By Joe Trippi
updated 3/30/2005 12:30:50 AM ET 2005-03-30T05:30:50

Qatar is a relatively safe corner in a dangerous neighborhood. On the Gulf with Iraq and Iran, and bordered by Saudi Arabia, this small nation (with fewer than a million people) would seem an unlikely place to emerge as a leader for reform in the region.

Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani became Emir of Qatar in the mid-1990s, he has pioneered real political and economic reforms that impact the entire Gulf region, the Middle East, and Mideast media.

One of Sheikh Hamad’s first acts as Emir was to abolish the Ministry of Information. According to Stephen Day, the former British Ambassador to Qatar, Sheikh Hamad remarked “The only function of such ministries in the Middle East is to censor and control news.”

Sheikh Hamad introduced a new constitution which guarantees freedom of the press and insures that two-thirds of Qatar’s Assembly will be elected by popular ballot. One-third of the Assembly will still be appointed by the Emir who is walking a delicate line between upholding traditions, while modernizing towards a more open economy, an open press, and the democratization of Qatar’s institutions. His leadership paved the way for women to gain the right to vote in Qatar, and many women have since run for office.

Al-Jazeera and a free press, for better or worse
But the landmark event came in late 1996 when the Qatari government under Sheikh Hamad changed everything with the launch of a broadcast news network independent from state control.  Al-Jazeera, the now well known Arabic language news service, was launched in Qatar with a $130 million grant from the government of Qatar, and the Emir’s assurance of editorial independence.

“Until then, practically every Arab TV station would present viewers with entertainment and news dictated verbatim by government officials,” the Oxford Business Group reported.

Arab regimes were suddenly incensed at losing control of their message. Al-Jazeera beamed its way via satellite to more and more people.  More than one Qatari Ambassador had to explain the new notion of independent media when one Arab government after another complained angrily that Al-Jazeera’s reporting was against their regime’s interests.

Then Al-Jazeera aired Osama bin Laden’s taped messages after 9/11 drawing the ire of the Bush administration. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars drew even more criticism from the U.S. government— with some officials calling on Qatar to shut Al-Jazeera down.

The Qatar government under Sheikh Hamad responded with “How can an American administration priding itself on free speech even make such a request?”

Rick Kaplan, the President of MSNBC, has always told me that when both sides of a debate are angry about your coverage, you know you are doing something right. By that measure, Al-Jazeera is doing an excellent job much to the chagrin of more than a few governments.

What's next for media in the Mideast?
As I write this, I sit in my hotel room in Qatar.  I was invited to lead a discussion of “The Role of Media in the Creation of a Democratic Climate” at the 5th Doha Forum on Democracy and Free Trade. The forum will tackle ideas on democracy, an open media, and trade.

What is astonishing is to be watching the coverage of Martyrs Square in Beirut, where a movement led by young people is working to get Syria to leave Lebanon.  These images of people taking on a tyrannical government and demanding democratic reform are being beamed across the Middle East in Arabic— thanks in no small part to Al-Jazeera (while the state controlled media doesn’t seem to be reporting much, if anything, about it at all).

Al-Jazeera is getting information to the bottom, and the top-down state controlled media can’t compete when people have a choice.

So right now, I am day dreaming about how I can get a Webcam to one of the students in Martyrs Square so they can report on their struggle to the world via the Web.

How great would it be, if we could have a Website set up where people from around the world could lend their voices and resources to help them win democracy. That’s the next step, and that is what I am going to talk about at the Doha Conference on Democracy. 

It's about empowering people. And sometimes the tools that empower people come from unlikely places, like Qatar.

Joe Trippi is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is the author of the recent book “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised— Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything.”

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