Ever since the military’s ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in July, Al Jazeera, the pioneering Arab-language news broadcaster, hasn’t shrunk from calling his removal something the American government won’t: a coup.
That highly loaded declaration, as well as its relentless and, critics say, sympathetic coverage of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement, has turned Al Jazeera into a virtual enemy of the state in Egypt. Its journalists have been harassed and banned, and five remain in custody, including three who were arrested last week for allegedly harming national security. Al Jazeera’s local TV studios in Egypt, though not its transnational satellite transmissions, have been shut down, forcing its few remaining Egyptian journalists to work from makeshift facilities, such as a Cairo hotel room.
The network’s pariah status in Egypt represents an abrupt reversal of fortune for a news organization often lionized for challenging the media monopoly of authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East. Only three years ago, Al Jazeera was celebrated for its role in the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square watched its coverage of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprisings on giant TV screens. “Al Jazeera was a hero in Egypt,” said Mohammed el-Nawawy, a professor at Queens University of Charlotte who has studied the network.
Since then, Egyptian authorities and Al Jazeera’s critics — including some of the network’s own employees — have accused it of being a mouthpiece for Morsi and the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
“Al Jazeera has given a lot support to the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s no doubt about that,” said Hugh Miles, a freelance journalist in Cairo and the author of “Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West.”
The network “regularly” exaggerates the strength of pro-Brotherhood protests by zooming in on small crowds to make them appear larger, or by splitting the screen to suggest that multiple large protests are occurring simultaneously, said Yigal Carmon, president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington-based organization that tracks Arabic media and describes itself as nonpartisan. “They attack the military in every way possible and defend the Muslim Brotherhood in every possible way.”
Just days after Morsi was removed by forces loyal to Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi this past summer, 22 employees of the network resigned en masse. Several accused t he network of slanting its coverage in favor of Morsi and the Brotherhood in the months leading up to his ouster. Al Jazeera has repeatedly dismissed that idea, saying in a statement Sunday that the individuals were freelancers who quit because of “security and safety concerns” amid “a systematic campaign to undermine [the network’s] credibility” by Egyptian authorities.
More broadly, Al Jazeera has for years battled criticism that it is a tool of its patron, the tiny, gas-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar’s emir, the royal head of state, has bankrolled the network since its inception in 1996 and recently funded its expansion in the United States via a new domestic news network, Al Jazeera America, based in New York. American diplomats privately grumbled about Qatar’s influence over Doha-based Al Jazeera in cables that were disclosed in 2010 by WikiLeaks, the organization that has exposed leaked government and corporate documents.
Although the Qatari government has openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood and pledged funds to Morsi’s government, Al Jazeera maintains there is no connection and that it is fully independent.
Egyptian authorities “have resorted to fabricating stories about Al Jazeera’s alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood, but we absolutely have no link whatsoever,” the network said in an e-mailed response to questions Sunday, attributing its comments to Bernard Smith, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English. “Everything that has been said about this is false. As always, Al Jazeera reports on events in Egypt from different perspectives just as any professional media outlet would do.”
That’s not how it looks to a number of Western observers, however.
El-Nawawy — the co-author of “Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism” — contends that the network “has adopted a very clear-cut line” since Morsi was removed from power. “Its premise has been that this [Morsi’s government] was a democratically elected regime and that the military should not intervene. When you have a country that is so polarized along ideological lines, that side is very controversial.”
But rather than present all sides of the story, much of the coverage on Al Jazeera’s two Egypt-only satellite channels these days is devoted to anti-government demonstrations, Miles said. Given the government-imposed crackdown, the network must improvise; its news programming largely consists of grainy footage of protests that has been posted on social-media sites.
In addition, the channels have aired many interviews with survivors of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque massacre in July in which hundreds of Brotherhood supporters were killed by government troops. They have also carried interviews with the few Islamist leaders who haven’t yet been arrested. “It definitely makes them different from all the other channels,” Miles said, somewhat wryly. “It’s the only channel that delivers the other point of view.”
Indeed, it often does so in unmistakable terms.
One of the main network’s signature personalities is Sheik Yusef Qaradawi, a Sunni preacher and himself an Egyptian exile. On his Friday talk show, Qaradawi has repeatedly urged Egyptians to defy Sissi; in one broadcast from late July, he said Christians participated in the military’s crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters in which hundreds were killed, according to MEMRI.
Another Al Jazeera commentator, a former Muslim Brotherhood official named Gamal Nassar, asserted in an August broadcast that Sissi has Jewish heritage and that he is implementing a Zionist plan to divide Egypt, according to MEMRI’s translation.
Carmon says Americans see a very different face of Al Jazeera through Al Jazeera America, a network that is stocked with accomplished Western journalists such as Ali Velshi, Joie Chen, Soledad O’Brien and John Seigenthaler and a network that strives to play the news in a very straightforward fashion.
“There are two Al Jazeeras,” he said. “It is talking with a forked tongue in two languages.”