The incident comes at a sensitive time for the satellite network, which is preparing to launch an ambitious news channel for American viewers. The channel, al-Jazeera America, will debut next month in about 50 million cable homes. It will replace Current TV, the low-rated channel that al-Jazeera purchased in January from former vice president Al Gore and other investors for a reported $500 million. Soledad O’Brien, the former CNN host and reporter, is among several high-profile American journalists hired by the channel.
Al-Jazeera’s rude reception in Cairo probably reflects a perception that has been building since even before Morsi and his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, won and lost power in Egypt over the past year: that al-Jazeera and its owner, the royal family of the oil-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar, have been supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood. With Egypt now deeply divided, those alleged loyalties have cast al-Jazeera into disfavor among Egypt’s anti-Morsi faction.
An al-Jazeera spokesman, in an e-mail, called the expulsion of its journalists “intimidation” and denied any favoritism in its coverage. “We’ve always given all sides of opinion airtime on al-Jazeera. It’s our mantra,” said the spokesman, Osama Saeed. “As we saw at today’s astonishing press conference, though, large sections of the Egyptian media object to this open-minded ethos.”
Once hailed as a democratizing force in a region dominated by government-owned or -controlled news media, al-Jazeera’s independence from the politics of its Qatari owners has been challenged in recent years.
Many Western commentators noted al-Jazeera’s limited coverage of the uprising against Bahrain’s ruling family and its brutal suppression in 2011, contrasting it with its robust coverage of other popular revolts during the so-called Arab Spring. Qatar and Bahrain are close allies.
What’s more, “Al-Jazeera’s breathless boosting of Qatari-backed rebel fighters in Libya and Syria, and of the Qatar-aligned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have made many Arab viewers question its veracity,” the Economist wrote earlier this year. “So has its tendency to ignore human-rights abuses by those same rebels. . . . ”
The magazine said that several of the network’s journalists, including star correspondents, have quit over political disagreements. Among them was Dave Marash, the former “Nightline” correspondent and WRC-TV anchor who quit in 2008 as an anchor for al-Jazeera English — the global, English-language spinoff of the Arabic channel — because of what he viewed as a “reflexive adversarial editorial stance” against Americans, primarily by the network’s British managers. Several staff members at al-Jazeera Arabic reportedly quit in protest on Monday over the network’s Egyptian coverage.
Al-Jazeera has “definitely taken the pro-Morsi side” in its Egyptian coverage, said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization that monitors Arabic media and describes itself as nonpartisan.
He said the network’s management and journalists have long-standing ties to the Brotherhood; among others, its former chairman, Wadah Khanfar, was a member. Among its talk-show hosts is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric and Brotherhood adviser whom Stalinsky describes as “anti-Western, anti-Semitic and anti-American.”
Al-Jazeera’s opinion programs have been dominated by pro-Morsi pundits, and some of its journalists have openly supported the Brotherhood in postings on social media, said Mansour al-Hadj, who directs a MEMRI project on reform in Arab and Muslim countries.
But al-Hadj said he expects al-Jazeera America to take a more moderate tone, just as al-Jazeera English has moderated some of the political passions of the Arabic network. “I don’t think they’ll do the same thing” on the American network, he said. “It’s a different audience, and they need a different perspective. They’re not going to make fools of themselves by saying things that are misleading” or strongly partisan.
Philip Seib, author of “The Al Jazeera Effect,” a 2008 book about the network’s influence in the Arab world, concurs. Although the Arabic network “is perceived as strongly pro-Brotherhood,” the American version won’t be, he said.
“I don’t think you’ll see al-Jazeera America touting the Muslim Brotherhood,” Seib said. “It will be more like CNN. They want [the American channel] to be successful, and they know it can’t be a mirror image” of its Arabic and English-language forebears. All three are ”operating in their own political environments.”