Having built considerable goodwill among various Arab publics tired of state-run TV, Al-Jazeera is facing a slew of criticisms from commentators who argue the channel has gone off track.
The strength of the regional station, founded in 1996 and based in Qatar, had been that it offered an alternative to broadcasters controlled by national governments, whose coverage invariably reflected narrow regime interests rather than a popular understanding of events. Now, Al-Jazeera is being accused of the same sin as those state-run enterprises -- of being a vehicle for a regime, in this case that of Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Writing under the headline “Al-Jazeera is not okay” in the Beirut-based, leftist daily As-Safir, columnist Sahar Mandour outlined some of the main controversies swirling around the channel. Mandour described a series of high-level resignations by staff angry over a lack of coverage given to unrest in Bahrain, which abuts Qatar, and “biased” coverage of violence in Syria. He discussed outtakes of interviews, run repeatedly on state-controlled Syrian TV, that suggest channel staff actively coached some eyewitnesses and manufactured some victims of Syrian government oppression. Mandour mentioned leaked internal e-mails that, if authentic, demonstrate that Al-Jazeera has become yoked to an increasingly aggressive foreign policy by the Qatari emir, who championed the NATO-led assault on Muammar Qaddafi's forces in Libya and advocates military intervention in Syria. Mandour wrote:
Al-Jazeera was the pioneer in defining the professional Arab media. Thus, accusing it of professional failure affects the entire media.
In another Beirut-based paper, Al-Akhbar, which has been banned in Syria, editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amine wrote that it “has become routine to be sent dozens of Internet links that direct you to professional, political or moral scandals associated with what Al-Jazeera broadcasts. You would only be astonished if someone were to ask you: 'Did you see how that Al-Jazeera anchor grilled his guest from the Syrian opposition?'”
Amine contended that “you can now find many opponents of the Syrian regime -- especially activists in the local coordination committees -- who reject any attempt to implicate them in Al-Jazeera’s broadcasts” because of the “daily disasters” seen on the channel. He concluded:
The channel will allow no discussion of what has become of it, which has taken us back to the days of a media in which 'no voice rises above the sound of the battle.' It casts aspersions on the motives of anyone who criticizes it, defends fatal mistakes with feigned naivete, and at the same time refuses to concede that its ‘logical justification’ for what is happening today is, ‘We are implementing the policy of our funder, period.’
Writing in the Saudi-based Arab News, columnist Ramzy Baroud offered a more measured, but nonetheless penetrating, critique of the station rare among Gulf-owned media outlets, especially since the Qatari and Saudi royal families reconciled longstanding differences and have both supported intervention in Syria.
Some of us have warned against the temptation of a one-narrative-fits-all style of reporting. A nonviolent popular uprising is fundamentally different from an armed rebellion, and a homegrown peaceful Tahrir Square revolution is different from NATO-Arab military and political campaigns aimed at settling old scores and fomenting sectarian conflict (as in Libya and now Syria).
Baroud argued that Al-Jazeera has ignored such distinctions. In Libya, he wrote, the channel “strove to present a perfect scenario of a perfect revolution. Now that the sentimentalization of the revolution is fading away, a harsh new reality is setting in, one that encompasses numerous armed groups, infighting and Western countries ready to share the spoils.”
As for Syria, he wrote, “there is no denial that Syria is in need of fundamental political reforms” and that “the blatant violence” employed against the uprising was “simply indefensible.” Still, he argued, there is more to Syria than a brutal “Alawite regime,” a reference to President Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian affiliation, and “a rebelling nation that never ceases to demand ‘international intervention.’”
There is also the reality, he stressed, of “ill-intentioned parties seeking their own objectives” that have little to do with the desires of many Syrians for freedom and justice. These objectives include “further isolating Iran, strengthening allies in Lebanon, weakening Damascus-based Palestinian factions and aiding U.S. allies in rearranging the entire power paradigm in the region.”
In its early days, Baroud concluded wistfully, Al-Jazeera took on taboo subjects and proudly challenged the status quo. Its overseers continued this practice in Iraq, “when mainstream Western media were disowning their own proclaimed standards of objectivity and treating Iraqis like dispensable beings undeserving of even a body count.” Now, he wrote, the dream of a balanced, yet still critically minded pan-Arab TV channel seems to be coming to an end.
Reacting to such criticisms, especially from Al-Akhbar, which has run a number of critical pieces, including from Al-Jazeera staff members who have resigned, the channel posted its own editorial last week on its website, Aljazeera.net.
Accusing Al-Akhbar of being a “Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper,” the editorial described a concerted plot to “crush the legend” of Al-Jazeera, a reference to a recent Al-Akhbar headline.
The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper does not have a monopoly on targeting Al-Jazeera. It's being done under sectarian, denominational, partisan and ideological headlines by all of Hezbollah’s media outlets, in addition to Bashar al-Assad’s media outlets and those who are loyal to the Syrian regime.
Noting that many of its current critics had “become celebrities thanks to the channel,” the piece argued that their gripes are vastly overstated -- “as if Qatar is a superpower wishing to control the region through Al-Jazeera, or as if Al-Jazeera could transform Qatar into a superpower with the ability to change maps” and redefine regional and international alliances.
"Let us forget about the praise addressed to Qatari policy back when it belonged to the resistance and rejectionist axis,” the editorial concluded, and ask if it is really logical that “Qatar has gone overnight from being an active member of the rejectionist and resistance axis to the spearhead of imperialism aimed at destroying the resistance and at dividing the Arab world on sectarian bases?"
It was an odd way for a media outlet to defend its professionalism, by arguing that it couldn't possibly have changed camps so quickly. Given that the accuracy, objectivity and fairness of its reporting weren't Al-Jazeera's main line of defense, it may take considerable repair before the channel wins new fans in the region.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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