Al Jazeera English was recently hailed by no less a person than U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for providing “real news.” Viewership of the Los Angeles public television station, KCET-TV, increased by 135 percent after it started broadcasting Al Jazeera English.
Al Jazeera Arabic, however, seems to have fallen from grace. It has been strongly criticized for the way it has been covering the Arab Spring. Many Arab journalists accuse it of providing inconsistent and biased coverage, saying that it is harsher on some Arab leaders than on others.
Before the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s motto was “The opinion and other opinion” – a simple way of saying that it aimed to provide different views on important issues. The news network’s talk shows and news coverage followed this motto by hosting officials representing Israel as well as “Forces Of Resistance” or “Qowat Al Mumana’h” -- Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah – groups or governments that are officially at war with Israel and oppose Western policies in the Middle East.
At the time, it was criticized for giving a platform to Israeli officials. It also was accused of being biased towards these forces of resistance. But Al Jazeera justified its position by citing the need to give a voice to all political views, including those who were traditionally shunned by the Arab and Western media.
By doing so, Al Jazeera gained a great deal of legitimacy and popularity in the Arab world.
A Rosy Start to the Arab Spring
When the Arab Spring started, Al Jazeera did a great job of reporting the oppression and violence that the pro-democracy protestors experienced in Egypt and Tunisia. And even though some of its journalists were banned or imprisoned in Tunisia and Egypt, it continued broadcasting images of demonstrators killed and injured by government security forces. Al Jazeera took these images from social media such as YouTube, Facebook, and even Flickr. It also provided up-to-the-minute Twitter feeds on the situation.
However, when the demonstrations in Bahrain turned violent, Al Jazeera tended to ignore them. The voices of the protestors and opposition groups were not heard.
On March 14, as demonstrations were ongoing in Bahrain, Qatar's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thani, whose family owns Al Jazeera, told the outlet in a phone interview that the Saudi and UAE forces that were sent to Bahrain to put down the demonstrations were for “assistance and support.” He said he supported King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. "I think the call of His Highness, the Bahraini Crown Prince, for dialogue is a sincere one that should be well taken by all parties."
More Drastic Changes in the Network
In February, Al Jazeera dropped its top-rated talk shows, including “The Opposite Direction,” “Without Borders,” “From Washington,” “In Depth, ” and even “Shari’a and Life,” which was hosted by the popular and controversial Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qardawi. These shows used to cover taboo topics and give a platform to guest speakers who bluntly criticized U.S. war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the undemocratic policies of Arab regimes.
Arab journalists were shocked by Al Jazeera’s decisions, and some even wondered whether the news outlet could maintain its popularity.
The channel’s director general, Waddah Khanfar defended the changes, saying Al Jazeera had to stay competitive by providing continuous live coverage of the Arab uprisings.
Al Jazeera’s motto, “the opinion and other opinion,” which appeared under its logo for the past 16 years, was replaced with a new one: “Continuous Coverage.”
Filling in the Programming Gap
With the gap in programming created by the elimination of the popular talk shows, Al Jazeera now simply repeats its news programs over and over again. And these programs tend to focus only on the demonstrations in some countries.
“Sometimes we look to Al Jazeera for the news about big demonstrations in Morocco or Bahrain, but we can’t find them, so we are forced to look at other channels such as the Tehran-based channels Al Alam or Press TV,” said Abddalah Edwan, producer of the Peabody-award-winning show Mosaic: World News from the Middle East.
Before the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera news programs were diversified, and followed the news wherever it happened. No longer.
For example, On June 21, 2011, Al Jazeera News, which was repeated on a loop many times to fill the gap created by cancelled shows, consisted of the following: The first, second, third, fourth and even fifth news stories were all about the demonstrations in Syria, then the sixth, seventh and eighth news story were about Libya. That was followed by a brief report on the bombing in Iraq, which killed 22 people, and a brief news segment on the demonstrations in Morocco. There was not a word on the Bahrain demonstrations.
Aside from changing its menu, Al Jazeera seems to have thrown out all objectivity. Its coverage of the demonstrations in Libya, for example, is clearly biased towards the rebels, evidenced by some of the terminologies in its reports. The government forces are called “Gaddafi militia forces.” When Libya’s rebel forces are killed, they are called martyrs.
And Then There Was Syria
Al Jazeera’s coverage of the demonstrations in Syria is also inconsistent. For years, the news outlet kept from criticizing the Syrian government. And for the first few weeks of the recent demonstrations, it did not report them. But when the demonstrations spread and became more violent, Al Jazeera started reporting them, focusing on the brutality of the regime against civilians. For giving the demonstrators center stage in all its recent reports, a rift has been created between it and the Syrian government, forcing Al Jazeera to scale back its operations in that country.
On April 29, Syria held Al Jazeera reporter Dorothy Parvaz for a month before handing her over to Iran.
The Stars Are Falling
With the end of the many popular talk shows came the departure of those shows’ hosts and a slew of other top Al Jazeera journalists. In early April 2011, Al Jazeera lost yet another important journalist, Beirut bureau chief Ghassan Ben Jeddo. Ben Jeddo resigned, protesting what he called biased coverage of the Bahrain demonstrations.
He told the Beirut-based pan-Arab nationalist News TV, “I felt ethically uncomfortable with the coverage by Al-Jazeera and other channels. The reality is that most Arab media unjustifiably blacked out what is happening in Bahrain.”
Now that he is no longer with the network, Jeddo spoke candidly with the Syrian TV channel, Dunia (World). He said he has talked to businessmen in Lebanon about the possibility of starting a new television station.
According to the London-based Al Quds al Arabi newspaper, there is a move in Egypt to establish another satellite channel that will compete with Al Jazeera and Arabiya, staffed by Egyptian journalists who returned to Egypt after the revolution. One of Al Jazeera’s former journalists will also be on the staff.
According to the Al Quds al Arabi report, the new channel will focus on issues that were banned on Egyptian televisions during Mubarak’s era, including the political situations in such countries as Qatar.
But why did Qatar’s royal family muzzle the once independent Al Jazeera and drop a number of its popular shows? It seems the family was worried that the shows’ blunt hosts might suggest that there should be a political change in Qatar as well.
But with all the changes to the network, whose offices are only 12 miles from the largest American military base in the Middle East, Al Udeid Air Base, it looks like Al Jazeera’s policies are now more in line with those of its owners. The journalists who once propelled it to popularity are no longer there.
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