The TV station Al-Jazeera, which is respected for its professional and independent approach and is dubbed "the Arab world’s CNN," has a regional audience of about 35 million for its satellite-fed quality programmes that contrast sharply with the official propaganda put out by repressive Arab regimes.
The station is known in the West for its exclusive coverage of the US offensive in Afghanistan and its broadcast of taped statements by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It has had an office in Kabul since 1998 and was one of the few media in Kabul before the Taliban regime fell.
In October 2001, US secretary of state Colin Powell asked Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, the station’s main shareholder, to get the station to alter its allegedly biased coverage of events. A month later, US forces bombed the Al-Jazeera offices in Kabul, claiming the building in which they were located was a hideout for Al-Qaeda militants. Despite promises, US authorities did not investigate the incident.
The station said on 16 September 2002 that one of its journalists, who had not been heard of since the previous December, was a prisoner at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. The journalist, Sudanese assistant cameraman Sami al-Haj, was arrested on 15 December on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Despite official requests by the station and by his family since April 2002, the US authorities refused to say why he is being held.
Al-Jazeera’s programmes, which allow ordinary people to give their views and deal with politically and socially taboo subjects, irritated Arab leaders more and more, especially the Saudis. On 25 June, during its popular programme Al-Itijah al-Muakis (Opposite Direction), speakers attacked the Middle East peace plan of Saudi Arabia’s de factor ruler, Prince Abdullah. On 13 July, in a programme called "Without Borders," Saudi Arabia was accused of "betraying the Palestinian cause."
The Saudi foreign minister said the station was a serious and intractable problem and the Saudi ambassador in Qatar was recalled. In early October, five of the six information ministers at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Muscat accused the station of "insulting and defaming" their countries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman called for a commercial, advertising and news boycott of the station by governments and the private sector.
However, the station continued to expand and in November, its director-general, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, said an English-language version of Al-Jazeera would open in November 2003 to compete with the major international networks. Before then, in January 2003, the station was to open an English-language Internet website (www.aljazeera.net).
Firas Majali, a Jordanian journalist working for Al-Jazeera, was sentenced to death by the Qatar supreme court on 22 October 2002 for allegedly spying for an unnamed foreign country, understood by Al-Jazeera to be Jordan. He has been arrested in the Qatari capital, Doha, in February and his trial began in May, amid a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. His lawyer filed an appeal against the death sentence.
On 6 August, Al-Jazeera broadcast a very critical programme about Jordan, whose government closes the station’s offices in Amman the next day and recalled its ambassador in Qatar. In September, Jordanian newspapers harshly attacked Qatar and Majali’s family organised demonstrations in Amman to support him.