WERE IT not for Saudi intolerance, begins a piece in The Economist, there might never have been Al Jazeera, the news channel now at the heart of the biggest crisis in the Middle East currently. “In its formative days the Qatari-funded station struggled to find good staff. Then Saudi Arabia kicked the BBC’s irritatingly truthful Arabic-language channel off a Saudi satellite, causing it to shut down. Dozens of journalists were looking for work. Al Jazeera hired them. When it went on the air in 1996 it was run by people steeped in the BBC’s standards,” the piece adds.
Nearly two decades on, Saudi Arabia and three of its allies — the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain — have trained their guns on the same channel that the Kingdom unwittingly helped launch. Miffed at what they consider “meddlesome behaviour” by Qatar, the four countries have imposed a three-week trade and diplomatic embargo on the monarchy. In the 13-point ultimatum that they want Qatar to abide by, they want the country to shut down Al Jazeera, the most-watched TV channel in the Arab world, headquartered in its capital Doha and funded by its rulers.
But how did a news channel get caught up in a diplomatic kerfuffle? “The Arab powers aligning against Qatar see Al Jazeera as a propaganda tool that Qatar’s maverick government uses to foment unrest across the Middle East. They accuse the network’s Arabic channels of giving a platform to terrorists in Syria and of inciting people,” writes Raf Sanchez in The Telegraph.
Amanda Erickson writes in The Washington Post that when the then emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, launched Al Jazeera, the Arab world was dominated by Saudi-funded media houses. “Thani had come to power only a year before, and he faced fierce criticism from the Saudi-run newspapers. Al Jazeera, he hoped, would offer a different perspective,” she writes.
What set it apart, most commentators including Erickson admit, is that the channel had relatively freer editorial independence — it calls itself the “first independent news channel in the Arab world”.
“Most other channels pump out sterile State-approved reports, but Al Jazeera is an independent broker of information. Or at least it was. In its early days the station distinguished itself with intrepid reporting and unsparing coverage of autocrats, save its Qatari hosts,” writes The Economist. “Viewers were exposed to programming that most Arabs hungered for, from opposing opinions to more information on issues they cared deeply about. This included live footage of bloodshed in Israeli confrontations with the Palestinians — footage that Arab national television broadcasts limited,” says Shibley Telhami, who has written on Arab media.
And the channel broke new ground. “Within two years (of its launch), it was watched all across the Arab world, distinguished by its taste for controversy and its willingness to give airtime to figures who had historically been censored, including Israelis, members of Hamas, and — in a move that enraged both the Saudis and Americans — Osama bin Laden. It introduced panel-style shows to the region: one of the most popular programs featured a well-known Islamic cleric who fielded calls on ‘everything from extramarital sex to suicide bombing’, and incurred the wrath of conservatives by declaring that the Koran did not prohibit fellatio. Al Jazeera was accused, respectively, of being anti-Western, pro-Israel, Islamist, pro-Iraq, anti-religious, and funded by the CIA,” writes Jessica Loudis, a former Al Jazeera staffer, in New Republic.
But soon there was also criticism. After 9/11, the Americans accused the channel of stoking anger and fear about US foreign policy. In 2012, China took action against Al Jazeera English, which was launched in 2006. The media house’s bureaus have been bombed twice by US forces, once during the Afghanistan war and then during the Iraq conflict.
Closer home, the channel has literally stepped on the toes of nearly every regime in the region. In 2002, the Saudis recalled their ambassador after the network aired a panel discussion featuring dissidents from the kingdom.
Critics argue that Al Jazeera’s editorial independence was severely compromised during the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. The channel was accused of literally cheerleading the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, while being lukewarm to the dissent in neighbouring Bahrain.
It was particularly accused of favouring the Muslim Brotherhood, which assumed power in Egypt under President Mohamed Morsi. When Morsi was ousted, writes Basma Elbaz in Huffington Post, “Al Jazeera started spreading lies about the events in Egypt… This was proved by its own staff. 22 Al Jazeera journalists resigned accusing it of ‘airing lies and misleading viewers’.”
To be fair, writes Gregg Carlstrom in The Atlantic, there is a vast gulf between AJA and Al Jazeera English, which was launched in 2006. “They share a name, but little else, even operating out of separate buildings across the street from each other. Their editorial lines are also sharply different,” he writes. “Much of the English programming remains fair and objective—adjectives that no longer apply to its Arabic sister channel. Shortly after the coup against Morsi, Ahmed Mansour, a prominent anchor, was quoted on the Brotherhood’s website as saying that the interim Egyptian president was a Jew carrying out an Israeli plot… In 2014, the channel’s Iraqi affairs editor tweeted approvingly about the Camp Speicher massacre, in which the Islamic State killed more than 1,500 air-force cadets in Tikrit after singling out the Shia and non-Muslims,” he adds.
In between, Al Jazeera’s finances took a hit, particularly after the launch of a US cable news channel in October 2013. Having failed to take off, Al Jazeera America was closed last year, amid a host of lawsuits.
“The company also announced it was cutting 500 jobs around the world, with most of the layoffs in Qatar. Like other media organisations, al-Jazeera has been forced to battle against falling advertising revenues,” writes Graham Ruddick in The Guardian.
All these, however, are no grounds to shut Al Jazeera, say the channel’s backers.
In an editorial, The New York Times says the latest Saudi missive is part of attempts to curb free speech in the region. “Al Jazeera is hardly a perfect news organization: Critical reporting on Qatar or members of Qatar’s royal family is not tolerated. But much of the rest of its reporting hews to international journalistic standards, provides a unique view on the Middle East and serves as a vital news source for millions under antidemocratic rule,” the editorial reads.
John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, says the Saudi call is akin to the EU demanding that Theresa May shut down the BBC as part of the Brexit deal. “That isn’t how modern democratic states do business… Al Jazeera has become one of the world’s major news channels. It offers a different perspective from the major Western news organisations and it’s highly watchable. It may have been accused of being slanted in favour of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and elsewhere but… I’ve always felt its heart is in the right place,” he writes in The Evening Standard.
Wadah Khanfar, a former Al Jazeera staffer, says the channel has always faced these charges. “Al-Jazeera is very familiar with the charges Qatar now faces: al-Jazeera was accused of aligning itself with Hezbollah, supporting Islamist groups and having intimate ties with Israel,” he writes in The Guardian.