DOHA, Qatar — For months, Qatar-based al-Jazeera provided intense coverage of the uprisings that have rocked the Middle East, often almost cheering along the protesters. But when tanks from Saudi Arabia rolled in to quell anti-government demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain in March, the Arabic-language news network’s reporting was only sporadic and markedly neutral, critics say.
That contrasting approach has brought fresh attention to al-Jazeera’s close ties to the Qatari government, which owns the influential network, and prompted charges that the broadcaster is serving as an instrument of Qatar’s ambitious foreign policy.
As the unrest moved closer to home, critics say, the limits of al-Jazeera’s independence were exposed: Although it supported uprisings against some longtime Arab regimes, the network, and its owner, clearly drew the line when another Persian Gulf monarchy was threatened.
“In other Arab countries, the channel was clearly on the side of the uprisings,” said Joseph Massad, an associate professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University. But in Bahrain, “it pretended to be impartial while pushing the line of the Bahraini regime.”
Al-Jazeera executives say both its Arabic-language channel and the global news channel al-Jazeera English operate independently of state control. But the broadcaster is the most prominent outlet of the government-owned Qatar Media, which is led by a cousin of the emir, and a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable made public by WikiLeaks describes al-Jazeera as “an instrument of Qatari influence.”
“They have lost their credibility in the Arab world, by either covering developments one sided — or completely ignoring them,” said As’ad AbuKhalil, author of the Angry Arab News Service, a widely read blog about media coverage of the Arab world, and a prominent voice among the growing number of academics and media analysts speaking out against the network. “They became a typical regime station,” he wrote May 7. “Their political agenda is not even masked.”
‘A voice to the voiceless’
Al-Jazeera’s slogan says it strives to give “a voice to the voiceless,” and the network built its reputation with its critical coverage of the the Iraq war. Since then — operating from one of the world’s smallest, and richest, countries — its ratings have soared, making it the dominant Arabic-language news channel in the region.
Journalists working at the broadcaster’s frenetic nerve center in Doha say they are not activists but are proud of the role the network has played during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
“The revolutions would have happened without al-Jazeera,” said Satnam Matharu, its director of communications. “But our cameras protected those voices calling for democracy. We gave them a sense of security.”
Al-Jazeera’s intense reporting on the Arab uprisings has brought international praise. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in March hailed the broadcaster for bringing what she called “real news” and changing people’s attitudes. On May 4, al-Jazeera English, launched in 2006, received the Columbia Journalism Award for its coverage.
Immune from the steep budget cuts facing many western networks, al-Jazeera — Arabic for “the peninsula,” after the tiny slab of desert that makes up the emirate — is planning to launch new channels in Turkish, Serbo-Croatian and Swahili.
Before al-Jazeera’s creation in 1996, “Arab governments controlled the narrative,” Matharu said. “We gave people a voice.”
That voice thundered loudly in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 1, when jubilant crowds watched President Hosni Mubarak on fabric hung as a makeshift screen to display al-Jazeera’s broadcast.
As pressure mounted on Mubarak, Egyptian authorities blocked the network’s satellite transmissions, prompting al-Jazeera to switch frequencies. The network continued its enthusiastic reporting, prompting Egypt’s security forces to accuse it of “inciting the people” and to crack down hard against its reporters.
But on the streets of Cairo, young people spray-painted the broadcaster’s name on walls, and the station’s journalists, many of them Egyptian, became revolutionary heroes.
Two sets of standards?
The war in Libya, and the involvement of Qatari fighter jets, marked a turning point for al-Jazeera, said Massad, who monitors its broadcasts.
Qatar was the only Arab state to actively join in NATO operations; al-Jazeera Arabic’s presenters called Libyan rebels killed in the conflict “martyrs,” and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi were labeled “mercenaries.”
“Al-Jazeera Arabic changed from the most important Arab media voice against U.S. and European policies in the region to a champion and an apologist for such intervention,” Massad said.
As the unrest moved closer to Qatar, the situation became more uncomfortable for the government, and, critics charge, the network’s independence suffered.