozen sports channels, and a children’s channel.
The English-language news channel, launched in 2006, reaches audiences around the world, and its website equivalent became one of the main sources of information for Americans following the Arab Spring.
In November, the network launched Al-Jazeera Balkans, followed more recently by Al-Jazeera Turk. Plans for the launch of a news channel in Swahili are currently in the works.
Its main competitor is the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based 24-hour news channel that has a less provocative approach to journalism. But competition in the Arab-language news industry is expected to tighten in 2012.
United Arab Emirates-based Sky News Arabia is expected to launch next month from the capital Abu Dhabi. Al-Arab, another 24-hour Arabic news channel owned by Saudi billionaire Al-Walid bin Talal, is expected to begin broadcasting in December.
Despite early controversies, few can deny that Al-Jazeera has revolutionized Arab news coverage and grabbed the attention of leaders and governments worldwide.
Most recently, the network announced the shock resignation of its long-time chief Wadah Khanfar, who stepped down in September after eight years at the helm.
His resignation came amid a controversy involving WikiLeaks in which the whistle-blowing website leaked a US government cable suggesting that Khanfar had agreed to alter content on the channel’s website following a US request.