The rise and fall of Al Jazeera

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
By Daniel Shane
Sat 27 Jul 2013 11:19 AM

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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Since then, however, viewers and analysts in the region have observed a marked change in the station’s editorial stance. In perhaps its most obvious manifestation, Al Jazeera was accused of throwing its weight behind Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt. Salem says Al Jazeera ceased to be the voice of Arab resistance, instead becoming a shill of Islamist groups and Qatari foreign policy.

“With the rise of the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, as well as aligning with Qatari foreign policy, Al Jazeera decided to go full throttle in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says.

Salem explains that in terms of the channel’s day-to-day coverage of events, it started giving noticeably more air time to Islamist preachers and Brotherhood sympathisers, while largely ignoring many secular voices.

Amid June’s demonstrations in Egypt that led to the demise of Mursi’s Brotherhood government, there were some pertinent examples of the channel’s pro-Islamist agenda. These included extensive coverage of pro-Mursi demonstrations in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the 30 June revolution, which the station described at one point as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Al Jazeera’s coverage of Mursi’s ouster has been perceived as so hostile, that on 6  July  its Cairo bureau chief Abdel Fattah Fayed was forcibly expelled from a news conference. Not long after this, a state prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Fayed on the basis of Al Jazeera allegedly threatening public security by broadcasting inflammatory content.

A week after the 30 June revolution, 22 Al Jazeera journalists resigned in protest of what they described as biased coverage of the demonstrations that led to the army’s toppling of Mursi. “Al Jazeera Arabic has lost many professional journalists since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Respected journalists have left for other media channels,” Salem says.

Salem says it is difficult to pinpoint when Al Jazeera’s editorial stance aligned with that of the Brotherhood. Wadah Khanfar, the Palestinian who was director general of the network between 2006 and 2011, was said to have been sympathetic to Islamist causes, although Salem believes that Al Jazeera’s metamorphosis runs deeper than this.

“It’s hard to tell if it’s just one person, but the editors, the anchors and the journalists on Al Jazeera Arabic gradually became more and more Islamist, or even de facto Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathisers,” he believes.

Al Jazeera has since 2006 also broadcast an English-language channel, although its bias towards Islamists is substantially less pronounced, Salem says.

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He adds that sentiment towards Al Jazeera has turned sour in other Arab nations where the broadcaster has been seen to meddle in the trajectory of the Arab Spring. In Syria, for example, where rebels have been fighting a two-year uprising against the rule of Bashar Al Assad, Al Jazeera has been seen to provide disproportionate coverage to Islamic factions within the fragmented opposition.

“In Syria, it’s very strong, not just among the loyalists of the regime there. You can walk along the streets of Damascus and the Al Jazeera logo is sprayed on trash cans,” says Salem.

Other analysts agree that the network’s reputation among secular Arabs has plummeted in the wake of the toppling of long-standing regimes in the region. “I’d argue there has been a serious shift in Al Jazeera’s coverage and the perception of Al Jazeera’s role among Arab popular public opinion,” says Oraib Al Rantawi, founder of Al Quds Centre for Political Studies, a think tank based in Jordan.

Al Rantawi says that Al Jazeera has become a “tool of Qatari diplomacy”. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood administration, in the year that it was in power, received about $8bn in grants and bonds from Qatar. This was in glaring contrast to other Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and the UAE, obstinately wary of political Islam, which largely shunned Mursi’s government in terms of providing financial support.

Al Rantawi believes that Al Jazeera’s coverage has broadly followed the lines of Qatar’s foreign policy, which in the last couple of years has developed some serious diplomatic muscle. As mentioned, Al Jazeera has also been supportive of Islamic opposition groups in Syria, which has reflected the official line of the Qatari government, which has made among the loudest noises for securing international support for providing arms and aid to rebels.

“This is how biased this channel has become, and how close it has become to the decision-making circles within the Qatari machine,” he says. “[Al Jazeera] is not in the news room — it’s part of the operation room of the Qatari foreign ministry.”

Al Rantawi adds that government-owned Al Jazeera is not alone in its selective reporting, although its bias has arguably been the most noticeable.

With the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he says that Al Jazeera has found itself at a crossroads, with many viewers across the Arab world having lost trust in the network and increasingly tuning into other news stations or instead relying on real-time social media platforms like Twitter.

“Al Jazeera has lost its dominating role in the Arab Spring countries,” Al Rantawi explains. “They lost their balance because Qatari diplomacy lost its balance. They feel that all the investment they’ve made into change in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt has collapsed.”

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Along with the fall of Egypt’s ruling Islamists, Al Jazeera’s future direction is also in question following the resignation in June of Qatar’s emir and several other senior figures among the wealthy Gulf state’s ruling elite.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who ruled the country since deposing his father in 1995, had largely been credited with turning Qatar into the world’s richest nation per capita, as well as attracting glittering events such as the FIFA World Cup 2022. In an unprecedented move, Sheikh Hamad made way for his 33-year-old son Sheikh Tamim. The reshuffle also saw prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, viewed as one of the architects of Qatar’s pro-Islamist foreign policy, make way for Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser.

Al Jazeera’s director general Ahmed Bin Jassim Al Thani, himself a member of the royal family, departed the same month to take up the role of minister of economy and trade. At the time of publication the broadcaster had not yet announced a replacement.

Al Rantawi says Qatar’s foreign policy in the context of the Arab Spring has been a “failure” and with a new emir will likely take the opportunity to align more closely with other Gulf Arab states, which have viewed Islamist movements much more sceptically.

Following the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt, Qatar’s government issued a statement congratulating new interim president Adley Mansour. However, Al Jazeera has continued to pursue a broadly pro-Islamist line, says Al Rantawi.

“If we take Al Jazeera as a barometer for the foreign policy of Qatar, so far there is no serious change, because Al Jazeera has maintained the same policies and attitudes as it has done over the last two years,” he believes.

Al Jazeera’s journalistic credentials in the Arab world may be flailing, but on 20 August the station will make its much-hyped launch into the US market. Al Jazeera’s entrance into the country has been made via the $500m acquisition of Current TV, the news channel set up by former vice president Al Gore. In preparation, the broadcaster has hired about 650 employees, including ABC executive Kate O’Brian as its president and former CNN anchor Ali Velshi.

It will initially be available to about 49 million households, although experts believe that it will struggle to capture anywhere near this amount. Current TV was dropped by carrier Time Warner Cable just hours after its sale to Al Jazeera was announced.

Claire Enders, head of UK-based Enders Analysis, says that Al Jazeera is a “tainted brand” in the US, based on the perception among the American public that it is “anti-Israel” and for its role in airing Al Qaeda videos during the Afghanistan war.

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“It’s a very unattractive brand in the US,” she says. “Americans have very little interest in foreign news services anyway. The BBC, which is a very credible service, barely appears on the radar, despite having been distributed on cable systems for ten years.”

Enders says that for a period of “about eighteen months” during the height of the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera did garner credibility with a niche audience in the US for its coverage of the unrest, although this soon waned. She says that the complex and violent scenarios that emerged in Arab Spring countries post-revolution reflected poorly on Al Jazeera, whose own editorial agenda became apparent. “As things got worse people could clearly see that Al Jazeera and the so-called forces of democracy were not working that well,” Enders claims. “By the time it bought Current TV it had already substantially diminished in reputation.”

Enders says that Al Jazeera, which also has a significant presence in Africa and some parts of Europe, would be under no pressure to turn a profit in the US market and would rely on Qatar’s substantial cash reserves. She believes that its long-term goal in the world’s biggest TV market is to portray a positive image of the Gulf state.

“There’s a long-term desire to present a very attractive image of Qatar, specifically within the next eight years leading up to the World Cup,” she believes.

In the weeks prior to the launch of Al Jazeera America, all is not well within the network. In an email circulated to Al Jazeera’s top executives, the station’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara claimed there were efforts by the US operation to distance itself from Doha in a bid to avoid being labelled “anti-American”, going so far as to employ mostly US citizens.

“How have we moved from the main idea that the strength of AJN (Al Jazeera News) lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists to a channel where only Americans work?,” he asked.

Al Jazeera will go into the US market as an underdog, a position from which the broadcaster beat the odds and succeeded in its formative years. For some experts though, Al Jazeera’s reputation in the Middle East remains tarnished, with questions hanging over which direction it goes now. “It has to invest a lot to restore its credibility and influence, and I’m not sure if it will succeed or not,” believes Al Quds’ Al Rantawi.

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