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Globalization Today in Africa

In: People

Submitted By emuriithi
Words 1399
Pages 6
By Evelyn Thai

Al Jazeera's logo
Since its inception, Al Jazeera and the space the network occupies in the alternative media order have been heavily contested. The network’s editorial and journalistic decisions position Al Jazeera as an alternative news source and some see the station as a powerful force against global hegemonies. In “Hegemonic No More: Western Media, the Rise of Al-Jazeera, and the Influence of Diverse Voice,” Philip Seib argues that Al Jazeera’s success signals “an end to the near monopoly in global news that American and other Western media had long enjoyed”. (Seib 2005) Others heavily contest the alternative media designation citing the network’s structure, organization, and funding; Adel Iskandar argues that much of the alterity that characterizes Al Jazeera is manufactured and “resembles the marketing strategy for a corporate brand”. (Iskandar 2006)

Situating Al Jazeera within the alternative media order has been difficult in part because “the nature and definitions of alternative media have often been contested terrain” (ibid.). Although fluid, most definitions of alternative media focus on the challenge alternative sources pose to existing narratives and journalistic practices. These definitions of alterity stipulate that the media should have some if not all of the following characteristics: connections with social movements, facilitating social communication and change, the ability to instigate activism, challenge to the structures of power, wide participation in the creation of content, positioning outside mainstream media, an emphasis on the social construction of facts, privileging diverse voices, and participation-based organizational values, structure and funding. (See Atton 2003, Downing, and Iskandar)

Judged against some of these criteria – particularly that of permitting grassroots participation and association with social movements – Al Jazeera could not be called alternative.

Another challenge to understanding Al Jazeera’s alterity is posed by the fact that Al Jazeera is a transnational media organization. Much of the scholarship on alternative media does not account for the unique challenges posed by an organization that functions and conceptualizes itself outside of a traditional nation-state framework. In “Al Jazeera: A Challenge to Traditional Framing Research”, Wojcieszak argues that traditional framing theories are based on assumptions about the role that media plays in Western nation-states. Because the new transnational media landscape is characterized by the implementation of new technologies that cut across traditional cultural and sovereign boundaries, traditional framing research “may be inapplicable to the transnational media landscape” (Wojcieszak 2007).

On the assumption that Al Jazeera’s impact on challenging the structures of power merits an assessment of the network's alterity, this paper seeks to explore the conditions under which a transnational media outlet such as Al Jazeera might be described as alternative. This analysis begins by demonstrating areas where Al Jazeera fits traditional alternative media criteria and exploring Al Jazeera’s success in challenging structures of power by providing a platform for diverse voices. Following that discussion, the analysis will consider those areas where the network fails to meet current alternative media definitions. This section will demonstrate how certain critical definitions of alterity in traditional alternative media research, such as freedom from corporate or state sponsorship, would necessarily limit an organization’s ability to reach a transnational audience. After addressing the conditions which have enabled Al Jazeera to enlarge or create public discursive spaces, this article will begin to draw the outlines for a new theoretical framework that will help us better understand Al Jazeera and similar transnational media.

Traditional Theorizations and Al Jazeera
The literature on Al Jazeera demonstrates that the network meets many of the criteria for alterity mentioned above. The challenge that Al Jazeera poses to the governments in the Middle East and the United States is a pervasive theme in descriptions about the network. Prior to Al Jazeera’s establishment, most television media networks in the Middle East region (which scholars consider highly influential in the region because of high illiteracy rates) acted as “mouthpieces” for official government positions. Even satellite networks, which have traditionally been privately owned and generally have more flexibility in airing programming that may offend some sensibilities, have been unwilling or unable to air sensitive political issues such as “uncensored debates or screen footage of angry demonstrations on Arab streets” (Sakr 2005; 84). According to a number of regional media veterans, the huge effort required to create content, secure government support, and generate revenue creates significant disincentives for upsetting governments who can physically shut down networks or pressure advertisers to withdraw funding.

Within such a context, many researchers describe Al Jazeera’s impact on expanding the public sphere as nothing short of transformative. Under the motto, “The opinion and the other opinion” the network’s editors and journalists strive to privilege alternative voices. In “Maverick or Model,” Sakr describes how a show called Under Siege, consisting entirely of live calls, e-mails, and faxes from members of the public, “became a vehicle for outbursts as much against Arab leaders for their alleged impotence and inertia as against Israel or the USA”. By all accounts, providing a forum to individual callers to publicly criticize their leaders is a new phenomenon in the Middle Eastern world. Al Jazeera continued airing Under Seige even after various governments threatened closure of its satellite offices. The network’s dedication to maintaining this show as “a platform for those without a platform” demonstrates a dedication to opening spaces for public debate. By airing programming that specifically targets government corruption and human rights abuses and giving a platform to opposition movements and other dissenting groups, Al Jazeera has forced governments to be more accountable for their actions. (Wojcieszak 2007)

According to Wojcieszak, the results of such programming have already motivated “many politicians to be attentive to public opinion that they did not consider previously and… facilitated the power of the public to shape government opinion instead of merely being shaped by it” (Wojcieszak 2007; 122, See Wojcieszak, Sakr, Miles, Zayani). Although the network’s editors and journalists value objectivity and thus are not consciously promoting any specific social movement agenda, the network’s role in spurring interest in politics, vitalizing political discussion, and the adoption of its format by competitors suggest that as Al Jazeera and its competitors continue to push boundaries and expand their reach into homes, they will inspire discourse that could perhaps lead to social action.

Failing to make the Theoretical Cut
Despite Al Jazeera’s accomplishments in promoting the creation of public discursive spaces, Al Jazeera cannot, under the current theoretical framework, be defined as an alternative medium. According to many alternative media academics, traditional alternative media is understood to offer “not simply a symbolic challenge (through its content) to mass communication, but a challenge to the political economy of mass communication itself through its alternative, democratic structures” (Atton 2007; 99). This alternative media definition fundamentally disallows private or state funding because such backing poses systemic and fundamental conflicts of interest. Moreover, alternative media by its very nature opposes professionalism, which intrinsically promotes exclusivity. According to most alternative media theory, mainstream media organizations are understood as “largely monolithic, centered on profit, hierarchical organizations which, by virtue of their professional routinization and codification, are implicitly exclusive” (Downing 1984). In contrast, alternative media content is primarily understood as being “produced and composed primarily by non-professionals” (Iskandar 2006).

Al Jazeera cannot meet the preceding criteria because of the network’s structure, funding, and journalistic values. The organization functions much the way other mainstream institutions operate in terms of how the network plans and puts together its news stories (Iskandar 2006). As the most popular news outlet in the Arab world with over 40 million viewers, the network has its pick of journalists and producers, most of who have been trained by leading world news agencies such as the BBC (Sakr 2005, 87). The competition for trained staff due to the explosion of satellite networks and rising expectations of production quality also contributes to the professionalization of the Al Jazeera corps.

Editors at Al Jazeera also have a tremendous degree of editorial latitude. According to Faisal al-Kasim, the presenter of the debate show The Opposite Direction, he has complete editorial control: “My show is the most controversial show on the network, but no one interferes.” (ibid.) But while editors and journalists can purposely court controversy by airing dissenting views, scholars, writers, and government officials are often the main commentators on Al Jazeera’s news shows, which implies that certain elite voices are necessarily privileged while others are not heard. (Kasim 2005)…...

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