Despite obvious biases in Al Jazeera’s programming, the broadcaster has been a lone critical voice in the Arab media for the past 20 years. That has to be respected, writes Hana Al-Khamri.
I grew up in Jeddah, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, watching Al Jazeera alongside my family, neighbours and millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa. The local media in Saudi Arabia was and still is state-controlled, and local news offered only mind-numbingly dull views. We sought refuge in Al Jazeera, where ‘the opinion and the other opinion’ – the broadcaster’s motto – could be heard. At the beginning of the 2000s, Al Jazeera’s most popular programme, The Other Direction, hosted a Saudi dissident who had blasted the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, live on television. This episode in particular caused great controversy; people would glance left and right and drop their voices to a whisper before discussing what they had seen on Al Jazeera.
Its critical voice has often not been welcome, and the station has had plenty of trouble right from the start.We in the Arab world are accustomed to state-controlled news, and most local media are mere propaganda machines serving the state’s interest. History has shown this: in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war, the anchor of the popular Sawt al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio programme based in Cairo declared falsely that the Arab armies had crushed the Israeli army and reached Tel Aviv; it was only through foreign media that people learnt that the Arab armies had in fact been utterly defeated and local media were lying. In 1990, residents of Saudi Arabia did not know about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for three days, as the royal family ordered local media outlets not to inform the public of the onset of the Gulf War. Arabs’ trust in local media has been shattered ever since.
Al Jazeera was a platform that revolutionised Arab journalism and broke its mould, with programmes that dared to air the voices of dissent and allowed criticism of monarchies and dictators on live television, something once unthinkable in the Arab world. As a young journalist in Saudi Arabia, I worked as a correspondent for a youth website in Doha sponsored by Al Jazeera. On this website I had a platform to publish articles censored by local Saudi newspaper Al-Madina, addressing the human rights situation, the arrest of reformists and the condition of womens’ rights in the Saudi Kingdom. In one case, after the arrest of blogger Fouad al-Farhan in late 2007, I interviewed his wife about the circumstances of his detention. The editor of my local newspaper refused to report on the case, but Al Jazeera Talk published my article.
Of course, the broadcaster's clear biases have always been evident. While Al Jazeera would happily cover a crackdown on human rights in a neighbour state, its gaze seemed less likely to linger on the situation in its home of Qatar. Since its first broadcast in 1996, the pan-Arab television station has styled itself as the pulpit for those with no pulpit. But as Qatar pro-democracy activist Ali Khalifa Al Kuwari wrote in his book The People Want Reform… in Qatar, Too (published in 2012), this pulpit does not extend to the people of Qatar themselves, who can only express discontent with the country’s ruling monarchy in private.
Media as Soft Power
Al Jazeera was founded in 1996 by then Emir of Qatar Hamad al-Thani. The ruler of the tiny peninsula with a native population of well under half a million was concerned for his nation’s future. How could this tiny yet wealthy state survive an anarchic world? Would it be swallowed by giant neighbouring countries, as Kuwait almost was in 1990? Moreover, Saudi hegemony and its promises to protect the security of its neighbouring Gulf states under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were found wanting when it failed to protect Kuwait from Iraqi aggression. This, among other reasons, led Qatar’s rulers to search for alternatives to guarantee its security and dismantle its dependence on Saudi Arabia, crafting a unique foreign policy to protect its interests and its fragile national security. The regime became close to friends but even closer to enemies. Qatar established relations from Washington to Tehran, the Muslim Brotherhood to Israel, hosted international events, played the role of peacemaker in a febrile region, and constructed Al Jazeera as one of its soft power arms. Oil and gas revenues have facilitated the cost of its foreign policy.
The channel was built on the ruins of BBC Arabic, which was disbanded in the mid-1990s due to disagreement between the network and its Saudi Arabian partners, after the Saudis attempted to censor the broadcast when it discussed Saudi ruling family affairs. The sudden closure left many media professionals unemployed; they were promptly recruited by Al Jazeera. Editors, reporters and producers were highly skilled and highly trained, and there was pride inside the channel – at least prior to the Arab Spring – where people compared its journalistic style to the BBC. Its critical voice has often not been welcome, and the station has had plenty of trouble right from the start. Its offices were bombarded by the American air force in Iraq and Afghanistan; its journalists have spent time in prison for doing their job; and it is often criticised by governments across the Middle East, in public and – more stridently – in private.
Saudi Arabia, the big brother of the Gulf, views Qatar as a troubling actor and has sought to defuse its influence in the region. Al Jazeera has been at the heart of this dispute since the early 2000s, after allowing Saudi opposition figures to speak on Al Jazeera Arabic. The Saudi government withdrew its diplomatic mission from Doha and ordered the Qatari mission to leave Saudi territory, and the station was not allowed to have an office in the Kingdom. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar were reduced when the current emir, Tamim Al-Thani, came to power in 2013; Al Jazeera was allowed to cover the pilgrimage season in the two holy cities and eventually the channel was permitted to open an office in Riyadh.
Then Came the Arab Spring
But things changed for Al Jazeera in 2011 as the Arab Spring shook the region. While Al Jazeera English, launched in 2007, continued to uphold a level of professional objectivity (except with respect to criticism of the Qatari regime), its Arabic programming completely lost its compass, and it is undeniable that Al Jazeera Arabic became a vehicle for promoting Qatar’s agenda. For instance, the network boosted Qatari-backed rebel fighters in Libya and Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, in an attempt to empower a new political ideology to balance Saudi hegemony. Al Jazeera’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its criticisms of Arab governments have brought it into the current Gulf diplomatic crisis.
We should support the rights of Al Jazeera – both its Arabic and English channels – to information and freedom of expression.And while Al Jazeera Arabic was vocal in reporting on the dramatic political changes that swept across Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, this enthusiasm was restricted to certain countries; the channel did not cover the Shia minority’s demands for equal citizenship and democracy in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, nor did Syria receive adequate coverage at the beginning of the uprising. I was one of the young Arabs who signed a petition to the network demanding that it follow the same editorial policy in covering revolutions across the region.
I was also shocked by the reshuffle of the channel’s leadership, which culminated in the resignation of veteran journalist Wadah Khanfar as director general in September 2011, and his replacement by a member of the Qatari royal family, Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, who served until 2013. The change suggested to me that the station was moving further away from its principles of impartiality and objectivity. These dramatic shifts in the channel’s leadership and policies led to a decline in its popularity, compounded by the fact that local media outlets in the region had multiplied rapidly thanks to the freedom granted by the revolutions, allowing diverse views.
But the impact of Al Jazeera on the people of the Middle East – who are thirsty for free media – has been greater than perhaps even its founder anticipated. For more than 20 years, Al Jazeera has weathered countless political storms in the region. I admit that I no longer romanticise Al Jazeera Arabic as I did when I was a young journalist glued to its coverage from the other side of the peninsula. Since 2011, I have often questioned the veracity of the channel’s coverage. I will remain critical until the channel relinquishes its role as a mouthpiece for the Qatari government, and until Ali Khalifa Al Kuwari and his fellow reformist citizens in Qatar are given a platform to challenge the undemocratic state of Qatar.
But whether Al Jazeera’s journalism is objective or not, and whether it is propagating Qatar’s foreign policy views or not, we should still stand wholeheartedly for the principle of free speech and deny the infuriating call by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to close the channel. It is absurd that a country like Saudi Arabia – with a horrifying human rights record and its own connections to terrorism – should accuse Al Jazeera and Qatar of backing terrorist organisations. We should support the rights of Al Jazeera – both its Arabic and English channels – to information and freedom of expression. At the same time we should continue to scrutinise, and if necessary criticise, the content of the channel and in some cases the partial stance of its reporting. Al Jazeera was the first attempt to plant the seeds of freedom of expression in the Arabian Desert. This should not be forgotten.
Hana Al-Khamri formerly worked as a journalist in Saudi Arabia. Currently based in Sweden, she works as a consultant for NGOs and as an analyst and commentator on Yemen and Saudi Arabia.