Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.
Arab consumers of news and commentary were upset this week to find out that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt are demanding the closure of Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations. The Kuwaiti leadership delivered a 13-point list of demands made by the four countries that have imposed a blockade on Qatar on charges that it supports terrorism.
Condition No. 6 on the list calls for the closure of Al Jazeera Satellite Network and its affiliates, while No. 11 calls for the closure of other Qatari-funded websites, newspapers and media outlets.
Established in 1996 and staffed mostly by former BBC-trained professional reporters, Al Jazeera was a breath of fresh air in a region that only understood news as the product of governments rather than the public’s right to know. Its motto –“the opinion and the counter opinion” — quickly won it huge audiences in an Arab world that was thirsty for any alternative to state-run television that had monopolized the airwaves for decades. The network worked hard initially on presenting balanced programming with high journalistic standards. Audiences responded positively, and the satellite channel quickly became and continues to be the No. 1 Arabic language news channel.
The Arab Spring caught the network off guard (although many say it was behind it), but it quickly became involved and certainly gave a voice and wall-to- wall coverage to the demonstrations for democratic change.
In the past few years, the network has slipped somewhat in its credibility and neutrality, reflecting some biases. As the Arab Spring started to fade and some of the Islamists who had gained power were ousted, Al Jazeera overreached at times, which has resulted in a loss of credibility. A local Egyptian affiliate, Al Jazeera Mubasher (which means “direct”), was supposed to work like C-SPAN in the United States, but it focused almost exclusively on continuous broadcasting and rebroadcasting of pro-Muslim-Brotherhood protests. This particular affiliate station, which was closed in 2014, was often viewed as a mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than a proper professional outlet.
But despite some mistakes and the absence of total balance, the Doha-based network’s news is still attractive to millions of viewers. Watching the nightly one-hour news program “al Hasad” (the harvest) is a must for anyone interested in following what is happening in the world, especially issues dealing with the Middle East. Even the most one-sided reports always present an opposing opinion. Based on news value, the network’s presenters regularly interview leaders and experts from all walks of life. They have interviewed heads of state, opposition leaders and leading experts and activists. There is no taboo on anyone, including Israelis, Kurds, Egyptians, U.S. Democrats and Republicans, and right- and left-wing activists from around the world.
The media is a conduit of news and commentary and should not become a part of any conflict between neighboring countries. Instead of trying to kill the messenger, the best way to respond to content that is unfavorable is to produce countering content, not to punish the media or the country that is supporting it.
Millions of viewers in the Arab world have consistently allowed Al Jazeera Arabic to boast that it is by far the No. 1-viewed news network in the region. Part of its size is due to the tremendous resources of highly trained professional journalists, relative editorial freedom to operate and large budgets. All this is translated into the ability to cover stories around the world from all perspectives.
The push by Arab states for the closure of Al Jazeera and its affiliates appears to reflect jealousy and internal fighting rather than a demand regarding the network’s content. If the demand was to stop hate speech or incitement to violence, it might be better understood. But this is a blanket insistence on closing the network.
The need to stop demonizing journalism is not limited to the crisis in the Gulf. In recent months, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others have increased their blocking of news websites. Through draconian press laws and the arrests of journalists, the Arab world is slipping further and further in press freedom rankings.
The 2017 World Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia as 168 out of 180 countries. Bahrain is ranked 164, Egypt 161 and United Arab Emirates 119. Qatar is ranked 123.
The information revolution has brought home to everyone the near-impossibility of controlling information. Audiences in the Arab world and elsewhere are smart enough to be able to change channels and bypass Web blockades to get the information they desire and trust. To keep audiences informed, it’s vitally important to keep the media out of the current Gulf conflict. Bad and biased media should be tackled through balanced and professional journalism, not by using a sledgehammer.