Al-Jazeera in the Crosshairs: Balanced Reporting or Sectarian Bias?
In early March, the leadership at Al Jazeera, the most popular Arab language satellite news station, sat down with National Public Radio to discuss the difficulties of independent, investigative journalism in the Middle East, in light of the Doha based organization’s successful coverage of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Al Jazeera’s Director of Communications, Satnam Matharu, told NPR, “So, the reason that we get cut off on a regular basis, our signal gets hijacked, dis rupted, blocked, you know, turned off, shifted on the same satellite so people can’t find us, [is because] governments are not happy to see what’s actually happening on the streets.”
For years, Arab media consisted of state-run television channels rolling out Western movies, Arabic soap operas, and “news” highlighting the government’s one-dimensional “good deeds” for the country and region. Then came Al Jazeera, which provided a high-quality alternative for the average Arab viewer. In Egypt, Al Jazeera broadcast “the Arab street” to the Middle East and the world, including policymakers in the White House. The harrowing coverage, particularly that of media sensation Ayman Mohyeldin (one of TIME’s most influential people in 2011), showed the world an inspiring democratic revolution.
But as Al Jazeera gains more popularity in the West, a disturbing trend in its coverage is coming to light: the media outlet is conspicuously failing to cover the Shiite protests in Bahrain and the subsequent government-inflicted violence against peaceful protesters. Federally funded but independent media outlets like the British Broadcasting Company have produced valuable, independent journalism. But signs are emerging that Al Jazeera is not able to operate with the journalistic freedom that we expect from similarly operated outlets like the BBC.
These omissions are linked to Al Jazeera’s leadership and history. Al Jazeera is owned by the Qatari government, whose leader Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the news network, including the provision of an almost $130 million loan to launch the news network in the late 1990s. The Sheikh told the New York Times in 2005 that the government provides Al Jazeera with a yearly subsidy totaling nearly $50 million. Al-Thani has repeatedly extolled the need for more independent media voices in the Middle East, but the government is not funding Al Jazeera purely out of philanthropic goodwill.
In 2010, a Wikileaks document revealed that the Qatari government utilized Al Jazeera “as a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries, particularly those soured by Al Jazeera’s broadcasts, including the United States.” Another Wikileaks document indicated that Al Jazeera “has proved itself a useful tool for the station’s political masters.” Yet another Wikileaks document said, “Relations [between Qatar and Saudi Arabia] are generally improving after Qatar toned down criticism of the Saudi royal family on Al Jazeera.” The BBC it is not.
Over the last two months, the casual news consumer did not need to scan the Wikileaks documents to recognize that Al Jazeera’s coverage is highly-influenced by the Qatari government and its relations with its neighbors, most notably Saudi Arabia. Al Jazeera has provided limited coverage of the unrest in Bahrain, which began in March, where hundreds have been killed, thousands arrested, and a Shiite population lives in fear. Why?
For starters, Bahrain’s mass protests were the first of their kind in the Gulf Cooperative Council. Making matters worse, the Sunni minority has long feared the possibility of the Shiite majority becoming a pawn of the Iranian government (Saudi’s hated rival). Saudi Arabia is a fellow member of the powerful GCC and a key ally of Qatar. As Qatar attempts to play a more influential role in the Middle East (it just announced that Hamas would set up offices in the country), it needs Saudi support to become a regional leader. For this to work, Qatar needed to keep Al Jazeera away from Bahrain.
Two weeks ago, David Pollack, scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted the Al Jazeera phenomenon in an essay. His research found that, “Aljazeera Arabic did not report on the hardening of the Bahraini opposition on March 8, when the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic called for an end to the monarchy, nor did it cover protests held there on March 9, 10, and 13, the critical days leading to Saudi Arabia’s decision to send troops into Bahrain.” He added that, “while Aljazeera [sic] English showed pictures of Saudi troops headed across the causeway connecting the two kingdoms, Aljazeera Arabic’s headline read “Bahrain’s Government Rejects Foreign Intervention” — alluding to Iran!”
Al Jazeera’s leadership told Reuters in mid-April that it faced a “challenging terrain” in Bahrain and that “Editorial priorities are weighed on a number of factors at any given moment.” An analyst based in London didn’t buy that excuse saying, “There has been fantastic pressure from Saudi Arabia on Qatar to join in (the Gulf military operation) in Bahrain, and at least to rein in Al Jazeera.”
Statements from Al Jazeera staff on the topic have varied significantly. Ghassan bin Jeddo, a news presenter for Al Jazeera, resigned in April 2011 for what Israeli newspaper Ynet describes as, “morally motivated [reason] as Al Jazeera highlighted the developments in Libya, Yemen, and Syria- but not Bahrain.” Another reporter for, Hafez al-Mirazi, had his Al-Arabiya show cancelled due to his insistence on discussing Gulf politics. He told Reuters, “I said there was no excuse for anyone at Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya to discuss Egypt while not being able to talk about the Emir of Qatar or Qatari politics or King Abdullah and Saudi politics.”
As the situation for Shiites in Bahrain deteriorates by the day, increased media coverage could do a lot to improve the oppression facing protesters. With Al Jazeera all but silent on the issues, the prospects for increased coverage seems bleak. Besides Al Jazeera, Bahrain kicked other several news outlets and reporters, including New York Times writer Nick Kristof, who was harassed for his reporting.
For Al Jazeera to earn a reputation as a true, independent news network, with its priorities on the story and not the political agenda of its host country, the network must cover all issues, not just those that are convenient to regional politics.
By Kianpars, Aslan Media Columnist
AUTHOR’S POSTSCRIPT 6/3/2011: In the past month, Al-Jazeera English has significantly increased its coverage of the events in Bahrain. Just this week, Al-Jazeera English posted this gripping article detailing a recent government attack on Shiite protesters in Bahrain. With press restrictions in Bahrain at an all time high, covering this highly important story can be extremely difficult and at times nearly impossible.
Aslan Media reminds readers that the words written here are the opinion of the Columnist and do not necessary reflect the opinions of Aslan Media Initiatives or its staff.
EDITORIAL CORRECTIONS: Aslan Media apologizes for two mistakes in the original print, which have since been corrected: Al Jazeer’s headquarters are in Doha, not Dubai; and Hafez al-Mirazi’s show was on Al-Arabiya, not Al Jazeera.