The Future of Al Jazeera

By Wadah Khanfar, managing director of Al Jazeera.

Over the past seven years Al Jazeera has introduced a new culture and a new paradigm into the Arab world. A culture and a paradigm that rest upon the free exercise of journalism and public affairs broadcasting. During the early days of Al Jazeera it was something exciting to have Arab opposition leaders appearing on our screens. It was the first time that the Arab audience would listen to people ready to criticize Arab governments in public.

Al Jazeera broke all the taboos of Arab political life. However after seven years we need to undertake a deep evaluation of our programs, our news bulletins, our style of reporting, our talk shows and to again take a leading role in Arab media. Why? Because a significant number of pan-Arab satellite channels have followed in the steps of Al Jazeera and have introduced a similar style of news reporting and of talk show and in order not to fall into the trap of stagnancy and imitation (even if we are imitating ourselves) we need to press forward with a new vision, a more dynamic attitude, and a more open style.

We need to learn from international media the international standards of broadcasting especially in areas of technology, graphic design, and even the style of news reporting.

We have already defined a limited number of policies for the next phase. The first policy is "professionalism," not just as a slogan but as a commitment that will be implemented. And this is why we have started the Al Jazeera Center for Training and Development to provide our journalists with the best methodologies and techniques of media work.

The second policy is to establish methods of planning; of taking the pulse of our audience-of the greater public-scientifically. So far most Arab media are indifferent to this so we must develop these methods-of research and planning, of strategic thinking, a school of thought in the Arab World based on a rational understanding of what media is all about and how to develop media along such lines yet keep it rooted in the Arab World

The third policy concentrates on the image. We have a lot of talk shows. Some are very long, and some are strictly into "talking heads." They do not employ visuals and we are primarily a visual medium. So we will focus more on documentaries, investigative reporting, and news magazines.

Last but not least, we want to re-introduce the primary importance of field reporting, which is, in the end, the meat and potatoes so to speak of TV journalism, and without which no channel that calls itself a news channel can justify itself, no matter how popular its talk shows. An informed opinion be it public opinion or the opinion of opinion-makers (either category of which are viewers) depends upon accurate information which is most credible when it comes from the field. The studio in TV journalism is the supporting mechanism not the substance or even vehicle of substance of journalism. The journalistic vehicle of substance is field reporting

We are already on our way in applying this most important principle. Al Mashhad al Iraqi ("The Iraqi Scene") was a talk show anchored by a man who had never left the studio for seven years, but he had a solid journalistic background. Now he is out in the streets of Baghdad, riding in taxis, walking the streets, and wherever he is he is talking with the people. The former anchor and now the producer-reporter for this show is Abdul Kader Iyyad.

Three other shows based on field reporting and a documentary approach have been launched over the past month. We are also launching new bureaus overseas and in the Arab world. For example in the past few weeks we opened a bureau in Casablanca, where we had a correspondent but not a full bureau, and we will be opening a full bureau in Ankara as well as strengthening our bureaus in Egypt, in Tripoli, Libya, and in Beirut. We have opened a bureau in Tokyo and we will be developing our coverage in Central Asia. I was in Tokyo early in April. We have also just started up a bureau in Beijing and we have placed a correspondent in Hong Kong.

We are expanding globally because for us the competition is not Al Arabiya. They may have been set up to compete with us, but for us the competition (and I say this in the collegial spirit of friendship and cooperation) is BBC World service and CNN International because we see ourselves as a global broadcaster on the merits of our coverage and the fullness of our vision

We also have major expansion projects. We are expanding as a network rather than as a specific news channel and we differentiate between our news channel and our other channels. Our news channel is Al Jazeera Satellite Channel. We already launched the Sports Channel on November l, 2003, and we are planning to launch a documentary channel, perhaps by the end of this year. Further down the road there are plans for a Children's Channel and an English-language all news channel.

Once we have a network in which several of the channels-such as Children, Sports, and Documentaries-are not necessarily controversial, we should be able to offer alternatives to the advertising community which until now has largely looked the other way for political reasons, despite our overwhelming superiority in demographics. At the same time, we are thinking of this programming as income generating. We will produce as well as screen documentaries. We will produce as well as transmit children's programming and of course an English-language news channel with its own unique niche in the English-speaking world, in fact in most of the world, since the international language of our day is English. We expect we will be recognized as such by advertising agencies, because this niche is beyond regional politics and their unfortunate effects.

We have a lot on our plate and the future is bright. TBS

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu