After the Arab Spring: Al-Jazeera Losing Battle for Independence

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Alexander Kühn, Christoph Reuter and Gregor Peter Schmitz, February 15, 2013 (Photo GalleryTranslated from the German by Paul Cohen).

For over a decade, the Arab television broadcaster Al-Jazeera was widely respected for providing an independent voice from the Middle East. Recently, however, several top journalists have left, saying the station has developed a clear political agenda … //

… Objectivity in a World of Censorship: 

Indeed, the Arab programming of Al-Jazeera — which means “the island” in Arabic — was launched in 1996 with a noble goal: It aimed to serve as an objective medium in a world of rigorous censorship.

The network broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden, prompting outraged criticism from the US, where it was referred to as a “terror network.” At the same time, it was the only Arab medium that regularly invited Israeli politicians to debates. Its correspondents didn’t hesitate to call former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a “dictator” — and Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak a “wimp.” What’s more, the network’s journalists reported on dissidents, including members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, who were forced to rot in prison for years under Mubarak’s regime. Such courage and informative journalism earned Al-Jazeera a number of awards.

Since the Arab Spring, though, many former dissidents have risen to power across the region — and these fledgling leaders often show little respect for democratic principles. Al-Jazeera, however, has shamelessly fawned upon the new rulers.

Today, when Egyptians protest against President Mohammad Morsi and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Jazeera is often critical of them, in the style of the old pro-government TV station. Conversely, according to ex-correspondent Suliman, Al-Jazeera executives have ordered that Morsi’s decrees should be portrayed as pearls of wisdom. “Such a dictatorial approach would have been unthinkable before,” he says. “In Egypt we have become the palace broadcaster for Morsi.”

This is rather surprising considering that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar and financier of the network, used to ban such blatant influence peddling. The walls of the TV station’s modern headquarters in Doha are decorated with quotations from free-thinkers like Bob Dylan and Mahatma Gandhi.

But the emir, who also has an autocratic style of leadership and occasionally puts unwanted journalists behind bars, is having an increasingly difficult time with independent spirits working on his favorite project.

I Had to Quit: … //

… Poses a Danger:

His death has raised questions. For one, running across a wide street in view of an enemy checkpoint is extraordinarily risky. And, while it makes sense that Musalma was not wearing anything clearly identifying him as a member of the press — reporters in Syria are advised against doing so — established media organizations outfit their staff members with safety equipment, including bulletproof vests. Al-Jazeera, however, would seem not to prescribe this kind of protection for local activists who serve the broadcaster as inexpensive part-time correspondents.

Suliman says that he and a number of colleagues broached this topic during a visit to the headquarters in Doha a few months before Musalma’s death. “If a differentiation is no longer made between activists and journalists, then that poses a danger to everyone,” he says.

According to Suliman, the editor in chief praised the idea of a clear differentiation. But nothing happened, he says — except that the shocking video was deleted from the Al-Jazeera website, where it first was posted.

As far back as the spring of 2011, after Al-Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber was killed in Libya by government forces, the network had promised that it would examine the issue of better protection for its staff members, says Suliman. But he says that nothing was done about the problem then, either.

Despite numerous inquiries from SPIEGEL, the network has refused to comment on the allegations. The negative headlines come at a bad time for Al-Jazeera. For a number of years, its English-language spin-off has been trying to gain a foothold in the lucrative American market, but leading US cable companies have given it very little access.

Expansion in the US:

At the beginning of this year, Al-Jazeera spent $500 million to purchase Current TV, which was co-founded by former US Vice President Al Gore. This struggling left-leaning political channel has been a flop with viewers and has received miserably low ratings; it can, however, be viewed in over 40 million US households.

“Of course the price is far too high for a niche broadcaster, but the Emir of Qatar wanted to finally expand in America,” says US journalism professor Philip Seib from the University of Southern California. Seib says that Al-Jazeera has been experiencing heightened competition in the Arabic home market from local broadcasters and international rivals. He believes that the expansion in the US is a logical consequence of this development.

Will the huge investment pay off? The market for foreign news continues to shrink in the US, and the public has reservations about the Arab broadcaster. Ann Coulter, the staunchly conservative US columnist, recently quipped on Twitter: “Al-Qaida could only come up with $400 million.”

Such prejudice can only be overcome with top-notch journalism. Al-Jazeera has advertised for 160 new positions in up to 10 new US bureaus and it has already received over 8,000 applications. After all, the media crisis has also cost many American journalists their jobs.
But there is also growing discontent in the US over how Doha tries to lead public opinion by the nose. Network staff recently complained that a speech delivered by the emir at the United Nations became the top story on Al-Jazeera’s evening news broadcast.

“It’s the same everywhere in the media business: He who pays sets the tone,” says TV expert Seib. Ironically, though, the news broadcaster from Doha initially aimed to be more than just a business model. According to its own description, it once aspired to be “a voice for the voiceless.”
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