Doha's mouthpiece

by Hazem Saghieh

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Since its early days, the television channel Al Jazeera has been surrounded by stories of intrigue and political wrangling. Seven months before the station started broadcasting in 1996 in Doha, Qatar, Prince Hamad ibn Chalifa Al Thani had deposed his father Emir Chalifa ibn Hamad in a bloodless coup. The Prince rose to become the most powerful man in Qatar, and vowed to punish all those who had opposed his claim to power throughout the years. In particularly he held a grudge towards Saudi Arabia and Egypt, states that long supported his father and kept him in office. Now that he could finally draw from Qatar's treasury, he wanted to take revenge – rhetorically and politically. And how to better direct public discourse according to him than with his own television channel? The first ideological cornerstone for Al Jazeera was laid.

The second calculation which preceded Al Jazeera's establishment - and was by no means less megalomaniacal - was the ambition to oppose the Western and especially American monopoly on media coverage on television with his own Qatari TV channel. During the First Persian Gulf War in 1991, American channels such as CNN had revolutionised war reporting. With running on-site coverage, they beamed the war into living rooms around the globe in real time – while securing a U.S. monopoly on the images of what was happening around the Gulf. Suddenly, it was the television channels of New York City and Washington D.C. that decided which pictures the international community would see in the evening news. Al Jazeera was designed to disrupt this dangerous concentration of power, serving as a kind of "Arab CNN".

However, the channel's meteoric rise just after its establishment had little to do with the strange political visions that were devised in Qatari back rooms. It was more a socio-political breeding ground met by Al Jazeera at the turn of the millennium which facilitated the channel's development. At this point in time, there was a widespread feeling of powerlessness in the Arab world. Millions of people were fighting with the certainty that their states were stagnating, that politicians were morally bankrupt and that there was a lack of alternatives. Al Jazeera took advantage of this ideological and political vacuum. In no time, the channel won a steady following, especially among the Arab youth and in radicalised parts of society. By 2003, the political debate show "Al-Ittijah Al-Mua'akis", "The Countermovement", was followed by an audience of more than 30 million people.

In addition, Al Jazeera's was founded at a time when the relationship between the Arab world and the West was fundamentally changing. The discourse among Arab intellectuals slowly shifted: While in the 20th century, they were still preaching the dogma "learn from the West", Europe and especially the USA were increasingly turning into warmongering antagonists in the Arab perception of the 21st century. "Identity through rejection" became the new dogma of the Arab process of self-discovery – and Al Jazeera functioned as the mouthpiece for this consciousness. Meanwhile, the channel's rise was not necessarily perceived as a threat in the West. The interest in politics and culture of the Middle East and North Africa came to a head in the 1990s, and many political observers celebrated Al Jazeera's foundation as an indicator for the emergence of a new pan-Arab voice. Among populist leftists and critics of the USA in Europe and America, the channel was temporarily even perceived as a welcome anti-American counterbalance. George W. Bush repeatedly criticising the television station only strengthened its reputation.

And indeed it seemed for a while that the channel from Qatar could substantially change the power relations within the global media landscape: For the first time, young Arab journalists got the opportunity to report from their home countries on a large scale. With the channel becoming professionalised, more and more renowned reporters, also from the British BBC, were hired by Al Jazeera. For a short moment, it seemed possible to bring together modern reporting and a traditional character among the editors in Doha; it seemed possible that there would be a television programme that, on the one hand, would spread Islamic maxims in shows such as "Al-Sharia wal-Haya" ("Religious Law and Life") and on the other hand would broadcast objective and realistic political reporting from the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the influence of the Qatari royal family, Al Jazeera seemed to develop into a news channel that would be taken seriously.

However, this hope which was not only harboured in the Arab world but also among leftist intellectuals in the West, should soon be disappointed. In the coverage of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, it first became clear that Al Jazeera was not the channel that would fulfil the wish of an independent Arab television station. Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians were occasionally declared live on camera as acts of heroism and martyrdom. If an Israeli was murdered, journalists would make do with a mere "was killed", but if Israelis murdered Palestinians, they spoke of "atrocities" and "blatant human rights violations". In 2004, during the American siege of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the Egyptian Al Jazeera reporter Ahmad Mansour, who never made a secret of his political proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote a report in which he described how, "with his own eyes", he saw angels falling from the sky to fight side by side with the Iraqi resistance fighters against the Americans. Inventing victories over the "evil West" where there were no victories, and depicting the already brutal reality of war even more brutally, according to their own ideology and ratings, became part of the channel's daily operations.

At the same time, the editors from Doha repeatedly managed to leave Qatari politics out of the programme. While the Qatari royal family's influence on the channel's reporting seemed to be rather subtle for a long time, it emerged all the more obviously by the begin of the Arab Spring. In many reports, the Muslim Brothers were glorified as the new political hope of the Arab world. When Mohammed Morsi was elected president in Egypt in 2012, Al Jazeera openly celebrated it. And also with regards to the economic blockade that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt are imposing against Qatar since 2017, the channel is presenting itself not as an independent pan-Arab publishing house, but rather as an executional aid of Qatari politics. Instead of uncovering background stories, it has positioned itself as the royal family's lapdog.

The fact that Al Jazeera's reputation suffered also in the Middle East should be evident since the list of demands to revoke the 2017 blockade against Qatar also showed, among others, a demand for closing down the channel. The political opponents of the Gulf State have an interest in the closure of Al Jazeera. However, this is not because promoting independent journalism is important to them, but because they are fighting for the control over media coverage in the same way as Qatar is. What Al Jazeera is for Qatar, Al-Arabiya is for Saudi Arabia.

Al Jazeera fell into disrepute not only among Qatar's opponents, but also its own audience's support is crumbling. The incessant support of the Muslim Brothers and of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, especially after his removal, led to the more critical parts of its audience turn their backs to the channel. And whereby the Arab youth once hoped to find a new mouthpiece for their wishes and concerns, it now turns away in disappointment and logs in to Facebook. Al Jazeera has long crushed its chance to incite a real Arab media revolution. 

Translated by Ralloù Moutafis 

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