Sami Haddas: al-Jazeera came at the right time to fill a vacuum

Taken from a speech by al-Jazeera's London correspondent at the One World media awards
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The Independent Online

As someone who had the privilege of being part of the team that launched al-Jazeera on 1 November 1996, let me share with you some facts about a dream that came true. It was indeed a dream for those of us, professional journalists - trained by the BBC at Bush House - and Arab intellectuals, to have the opportunity to deal with the facts beyond the headlines, to stimulate an open and free debate about the issues affecting the Arab world.

But this dream was also a challenge - not just to change from our training of reporting the world from the viewpoint of London but, even more challenging, reporting on an Arab world where freedom of expression is curtailed.

We came at the right time to fill a vacuum, to meet the real needs of the Arab viewers: facts not propaganda, different views not sanitised views, appeals to their intelligence, not insults to their intelligence.

And, as expected al-Jazeera was a "hit" with the viewers. They switched to al-Jazeera in their millions. Al-Jazeera became the talk of the town, not only because it was reporting the news objectively, but because we succeeded in generating an unprecedented free debate in the Arab and Muslim world, including the Arab community in the West.

When we had our first interview with an Israeli official, all hell broke loose. We were subjected to an economic boycott. Does it make a sound economic sense to boycott a TV station that has 50 million viewers in the Arab world, 8 million in Europe and the States - a television station that doubled its subscriptions in the first week of the war on Iraq from 2 million to 4 million in Europe? It seems that it does for some. Tuhama, the biggest Saudi Arabian advertising agency, cancelled its contract with al- Jazeera overnight.

But it was not only governments in the Middle East who were furious; some Western governments were annoyed by al-Jazeera's coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We were - and still are - attacked by both sides, which means that we are certainly doing something right.