An Al Jazeera camera crew was attacked [March 30] when it went to the town of Sakhnin to cover the Land Day events there. The assailants, supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threw water bottles and other objects at them, causing some injuries. The justification for the attack was the claim that the network has been broadcasting spurious accounts of what is happening in Syria. They felt that its coverage of the uprising there is biased and one-sided.
This outbreak of violence against journalists didn’t end with the attack on Al Jazeera, either. The assailants went on to attack another crew, this one from Israel’s Channel 1, for the same reason: the media’s perceived support for the anti-Assad insurgents. In that second incident, one of the crew members was struck in the head and required treatment at the local clinic.
What happened in Sakhnin raises an important question: Why is Al Jazeera generating so much anger among Israeli Arabs, and more generally, among some sectors in the Arab world? Could the network’s coverage of events in Syria and the Arab Spring really be considered biased?
I was first exposed to the ire that some have toward the most popular and influential network in the Arab world over a decade ago, while working on a documentary film in Iraq. We were two Israelis, a director and a cameraman, along with two escorts from Kurdistan. The four of us spent two weeks roaming the cities of Iraq with our camera, documenting how the country was left divided and bleeding after the fall of Saddam’s reign of terror.
One day, near the famous Hotel Palestine on Baghdad’s main street, we were approached by an irate group of civilians, who thought that we were filming for Al Jazeera. In this case too, the cause of their anger was what they described as “biased and inflammatory coverage” of events, this time in Iraq. They contended that Al Jazeera supported the radical factions and cells that carried out deadly attacks against civilians, and that this posed a serious threat to a country that had only just been freed from the yoke of dictatorship. I should confess that I was quite relieved that those same civilians didn’t realize that we were Israelis, but in that particular instance, our country of origin seemed less problematic than our journalistic affiliation.
I’ve heard plenty of claims about Al Jazeera’s militant stance over the past few years, mainly about how the network tends to support extremist movements, groups, cells, and undergrounds. And these claims weren’t limited to Iraq, either. In the Palestinian Authority, for example, people are furious at the Qatari network for taking what they claim is a conciliatory, if not downright supportive, position on Hamas, while at the same time taking a belligerent stand against the Palestinian Authority and Fatah.
The same is true of Egypt. Throughout the revolution, claims were made that Al Jazeera not only supported the young people in Tahrir Square but also that it encouraged the demonstrators to consolidate and forcefully overthrow whatever was left of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. For the sake of balance I must admit that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt was bold, effectual, and creative. Despite restrictions imposed on them by Mubarak loyalists, the network’s journalists covering the protests made judicious use of their cell phones to get their stories out of the country.
Now it is Syria’s turn. The position taken by the network is blatant and straightforward. Al Jazeera makes no effort to hide the fact that it opposes Assad and his army because of the ruthless slaughter of innocent civilians. Similarly, it has been very vocal in its support of the rebels. The fact that some of these rebels are little more than ragtag groups of Islamist militias and criminal elements that have banded together against Assad to advance their own interests doesn’t change a thing. They still receive massive support and encouragement from the most influential network in the Arab world.
Much has already been written about Al Jazeera’s role in creating the climate that led to the Arab Spring. Founded in Qatar in 1995 with the money and support of the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the network immediately began broadcasting news and current events shows 24 hours a day, regardless of what the other Arab leaders thought about their content. Within a very short time, most of the state-run television networks in the Arab world became anachronistic and irrelevant. It quickly became clear that very few people are interested in hearing about the beneficence and other outstanding qualities of their leaders, be they presidents, kings, or emirs, especially if they could just press a button on the remote and find an Arab network that offers more critical coverage of those same leaders. They want a network that provides millions of viewers with comprehensive, clear coverage on a daily basis, broadcast at the highest quality available.
The network’s slogan, “The opinion and the other opinion,” has remained intact for years now. Nevertheless, it sometimes seems as if “the other opinion” has emerged as the predominant opinion over the past few years. Balance was sacrosanct when Al Jazeera was first founded, but it has since been violated, and the network, whose influence has grown to unprecedented levels, has assumed another role: that of kingmaker. There really is basis to the claim that the network goads people to break free and revolt against those regimes regarded by the station’s news chiefs — or by the station’s patron, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani — as being regressive. The rage accruing against the network in various countries throughout the Arab world stems from the fact that Al Jazeera not only challenges the old order, but that it also maintains ties with a number of militant movements and groups and even seems to glorify them.
The most glaring example of this is the close connection that Al Jazeera has fostered with various al-Qaeda cells. In this context, it's hard to forget the video clips showing Osama bin Laden walking in the mountains with his gun and using the network to deliver a slew of messages and instructions. It does the same for his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The network not only provided and provides them with access to a vast media forum. It was also the first network to consistently broadcast messages sent by these mass murderers.
When it comes to the Syrian uprising, however, the story is different. What I don’t understand is how so many Israeli Arabs can believe that Assad has no blood on his hands, or that the Al Jazeera network, which shows shocking footage from bombed-out cities across the country, has joined forces with the rebels in this revolt against him. The Qatari network is the “bad guy” in this story, at least as far as they are concerned. What is even more surprising is that those same people who demonstrated on behalf of Assad last week are absolutely livid (and rightly so, I might add) whenever Israel kills a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories.
Nevertheless, they seem to be far more forgiving of Assad’s regime, even though he has killed no fewer than 60,000 of his own citizens, injured hundreds of thousands more and caused a million people to flee their homes as refugees.
And the numbers keep rising.
I have a hard time understanding people who believe Assad is the victim in this story and Al Jazeera is the aggressor.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012).
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