Eight years ago, I wrote an optimistic column praising the Qatari-based Al Jazeera satellite network. My piece, “The Al Jazeera Revolution Turns Ten,” was published in five languages and reprinted around the world. The success and changes that the Doha-based television station brought to Arab media disappeared with the so-called Arab Spring. While Al Jazeera's original Arabic channel remains the most watched news station in the Arab region, its professionalism and impartiality has taken a few hits in recent years. The international Al Jazeera English is, however, a different story.
The English channel's tone is softer, and it is audibly calmer. Well-known and respected reporters, anchors and editors from a number of nations comprise the Doha-based station team and the channel's foreign outposts. This version of Al Jazeera won a Peabody Award in 2012 for its Arab Spring coverage. Its 24-hour news coverage shifts among regions and their priorities, allowing it, for example, to provide prime-time viewers in China with news relevant to them at 8:00 p.m. The concept has been so successful that CNN International felt compelled to add an anchor to prime-time evening hours broadcasting out of Abu Dhabi.
Al Jazeera English's coverage also offers more balance and nuance. For example, in referring to the July 2013 events in Egypt, Al Jazeera Arabic regularly calls the change in government a "coup," while the English channel calls it a "military-led overthrow of Morsi."
While Al Jazeera English as well as Al Jazeera America have been gaining in prestige, the Arabic station has not fared as well. For years, Al Jazeera Arabic's critics have been wondering how the privately owned, but Qatari-subsidized network would cover a purely Qatari news story. The question remained unanswered simply because nothing newsworthy happened in the tiny Gulf state. The Al-Thani's succession from father to son in June 2013 was perhaps a big story, but despite its possible ramifications, it was mostly an internal affair. Recently, however, a major story about Qatar did break, and the once highly professional television news channel failed in its handling of it.
I was in Doha on March 5 when three Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — decided to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar. This was a major news story that would normally receive priority coverage on any Arab station. This, however, is not what happened at the Arabic-language Al Jazeera, the broadcaster's flagship station. Despite being the day's top story, the diplomatic dispute was fourth on the news agenda of Al Jazeera's main nightly news program, broadcast at 9:00 p.m. After three Egyptian-related news stories, the Qatari Al Jazeera anchor read the Doha government’s press release on the matter. There were no comments, no interviews.
"Hasad Al Yom" (The Day’s Harvest), Al Jazeera’s one-hour, in-depth nightly news program airing at 11:00 p.m., did not do much better. Fifteen minutes into the program, viewers were finally presented with coverage of the dispute. Not only was the story ranked low in terms of importance, but the coverage was handled in a defensive manner. Any unfavorable comment about Qatar was jumped on, while supporters of Qatar were given a free ride. There were no attempts to get to the bottom of the story. No Qatari official was interviewed, and no news was broken. Viewers were left with a Kuwaiti, a Saudi and a Qatari pundit to provide reactions, rather than the network supplying background on the most important news regarding Qatar.
If Al Jazeera's news coverage from March 5 were to be evaluated by a media professional, it would certainly get low grades for it poor handling of such a major news story. Such treatment of a crisis involving a media patron would be normal for most Arab news networks, but other Arab stations are not Al Jazeera. They do not make the same claims to professionalism.
Some would argue that Al Jazeera’s real agenda has always been there, but was cleverly concealed by using professional journalists, who provided cover to the funders’ real intent. If that is the case, then the mask was undoubtedly lifted on March 5. With one look at Al Jazeera’s Mubasher station in Egypt, which runs nonstop videos of pro-Morsi demonstrations, viewers might incorrectly conclude that they were watching a Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece. Al Jazeera officials in Doha told Al-Monitor that no one from the current Egyptian government or its supporters will agree to appear on the channel.
The discrepancies between Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels speaks to the differing editorial approaches of the Arabic-language channel and the English service, which competes for its market share with a host of international outlets. It also reveals how Al Jazeera distinguishes between its audiences by applying different standards to its English and Arabic services.
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