The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt marks the latest nadir for Al Jazeera’s flailing credibility. The US launch of the network, once hailed as the voice of Arab resistance, could not come at a worse time
On 30 June shockwaves were sent around the Arab world when for the second time in little over two years, the Egyptian people moved against their government and toppled a leader they saw as autocratic, unjust and incompetent.
Nowhere were the repercussions of Mohamed Mursi’s ouster felt more keenly than in Qatar, the tiny Gulf state that in the last twelve months had poured billions into propping up the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
The demise of Egypt’s Brotherhood also marked the latest nadir in the credibility of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has gone from being the voice of resistance amid the Arab Spring to a regional pariah, as the station shifted to a more Islamist agenda.
However, the broadcaster also finds itself at a more complex crossroads. With a rare changing of the guard in Qatar’s ruling elite having recently taken place and a controversial entrance into the US market planned for August, the next few months are likely to be as crucial as any Al Jazeera has faced before.
Launched in 1996 with a QR500m ($137.3m) loan from the Qatari ruler at the time, Al Jazeera replaced the BBC’s defunct Arabic language channel, and quickly gained notoriety by providing a platform for some of the Middle East’s most controversial voices. These ranged from Islamists in Palestine and Chechnya to even more taboo subjects, with the channel said to have been the first in the Arab world to give air time to Israeli nationals speaking Hebrew.
Today it is estimated that Al Jazeera has about 40 million viewers worldwide across all of its channels.
“It increased its presence by covering controversial issues and positioning itself as the channel of the resistance,” says Fadi Salem, a Dubai-based researcher into Arab media. “It was biased in its coverage or gave more coverage and airtime to movements that were considered anti-Israel or in the resistance camp in the Arab region.”
Al Jazeera came to global prominence in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and the campaign to oust the Afghan Taliban that immediately followed. During that conflict, several Western news outlets relied on footage shot by Al Jazeera reporters and the station itself broadcast a number of recorded messages from senior Al Qaeda figures, including Osama Bin Laden. Famously, then US president George W Bush had wanted to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, before being talked down by UK counterpart Tony Blair.
In 2011, Al Jazeera’s breathless, live coverage from the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli was seen as galvanising the Arab Spring protests that toppled deep-seated autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
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