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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Station Shakes Arab World

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Switch on the nightly television news in many parts of the Arab world and the top story is likely to be one ruler wishing another ruler good health.

In the Gulf, it's been like that for decades.

But tune to the al-Jazeera satellite channel, and you'll see a giant leap forward. Its bold innovation has been to provide news and analysis that makes Arab viewers sit up and watch.

Breaking almost every Arab media taboo, the five-year-old service has won viewers by airing outspoken political talk shows featuring dissidents who have been banned in their home countries.

The channel, based in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar and often referred to as the CNN of the Arab world, has also angered many governments long used to a tame media.

With journalists in 27 cities and a big office in London, the channel has been the target of at least one lawsuit and has had its offices in at least one Arab country temporarily closed.

"The key reason for Jazeera's success is Arabs' addiction to politics and the fact they are starved of real debates on issues that they cannot discuss freely due to political, religious and social restrictions," said a veteran Arab diplomat.

"Even those opposed to all it stands for watch and take part in its debates," he said.

But Jazeera's success is not due to controversy alone.

Its 24-hour coverage regularly breaks news stories of international or Arab importance.

Its competitive coverage of the Palestinian uprising against Israel, Iraq's repeated confrontations with the United States over UN sanctions and the conflict in former Yugoslavia have put it in a class of its own among Arab media.

In Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999 it broadcast exclusive interviews with Saudi-born Islamic dissident Osama bin Laden, named by Washington as the top suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed thousands.

Last Wednesday the channel was first to broadcast footage of the burning of the disused U.S. embassy building in Kabul by Afghans angry at planned American reprisals for their Taliban rulers' refusal to surrender bin Laden to U.S. authorities.

Jazeera grabbed international attention again Saturday with a report that Afghan security forces had captured five members of the U.S. special forces.

The Taliban was quick to deny that any Americans had been seized in areas under its control, but the satellite channel stood by its report. A senior U.S. administration official said, "I believe it is inaccurate."

Some viewers think its presenters are a tad self-important.

"What bothers me most is the way Jazeera presenters frown all the time to impress viewers with their seriousness," said Norma, a 19-year-old resident of the United Arab Emirates.

"One of them was always smiling when he worked for another TV station, but now he looks like his mum grounded him."

Some journalists in the region accuse it of bias against Kuwait and in favor of Iraq and of sympathy toward Afghanistan in its confrontation with the United States. They also say the channel goes easy on Saudi Arabia and Qatar itself.

Officials at state-sponsored Jazeera deny those charges.

"We are objective, neutral and far from any censorship," said General Manager Mohammad Jassem al-Ali. "This talk [about bias] doesn't worry us as long as we work objectively."

Its showpiece talk show, "The Opposite Direction," at times turns into a shouting match. The program is an attractive subject for Arab satirists, and at least two television commercials have been based on the theme of the program.

"Their neutrality is improving, but they have some programs one cannot stand; mere screaming," said Kuwaiti academic Khaldoun al-Naqeeb.

"Why don't they present the news and let the viewer draw his own conclusions?"

The channel went on air in November 1996 with a $137 million budget from Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani -- a move seen as part of a promise to introduce press freedom.

At that time Jazeera drew 70 percent of its staff from the Arabic-language service of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Now former BBC journalists make up only 30 percent of its staff. Journalists say this has made the station's character more attractive to Arabs as the reduction in British-trained staff may have softened rules on how stories are presented.