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20 years on: How Al Jazeera has impacted journalism

Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) turned 20 on 1 November. Over the years the network has grown from one channel to a multi media platform. AJMN now broadcasts in three different languages; Arabic, English and Balkan. Its online platforms have expanded in other languages as well including Turkish, Mandarin and Spanish.

AlJazeera.Net the network's Arabic website has maintained the top spot as the most visited Arabic news website in the world. AJ+ a new online platform has transformed how news stories are told. In 2015, AJ+ won the Webby Award for Online Film and Video.

The network has also established innovative supportive platforms for journalism. Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, a directorate of AJMN, is a fully flagged think tank which provides academic and research support to the network and the region. It has become an important platform and continues to influence regional political policies.

The Think Tanks and Civil Society Programme (TTCSP), a think tank ranking agency based in the University of Pennsylvania in the United States (US), in its Global go to Think Tank Index (GGTTTI) for 2015 ranked Al Jazeera Centre for Studies as the fifth most influential think tank in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Other supporting structures of the network such as Al Jazeera Centre for Training and Development and Al Jazeera Public liberties and Human Rights Centre are also making remarkable strides respectively.

AJMN has impacted mainly on two very important matters over the past 20 years. It has created a space for brave journalism in the MENA region and has provided news alternatives for the people who were constantly fed propaganda by the state owned media institutions.

Al Jazeera provided an environment where journalists could live, work and also get paid well by providing great journalism for the network. Subsequently the network has attracted some of the best journalists in the business. Al Jazeera has changed the narrative in the region, its motto the "voice of the voiceless" is the pledge of the network to the downtrodden and those that are not often heard. The network has opened the space for journalists to thrive in the region were freedom of speech and media freedoms where in short supply. Al Jazeera put most countries in the spotlight by covering stories that most national media organisations avoided. The bravery in its journalism gave rise to a number of similar news media organisations in the region, all seeking to emulate Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera has also helped in the proliferation of homegrown journalism, with journalists from the region telling the region's stories. These journalists understand the culture and the language and provide a different perspective to the stories. This has led to healthy debates in many newsrooms around the world. Stereotypes and subliminal messaging about the region and the people of the region are now constantly challenged and countered; this was not the case before the advent of Al Jazeera.

Before Al Jazeera there was a lot that was left unchallenged including the continued referencing of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds in one sentence as if Kurds are a sect or another Islamic school of thought for that matter. The majority of Kurds are actually Sunni Muslims, it is therefore essential to distinguish and explain to the audiences when such comparisons are made.

Al Jazeera's newsrooms have over the years introduced interesting editorial discussions which have permeated to other media institution in the region.  Recently, a debate began about whether to refer to the masses of people making the perilous journey to Europe as refugees or migrants. It was eventually decided that the term to be used to refer to these people is "refugees".  Most international news channels still insist on calling them "immigrants".

Al Jazeera continues to professionalise the media fraternity in the region and indeed the world by introducing the latest technology in the business. The network is also an important part of the ongoing discussions about the betterment of journalism in the world and the protection of journalists.

However it has not been smooth sailing for the network, there have been challenges. Dozens of journalists from the network have been jailed, tortured and killed. Sami Al-Hajj, a journalist from Al Jazeera Arabic, was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay from 2001 and released in 2008 without charge. Several other journalists from the network have also been incarcerated in countries like Somalia, Libya and Egypt.

There are a number of Al Jazeera journalists who were handed lengthy jail terms including death sentences in absentia in Egypt. Several Al Jazeera offices were burned and bombed over the past 20 years. Many governments, particularly in the Middle East, ordered the closure of Al Jazeera's offices.

In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar. Qatar was charged by these countries for non-compliance with a November 2013 agreement not to "interfere" in countries' internal affairs. At the centre of these claims were positions Al Jazeera took in covering news stories from these countries.

The plummeting oil prices have also seen certain operations terminated and a number of staff made redundant by the network.  It has been an interesting journey for the media network that continues to change the political landscape in the region.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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