Al-Jazeera TV network draws criticism, praise for coverage of Arab revolutions

May 14, 2011

— For months, Qatar-based al-Jazeera provided intense coverage of the uprisings that have rocked the Middle East, often almost cheering along the protesters. But when tanks from Saudi Arabia rolled in to quell anti-government demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain in March, the Arabic-language news network’s reporting was only sporadic and markedly neutral, critics say.

That contrasting approach has brought fresh attention to al-Jazeera’s close ties to the Qatari government, which owns the influential network, and prompted charges that the broadcaster is serving as an instrument of Qatar’s ambitious foreign policy.

As the unrest moved closer to home, critics say, the limits of al-Jazeera’s independence were exposed: Although it supported uprisings against some longtime Arab regimes, the network, and its owner, clearly drew the line when another Persian Gulf monarchy was threatened.

“In other Arab countries, the channel was clearly on the side of the uprisings,” said Joseph Massad, an associate professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University. But in Bahrain, “it pretended to be impartial while pushing the line of the Bahraini regime.”

Al-Jazeera executives say both its Arabic-language channel and the global news channel al-Jazeera English operate independently of state control. But the broadcaster is the most prominent outlet of the government-owned Qatar Media, which is led by a cousin of the emir, and a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable made public by WikiLeaks describes al-Jazeera as “an instrument of Qatari influence.”

“They have lost their credibility in the Arab world, by either covering developments one sided — or completely ignoring them,” said As’ad AbuKhalil, author of the Angry Arab News Service, a widely read blog about media coverage of the Arab world, and a prominent voice among the growing number of academics and media analysts speaking out against the network. “They became a typical regime station,” he wrote May 7. “Their political agenda is not even masked.”

‘A voice to the voiceless’

Al-Jazeera’s slogan says it strives to give “a voice to the voiceless,” and the network built its reputation with its critical coverage of the the Iraq war. Since then — operating from one of the world’s smallest, and richest, countries — its ratings have soared, making it the dominant Arabic-language news channel in the region.

Journalists working at the broadcaster’s frenetic nerve center in Doha say they are not activists but are proud of the role the network has played during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

“The revolutions would have happened without al-Jazeera,” said Satnam Matharu, its director of communications. “But our cameras protected those voices calling for democracy. We gave them a sense of security.”

Al-Jazeera’s intense reporting on the Arab uprisings has brought international praise. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in March hailed the broadcaster for bringing what she called “real news” and changing people’s attitudes. On May 4, al-Jazeera English, launched in 2006, received the Columbia Journalism Award for its coverage.

Immune from the steep budget cuts facing many western networks, al-Jazeera — Arabic for “the peninsula,” after the tiny slab of desert that makes up the emirate — is planning to launch new channels in Turkish, Serbo-Croatian and Swahili.

Before al-Jazeera’s creation in 1996, “Arab governments controlled the narrative,” Matharu said. “We gave people a voice.”

That voice thundered loudly in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 1, when jubilant crowds watched President Hosni Mubarak on fabric hung as a makeshift screen to display al-Jazeera’s broadcast.

As pressure mounted on Mubarak, Egyptian authorities blocked the network’s satellite transmissions, prompting al-Jazeera to switch frequencies. The network continued its enthusiastic reporting, prompting Egypt’s security forces to accuse it of “inciting the people” and to crack down hard against its reporters.

But on the streets of Cairo, young people spray-painted the broadcaster’s name on walls, and the station’s journalists, many of them Egyptian, became revolutionary heroes.

Two sets of standards?

The war in Libya, and the involvement of Qatari fighter jets, marked a turning point for al-Jazeera, said Massad, who monitors its broadcasts.

Qatar was the only Arab state to actively join in NATO operations; al-Jazeera Arabic’s presenters called Libyan rebels killed in the conflict “martyrs,” and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi were labeled “mercenaries.”

“Al-Jazeera Arabic changed from the most important Arab media voice against U.S. and European policies in the region to a champion and an apologist for such intervention,” Massad said.

As the unrest moved closer to Qatar, the situation became more uncomfortable for the government, and, critics charge, the network’s independence suffered.

There was little coverage when protesters took to the streets in Oman and Saudi Arabia, close allies of the emirate, several analysts said.

But the events on the tiny Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, a strategic partner to Qatar, best illustrate al-Jazeera Arabic’s dilemma in covering the uprisings.

Al-Jazeera Arabic failed to report on intensifying demands by mainly Shiite protesters for the end of the Sunni monarchy in early March, critics say, and the network also neglected several large demonstrations that ultimately led to a military intervention by Saudi Arabia.

Massad accuses Al-Jazeera of engaging in a “media blackout” of the uprising in Bahrain and of demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and Oman. The contrast shows that the Qatari government supports uprisings against republics in the Arab world, he said, but not against monarchies in the gulf.

The network’s English affiliate, which operates independently, led its broadcast with the news that Saudi tanks were rolling into Bahrain. “This is a critically important story for us,” said Al Anstey, its managing director, adding that his broadcast has “a different audience” from the Arabic channel.

Al-Jazeera Arabic carried news of the intervention but less prominently, and focused on the Bahraini government’s rejection of the protesters’ demands and the blame it placed on Iran for the unrest.

Independence questioned

At al-Jazeera Arabic’s Doha headquarters, where stacks of archived tapes are piled up against the walls, officials say they were simply making journalistic decisions.

“We covered Bahrain extensively, but people expected us to turn our cameras on Bahrain the way we did in Egypt 24 hours a day,” said Mustafa Souag, who leads the Arabic service, as he kept an eye on that afternoon’s live broadcast on one of the three flat screens in his office.

The government of Bahrain did not allow the network to work there, he said, and “simultaneous uprisings in Yemen and Libya were equally or even more important.” Despite that, “several hours of coverage a day” were devoted to protests in Bahrain, he said.

Souag, an Algerian who worked for NBC and the BBC, stressed that the station has not been “political or ideological” in its coverage. “Qatari policy has nothing to do with our editorial policy,” he said.

In April, al-Jazeera Arabic’s Beirut bureau chief, Ghassan Bin Jiddo, resigned suddenly, telling Lebanon’s Al Safir newspaper he had quit because of differences over coverage of Bahrain. He has turned down requests for interviews since then. But Souag denied that Bin Jiddo quit over editorial differences, explaining that he left for “personal reasons.”

AbuKhalil, who is also an international politics professor at California State University, says Qatar’s rulers closely scrutinize the station. He said he spoke with the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, last year about his criticisms and was surprised by how closely the ruler follows the channel. “He discussed individual journalists and anchors,” AbuKhalil said.

But Matharu, the network’s communications director, said al-Jazeera is independent.

“Look at our reporting, our analysis,” he said. “If we were a tool of Qatar’s diplomacy, the viewers would run away.

“As for Bahrain, we reflected the reality on the ground,” he added. “Like always, al-Jazeera did not choose sides.”

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