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Al-Jazeera's (R)Evolution?

[Screenshot of Al-Jazeera host Faisal Al-Kassem reporting on Syria.] [Screenshot of Al-Jazeera host Faisal Al-Kassem reporting on Syria.]

In March of 2011, an unusually forthright editorial by an anonymous writer made its way into The Peninsula Qatar, an English language daily bankrolled by a member of the emirate’s ruling family. At the time of publication, protesters had already toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, uprisings were in full swing in Libya and Yemen, and in the Persian Gulf, Bahrainis were gearing up for what would prove to be a bloody battle, only days after the op-ed ran.

“Businesses and institutions are treated as ‘holy cows,’” the author wrote in the editorial, entitled “Why are we so timid?”

“What essentially ails the Qatari media (English and Arabic-language newspapers) is the absence of a comprehensive law that specifies its role in a clear-cut way and seeks to protect it against the people and interests opposed to free expression or those who cannot appreciate criticism,” the op-ed read.

It was at about the same time that this editorial ran that Al-Jazeera Arabic, the renowned television network that essentially put Qatar on the map, started facing a dilemma. The network has found it increasingly difficult to distance itself from the growing political ambitions of its patron, Qatar, particularly as it is kept alive by the one hundred million dollars it receives annually from the Qatari government. Moreover, the wave of information now available to the masses via the Internet and satellite television has exposed the gaps in its reporting of issues that do not fall in line with the government’s agenda, while also highlighting its biases in the various uprisings.

Reporting Revolution

Throughout modern history, revolutions have been a defining time for journalism in many countries around the world, with both governments and citizens using print and broadcast organizations as a bullhorn for their message—thus threatening the very concept of objectivity that “news,” in its purest form, is meant to represent.

Egypt’s 1952 coup d’état against British colonialism, for example, came at the expense of a once vibrant and diverse media. President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned all political parties and imposed strict government control over the country’s media organizations, attempting to create a unified voice for his political movement. Political parties were phased back into the system during the presidency of Anwar Sadat; however, strict restrictions continued to be imposed on journalists who criticized the government. Similar scenarios existed in the most tolerant Arab nations, including Lebanon, Kuwait, and Yemen, and a culture of media censorship and self-censorship was fomented across the region.

In recent years, the emergence of the region’s first “independent” media came to signify a new era in post-colonial times as younger generations were, for the first time, exposed to viewpoints different from those fed to them by state media. Al-Jazeera, when it launched in 1996, was the regional pioneer of this new generation of media where topics, once exclusive to hushed coffee shop banter, were now being exposed openly on television for the Arabic-speaking world to see and hear. The network went so far as to broadcast interviews with Israeli officials, which shocked even its own constituents at the time.

The network provided an alternative to international Western channels like the BBC and CNN, particularly in the period between 2001 and 2004, when Western media was on the offensive after the 11 September terrorist attacks, and anti-American sentiments were high across the Arab world following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. It immediately distinguished itself by showing many of the gritty images of corpses and other bloody scenes that Western networks avoid so as not to offend or lose viewers. Early on, it was evident that Al-Jazeera would take a different tone in reports linked to the Qatari government. The network even came under intense scrutiny for airing reports deemed excessively critical of the Saudi Arabian regime, one of many events that created friction between the two governments. That relationship took several years to mend, and the launch of Saudi-funded Al Arabiya gave the Saudis a powerful playing card in the regional satellite television war. Nonetheless, many audiences were captivated with its novelty to the extent that they were either willing to overlook its faults, or they simply knew no different, given the record of previous trendsetters. Al-Jazeera set the tone for future competitors such as Al Arabiya and US-based Al Hurra. While most of these networks are funded entirely by their patron governments, the increase in competition has cultivated the present day media culture.

The model was such a success that the network decided in 2006 to launch an English language subsidiary. Al-Jazeera English---first called Al-Jazeera International, but later renamed---emerged under challenging circumstances. Westerners had been associating it as the network that gave Osama bin Laden a voice, after it was the sole network to gain access to the late Al-Qaeda leader after the 11 September attacks. To combat negative stereotypes, the English-language Al-Jazeera wooed some of the biggest names in Western journalism, including a number of BBC employees and other broadcast icons such as Riz Khan and Sir David Frost. While Al-Jazeera Arabic has the advantage of institutional recognition among its viewers, its English counterpart took several years to gain significant notoriety, particularly as it targeted an audience unique to that of the Arabic channel. Its award-winning coverage of the Arab revolutions last year earned it a new level of legitimacy among Western audiences, making the English language network a true international authority and household name.

“Real News”

“You may not agree with [Al-Jazeera], but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.” – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 2 March 2011.

The Arab World came to a standstill in the 18 days leading up to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as audiences watched play-by-play developments televised from Tahrir Square and across the nation. Amid the uprising in late January 2011, a mini-revolution ensued among media organizations, Arab and foreign, who took to the streets in a race to tell the story in as fast, and often dramatic, way as possible. Journalists hung from street lights, trespassed onto building rooftops, flung themselves into angry mobs, got in between violent rock fights, and got underneath racing camels to entice readers and lure viewers.

With an Internet and mobile phone blackout veiling the country in the earliest days of the Egyptian uprising, news organizations---many of them younger than the Internet---were put to the editorial test, attempting to scrutinize a flood of conflicting reports while navigating blindly through the mayhem. Just as the attacks of 11 September 2001 kicked off a new era of round-the-clock coverage for US-based media organizations, the Arab Spring was a game changer for many Arab news outlets.

Al-Jazeera was no exception. It was among the first few networks to successfully broadcast spotty images from Cairo after the Mubarak regime cut Internet and phone signals on 27 January 2011, in a failed attempt to stifle the Tunisian-style protests from spreading. It was a big victory for the network, since many Western organizations, scrambling to get reporters into Egypt and struggling to communicate with those on the ground, were forced to rely on Al-Jazeera’s Arabic and English networks for information, citing it repeatedly in copy and on the air.

Not all Revolutions are Created Equal

But in the weeks that followed, Al-Jazeera’s image as a news leader for Arab Spring coverage grew tainted as its tone toward uprisings in other countries showed signs of inconsistency. Uprisings in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern provinces, for example, were downplayed, while protests in Iran received notable attention by the broadcaster amid growing tensions between Iran and the Sunni sheikhdoms of the Gulf. Most significant was its coverage of Bahrain in March last year, when protests in the tiny Gulf kingdom prompted intervention of the so-called Peninsular Shield, the military wing of the six member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Qatar is a member. It is worth noting that protests in Bahrain, which continue today, were underreported by most networks, Arab and foreign, which dedicated most of their resources to coverage of Egypt and Libya. Also, Al-Jazeera English has since produced May Ying Maya Welsh’s documentary, “Shouting in the Dark,” candidly examining the situation in Bahrain. The film, which earned numerous awards, including the UK Foreign Press Association's Documentary of the Year Award, the George Polk Award in Journalism, and the 2012 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for international television, aired only once on Al-Jazeera English, and never on Al-Jazeera Arabic. The film’s nomination for the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award thrust the network into the spotlight globally, after an online poll by Radio Times sparked a battle with “hate tweets” being directed at Al-Jazeera.

Since the late Libyan President Muammar Qadaffi maintained chilly relations with several leaders in the Arab world, particularly the Saudi king, many Arab heads of state were quick to denounce his heavy-handed response to protests and sought to cooperate with international efforts to help overthrown him. Qatar’s response to the escalating crisis in Libya began to reflect in Al-Jazeera’s coverage, particularly after the government committed warplanes in March 2011 to help NATO-led forces enforce a United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians.

Within weeks of Qatar’s involvement, the network began using the horizontal tri-color flag on the Libyan revolution chyron, instead of the solid green flag of the Qadaffi regime. The extent of Qatar’s role in Libyan transitional affairs, well before the fall and death of Qadaffi, drew particular concern given the backgrounds of key opposition figures which reportedly ranged from individuals who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s to those who served jail sentences under Col. Qadaffi. The governments of Qatar and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates, became so engrossed in Libyan transitional affairs that they invited opposition members to use their countries as operational hubs.

Just a few weeks after the Libyan uprising kicked off, the Qatari government took yet another bold move in its opposition of Col. Qadaffi. The emirate invited opposition rebels to launch a television news station in Doha. The network, called “Libya TV,” was funded entirely by the Qatari government, and recruited its staff via Facebook. The Guardian reported in March 2011 that Qatari police prevented journalists from approaching the Doha studio to speak to staffers as it was being built. While it was essential to give a voice to opposition groups whose voices were muted inside Libya, Qatar’s entrepreneurial venture with Libyan opposition figures further cast a cloud of bias, by association, over Al-Jazeera.

A similar stance was taken by the network amid the Syrian uprising to overthrow President Bashar Al Asaad, who has maintained an alliance with Iran, to the chagrin of many Arab governments. Qatar has recently teamed up with other Arab Gulf regimes to offer assistance to Syrian opposition fighters in the way of a salary and weapons. A number of Al-Jazeera employees in the Beirut bureau, including correspondent Ali Hashem, who covered both the Syrian and Libyan uprisings, resigned in March, citing the network’s bias. In an interview, Hashem cited a shift in policy toward coverage of the events in Syria, and said it had become increasingly difficult to maintain this bias and neglect other important angles of the story. English-language daily Al-Akhbar released leaked emails, allegedly hacked and released by the Syrian Electronic Army, in which Hashem and another colleague, anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim, discuss “widespread disaffection within the channel” over its coverage of Syria.

A second leaked memo written by Ibrahim Helal, director of news at Al-Jazeera Arabic, dated 15 March 2012 with the title “Our Coverage of Syrian Affairs,” further highlighted the shift in his stance compared to memos he had sent staffers when he assumed the role in November 2011. Al-Akhbar reported in March 2012 that the memo “bars criticism of foreign intervention and the Free Syrian Army and encourages giving members of the opposition more airtime, especially from minorities.”

Transformation and Traffic

Many of the satellite networks in the region are dedicating almost all of their airtime to coverage of the Syrian uprising today. Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya refer to the struggle as a “thowrah” (revolution) in banners and chyrons. The Syrian opposition has also opened communications offices based in Idlib and Homs, and the networks often rely on spokesmen as citizen correspondents to relay news via Skype and other multi-media tools.

In a January 2012 editorial in the Riyadh-based Arab News entitled “Al-Jazeera Coverage and the Arab Spring,” Ramy Baroud wrote:

Al-Jazeera has begun to change course. It has deviated from its journalistic responsibilities in Libya, and is now completely losing the plot with Syria […] Yes, perhaps the Syrian regime should be changed, and perhaps an armed rebellion in Syria will eventually overtake the nonviolent uprising. But the outcome is not for me, Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, or any other journalist or publication to decide.

This was echoed in an interview with Jihad Ballout, the former manager of media relations at Al-Jazeera on Iranian-sponsored Press TV. In it, Ballout notes that Al-Jazeera can no longer “roll back the style of its coverage without losing further credibility and this is the conundrum that Al-Jazeera is really trying to tackle. This is the problem. They have already lost certain measure of credibility by its coverage of the Syrian event and the coverage, or lack of it, of the Bahrainis, what is happening in Bahrain.”

The United Arab Emirates government has similarly begun using media as a force against Al Assad, after it had Orient TV, a privately owned channel, raided and shut down by Syrian government forces in 2010, relocated to Dubai. Ghassan Abboud, the Syrian businessman who founded Orient TV said, in an April 2011 interview, “I am the son of fear raised in the soil of fear, and have never felt free until Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire.”

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera realized early on that events in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, would require significant attention, lest it risk losing viewership. In February 2011, following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the network decided to launch a channel focused exclusively to coverage of Egypt. Mubasher Misr dedicated its airtime to local news, closely monitoring the rollercoaster events taking place through Egypt’s transitional period. In September last year, its coverage and criticism of Egypt’s military council prompted Egypt’s transitional rulers to revoke Mubasher Misr’s license and raid its Cairo office twice, forcing it to transmit from Qatar.

Trouble continued for the Qatari network when, in September, the non-profit whistleblower WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables referring to Al-Jazeera as “one of Qatar's most valuable political and diplomatic tools.” The correspondences from the US Embassy in Doha also included conversations during which Wadah Khanfar, Al-Jazeera's director general, agreed to tone down and remove what the United States terms "disturbing Al-Jazeera website content." Other revelations include an offer by Qatar to stop Al-Jazeera broadcasts in Egypt in return for the country’s cooperation in reaching a “settlement for the Palestinians.” It also cites improving relations with Saudi Arabia after “Qatar toned down criticism of the Saudi royal family on Al-Jazeera.”

Khanfar resigned the same month the WikiLeaks cables were released, although he has denied that the decision was linked to the revelations of the WikiLeaks cables. He was immediately replaced by Sheikh Ahmad bin Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, a member of the Qatari ruling family.

Hugh Miles, author of the book Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World, said in an interview that the WikiLeaks cables, while embarrassing for the network, probably caused no real damage to its overall image. “It was very embarrassing and made Khanfar look bad, but the fact is most Al-Jazeera viewers really don’t know about WikiLeaks and they judge it purely based on what they see on their TV screen,” he said.

“It’s really been made clear that Al-Jazeera Arabic, in its coverage of the Gulf, operates by a different set of rules than with coverage of, say, North Africa,” added Miles, “every channel has limits.”

The challenge for scholars wishing to assess media trends in the Arab world is the lack of any credible data, by way of ratings or opinion polls. In an effort to extract some evidence of viewer sentiments toward the “franchise” of Al-Jazeera, we used Alexa.com, an Internet traffic tracker, to evaluate user trends on Aljazeera.net and Aljazeera.com, the Arabic and English portals, respectfully, for the Al-Jazeera network. First, in examining the ranking for Aljazeera.net, the Arabic language portal for the period of May 2010 to May 2012, the website experienced a significant spike in traffic in early January and February 2011, at the time when Tunisians had overthrown their president and protests across Egypt were gaining steam. Around mid-February, viewership began to drop and continued to do so (with the exception of several modest jumps) until the time of publication. Similarly, Aljazeera.net pages received 0.039 percent of the world’s page views in February 2011. That number is a significant drop from March 2011. As of the week of 13 May 2012, this measure had tumbled by about 94 percent from its peak during the Egyptian revolution. Alternatively, Aljazeera.com, which launched in January 2011 at the height of the protests in Egypt, to become the main portal for Al-Jazeera's English content, continues to gain viewers and was almost on par with the Arabic language website in mid-May 2012.

While the results of this experiment are indeed unscientific, the trend of the aforementioned results clearly indicates that while the English language website continues to gain traction through online participation, readers are increasingly pulling away from the Arabic site since the days of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011. There are many explanations that can be cited as to why the online traffic may not be an indication of network viewership trends. However, with growing discontent over the networks apparent bias in covering the Arab Spring, the results of the Alexa.com search are not only interesting, they are worth noting, and warrant further examination in light of the dearth in adequate data.

Undeniably, Al-Jazeera has come far from the days of its launch. Once a network criticized for cavorting with terrorists and unfairly challenging regional and Western governments, it has risen up to one hailed by Arabs and non-Arabs alike for raising the bar of regional and global journalism. However, the network is now at a crossroad—one that may judge its fate for years to come. Once a thorn in the sides of the United States and Saudi Arabia, Al-Jazeera has successfully fought and won a battle of hearts and minds. But much has been lost along the way. The question is now: will Al-Jazeera continue to be the Arab TV network that changes the world, or have recent events reduced it to a status quo mainstream media enterprise?

The fact is, only the viewers can decide.

Regardless, Al-Jazeera continues to be a household name, even if it is a name, on occasion, used in vain. Now the parent of a franchise including channels focused entirely on sports, children’s programming, and documentaries, the Al-Jazeera brand has extended its reputation to include more than just news. Its English-language channel, while targeting very different viewers, achieves that same goal in solidifying the Qatari network as a global news provider. It remains to be seen whether Al-Jazeera Arabic's editorial decisions in 2011-2012 will bear fruit with a growingly scrupulous public. Competition is intensifying by the day, much of it, driven by the demise of dictators who had previously presided over the media with an iron fist, and the emergence of a new, empowered media. Al-Jazeera is further diluting viewership with the launch of several new television channels, particularly Mubasher Misr. As viewers become increasingly leery over the constant coverage of one news story--these days, Syria--they may seek alternatives. Al-Jazeera must then decide what is more important: politics or viewers. 

1 comment for "Al-Jazeera's (R)Evolution?"

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Politics. That's the purpose Al Jazeera serves. It's a CNN+ for Arab people, aimed at directing their attention where Qatar and its allies have a cause. If the Arab world moves towards a peaceful future, I wouldn't be surprised if AJ becomes on par with CNN or FOX News and start covering stories about actors and cats stuck in trees. Great article, though I'd like to point out the big difference between Arabic and English Al-Jazeera. The first is propaganda aimed at regional viewers. The second actually does impressive journalism. That is why Bahrain was never actually covered on Al Jazeera Arabic. Nonetheless, Al Jazeera Arabic, English, Swahili remains more professional and comprehensive in its coverage than local channels in the Arab world, CNN, FOX, etc.

Dan wrote on May 21, 2012 at 09:36 PM

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