Until recently, the Al-Jazeera satellite television network had been best known to global audiences as a worldwide provider of news programming in Arabic and English.
But this month, the Qatar-based company went regional, launching a station broadcasting in local languages in the Balkans, with headquarters based in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo. And its growth is set to continue, with similar channels planned for Turkey and East Africa.
Al-Jazeera Balkans (AJB), which debuted November 11, offers six hours of daily programming to all of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, promoting itself as the Balkans’ only “regional” broadcaster. (RFE/RL’s Balkans Service offers national and regional radio programming in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia, in addition to national coverage in Kosovo and Macedonia.)
In style and content, AJB offers the same sleek production values and in-depth investigative programs as its parent company, and taps frequently into the vast network of far-flung field reporters that have become Al-Jazeera’s calling card.
‘The People Will Come As Well’
The Balkans, a virtual minefield of linguistic nuance and historical tensions, might have seemed a surprising choice for a glossy, far-sighted network like Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the oil-rich state of Qatar and has an operating budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
But Goran Milic, a respected Balkan broadcaster who serves as AJB’s chief editor, argues the region’s gradual integration into Europe makes it a sound business investment for its minders in Doha.
“A process is coming that we can’t avoid. Gradually we’re entering the EU. Slovenia is already in, Croatia is at the door, and the others are following. There will be much more cooperation and information exchange, and businessmen and money and more investment,” Milic says.
“And when the money and investment come, then people will come as well. And that will create a demand for information.”
The launch of AJB has been met with cautious interest in the Balkans, where many ordinary residents see the media as a largely pliant extension of government politicians.
On one popular Bosnian Internet forum, sarajevo-x.com, readers have expressed admiration for the station’s technical proficiency but have questioned the editorial balance as light on regional developments and heavy on international, particularly Middle Eastern, news.
Early broadcasts, which featured lengthy coverage of stories like the Arab League debates on Syria and the hijacking of a ferry in Turkey, struck some viewers as overly focused on a region that falls outside their own countries’ traditional focus for international news.
And when the money and investment come, then people will come as well. And that will create a demand for information
One writer, “Kenijada,” praised AJB’s polish but quibbled with the station’s purported claim to deliver the Balkans’ “untold” stories: “The region is covered only with thematic pieces, and those come only after 15 minutes of bombings in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Tajikistan…as far as local news and information are concerned, you obviously won’t find them on AJ Balkan.”
But Dubravko Boban, a 40-year-old telecommunication engineer working in Sarajevo, expressed hope that Al-Jazeera would present a fresh alternative to local media, like the Muslim-Croat semi-public Federation TV and Bosnia’s state-run BHTV, which are seen as deeply subjective.
“[Al-Jazeera] is meeting expectations. I think they should be professional, as opposed to the existing media, especially Federation TV and BHTV. They should be professional and unbiased. I would like them to focus on educating the public. That’s what I expect them to do — to educate younger generations,” Boban said.
After a slightly shaky debut week, AJB now seems to be settling into its skin, assertively jostling for position in the local media scene and announcing ambitious investigative reports on hot-button issues like terrorism in the Balkans.
Boro Kontic, a former journalist who now heads the Mediacentar think-tank in Sarajevo, says Al-Jazeera may present a refreshing alternative for Balkan residents who are jaded by local news coverage and are eager to see their region through the eyes of a global news network.
“In the beginning it will probably be interesting for people to watch it, because they may be tired of local television stations — so-called public stations, but what are in essence politically controlled. So they may be interested to see whether there is a different perspective on the region [from Al-Jazeera]. But we have a saying: a wonder lasts but three days,” Kontic says.
Al-Jazeera has been an aggressive player on the global news stage since its Arabic-language launch in 1996. The network quickly earned a name for itself by creating a rare forum where a diversity of Middle Eastern views could be aired, and fared better than other Arab broadcasters in walking the line between editorial independence and Gulf State realpolitik.
The network’s fame grew as a result of the war on terror, when its bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad gave it easy access to images and stories that Western media were still scrambling to collect. In 2006, the network launched its English-language channel, which has proven hugely influential as an on-the-ground counterpoint to Western news coverage of Middle East issues like the Iran standoff over the disputed 2009 elections and Arab Spring uprisings this year.
No less a figure than U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised Al-Jazeera as offering less partisan, more objective coverage than many American news outlets. But the network is still fighting an uphill PR battle in the U.S., where many Americans see it as sympathetic to extremist causes.
Such concerns are now being echoed in the Balkans, where some observers worry the network is seeking to empower Bosnia’s Muslim community and, more generally, impose an Islam-centric editorial line at a time when the region’s postwar interethnic relations remain tenuous and fragile.
Although the editorial staff of AJB is almost exclusively local, the Al-Jazeera network employs synchronicity editors to ensure all of its stations follow a consistent news-gathering strategy. Such mechanisms have raised fears in some Balkan observers that Al-Jazeera may have set stakes in the region with the hopes of turning its focus away from Europe and closer to the Middle East. (Al-Jazeera did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for an interview.)
Iva Bundalo, a 35-year-old civil servant working in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb entity, says she has her doubts about Al-Jazeera’s true intent in the Balkans.
“As far as I know they’re coming from some Islamic country, so I don’t know if it’s good. We’ll see what direction they take. Are they coming to promote some Islamic agenda, or will they be like any other TV outlet?” Bundalo says.
On a map, Al-Jazeera’s potential expansion plans look vaguely like a concentric circle emanating from the center in Doha, with Islam as the common factor. In addition to the Balkans, Al-Jazeera has purchased a television station in Turkey and it also looking to launch a Swahili-language station in East Africa. India and Central Asia have also been mentioned as attractive targets for expansion.
Sean Powers, an associate professor of communications at Georgia State University in the United States, who has written extensively on Al-Jazeera, says the network openly seeks to tap into Muslim-majority countries and markets it believes are hungry for a news agenda that is better tailored to their interests.
In this way, he says, Al-Jazeera’s current expansion plans make good business sense. But at the same time, Powers acknowledges that in the long term, Al-Jazeera is eager to tug the geopolitical center of gravity away from Europe — and closer to the Arab World.
“I think the decision about the Balkans, Turkey, and East Africa actually has to do with potential market shares, the fact that they think they can generate some revenue in these markets down the road,” Powers says.
“And of course there is also the strategic importance of each of these markets in the broader agenda of political Islam, and of turning countries toward the Middle East as opposed to away from the Middle East.”
Nedim Dervisbegovic contributed to this report