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News anchor Rola Ibrahim is seen in the studio of the Al Jazeera satellite news channel in Doha.
FADI AL-ASSAAD
News anchor Rola Ibrahim is seen in the studio of the  Al Jazeera satellite news channel in Doha.

Al Jazeera too soft on stories close to home say watchers

While the Qatar-based satellite TV station has received widespread praise for its coverage of unrest around the Arab world, it paid less attention to unrest in Bahrain than other protests in the region because of 'political interests, according to its critics.

DOHA // Al Jazeera's coverage of protests in the Middle East has been ground-breaking, but its reporting is still less incisive when it comes to politically sensitive issues closer to home, analysts in Qatar say.

When a wave of unrest started to spread from Tunisia this year, the Doha-based satellite television network was well-placed to tap into the flood of international interest in news from the Middle East. As the anti-government protests gained steam, the company reported a 25-fold increase in hits on its English-language website.

Much of the growth has been in America, where the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, recently described Al Jazeera's reporting as "real news", while criticising local channels. The network's popularity in the US could be set for a further boost if reported talks with major cable networks lead to wider distribution.

But a larger audience may not mend what observers say is the network's Achilles heel: coverage of Gulf countries and local politics.

Mahmoud Galander, an associate professor of mass communication and information science at Qatar University, said last week that the network paid less attention to unrest in Bahrain than other protests in the region because of "political interests".

Bahrain and Qatar are both members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). "It's only natural" that media organisations are influenced by their sources of funding, Mr Galander said in an interview. Al Jazeera is funded by the Qatari government.

Najeeb al Nauimi, former minister of justice of Qatar who played a formative role in the creation of the network, said he does not believe its claim to report freely on local issues.

On one occasion, in an interview with the Arabic-language channel, he criticised the government. The interview, which was taped, was not broadcast.

"I told them: you fear the government; you cannot do anything for locals," Mr al Nauimi said. "Al Jazeera is one of the best channels in the whole of the Arab world, maybe even better than the Americans today. I appreciate that. I love it. The only weakness they have is a very little hole: it is the Qatari affairs."

Abdulaziz al Horr, the director of Al Jazeera's corporate development bureau, said the network is covering both local and international stories "with no restrictions" from government. He argues that the channel's success is evident by its exploding popularity.

"Audience and viewers are very smart. If you are biased, or if you are not professional, people will switch you off," he said, adding that countries where important stories break every day, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, will be covered more than smaller countries nearby.

"You have one screen and you have only 24 by seven, and you have limited resources, so you have to prioritise what you want to cover and how you want to cover it," Mr al Horr said. "These are editorial decisions, not political decisions."

The freedom with which journalists operate in Qatar has been deteriorating, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), an international organisation that monitors the freedom of the press. In 2008, Qatar was ranked as the 74th freest country in the index. Last year, it slipped to 121st position out of 178 countries.

A statement on the organisation's website says there is a "gap between the courageous tone of Al Jazeera journalists on international news and the restraint, even self-censorship, shown by the channel's journalists and those of other national media in relation to Qatari issues".

Khalid al Sayed, the editor-in-chief of a local English-language daily, The Peninsula, said that the local media are not censored by government but by Qataris themselves. The newspaper's policy is to refrain from criticising the emir, other senior royals and religion, and not to report on issues such as corruption without proof.

The Peninsula can discuss "internal policies" openly, Mr al Sayed said. The newspaper, however, will not report on sensitive government policies such as its decision to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel before the Gaza invasion in 2008. "Regardless if we raise it or not, it won't make any difference," he said.

While local newspapers are not owned by the state, many owners have links with the government. Qatari journalists are also inhibited by an antiquated media law that, according to Mr al Nauimi, allows any journalist "to be dragged to the police station for something he wrote".

A draft version of a new media law recently appeared in the local press, but critics say the language of the document, which warns against reporting on issues that could damage the country's integrity or abusing friendly countries, is too vague.

"Who will tell me if this is affecting the country's security or not?" Mr al Sayed asked. "This is what we are worried about. The terminology should be very clear."

Mr al Sayed said that, "it's clear for everybody" that foreign governments urge Al Jazeera to tone down coverage of sensitive issues in their countries, but argues that all media organisations, even in the West, have an agenda.

For many, even if the network's coverage of local politics is more muted than its reporting elsewhere, its unconventional approach to reporting, such as less reliance on official sources, is worth the price.

Mr Galander said Al Jazeera could inspire other Middle Eastern media companies to adopt the same approach. "If you find a place where the space of freedom is increased, then one should basically encourage these kinds of things rather than see the half-empty part of the cup," he said.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae

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