A sign of democracy's failure to take root in the Arab world is the way authoritarian regimes muzzle the local media. So when the al-Jazeera satellite channel began its broadcasts in 1996 from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, more than a digital revolution was born. For the first time, Arabs were able to watch news programs and talk shows in their own language and assembled by independent journalists rather than by government propagandists.
Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 53, the Emir of Qatar, has shouldered the political burden and financial cost of sponsoring al-Jazeera. With an estimated 35 million viewers, the network is being imitated across the region. Al-Jazeera has angered Arab governments by giving airtime to rebel movements and freedom advocates and tackling taboo topics like polygamy and apostasy. And Arab opinion has been immeasurably influenced by al-Jazeera's coverage of the Palestinian intifadeh and the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But nothing has made al-Jazeera so famous as the journalistic hospitality it has extended to Osama bin Laden through the al-Qaeda leader's interviews and doomsday warnings. The company's executives say that bin Laden's words are genuine scoops and, defending their professionalism, cite the network's battle scarsits offices in Kabul and Baghdad came under fire from U.S. forces. Skeptics sneer that the Emir has used al-Jazeera to put his tiny country on the map. He insists that the channel reflects a wind of change blowing through the Middle East. Arab regimes are certainly feeling more than a breeze.
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