x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Al Jazeera's historic role in Arab political change becomes a news story in itself

In just two decades, Al Jazeera has helped to transform Arabic television news, to the benefit of peoples across the region. Now it is to undergo a change of leaders.

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic language television satellite channel that revolutionised television news coverage throughout the Arab world, is undergoing a revolution itself.

In a surprising move, and in spite of many achievements, the station's long-serving general director was pushed out last week, to be replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family. The former director, Wadah Khanfar, saw Al Jazeera through its founding and turned the station into a household name throughout the Arab world and beyond. Its English-language sister channel gained popularity in the West for its coverage of recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

The leadership change corresponded with new WikiLeaks cables, which indicated that the station had given in to US pressure when its editorial line was felt in Washington to be too anti-American. The cables went further, showing that Mr Khanfar had been involved in high-level conversations between the US State Department and Doha government officials.

For a news organisation that had forged a reputation for independence, particularly for standing up to the Bush administration during the Iraq war, the charges force a re-evaluation. As is often the case in the Middle East, issues tend to be debated with great vigour and passion. The often-controversial Al Jazeera, founded after the 1990-91 Gulf War when many Arabs felt they were not receiving adequate news reports from the front lines, has always been either loved or hated.

The new revelations should not detract from the important role Al Jazeera played - and continues to play - in awakening the Arab political conscience and in shaping political debate in the region.

From the outset, Al Jazeera stirred controversy, often being accused of supporting radical Islamists and terrorists. But Al Jazeera's management and journalists should be recognised for setting four major precedents in Arab journalism.

First, Al Jazeera banished the monopoly held by Arab governments on television news. Before the creation of Al Jazeera, the only television news available to the people in Syria, for example, was from the Syrian state. The same held true for Egypt and elsewhere.

Those stations were almost entirely devoted to promoting the regime and the country's leader. Much to the displeasure of many top officials in the Arab world, Al Jazeera challenged that mould.

Second, Al Jazeera introduced competition among Arab stations, a very healthy development for journalism in any region. Since its inception, 250 other Arabic channels have launched across the region: Al Arabiya, Middle East Broadcasting Company, Nile TV, Future TV, the US-funded Al Hurra, Hizbollah's Manar TV (which includes a programme in Hebrew) and many others.

Third, by introducing variety in opinion and programming, Al Jazeera managed to kick ajar the door to democracy and free speech in the Arab Middle East, while admittedly not being allowed to criticise the Qatari government. At a time when it was taboo, even dangerous, to simply utter the word "Israel" in certain countries, Al Jazeera took the courageous step of opening bureaus in Israel.

And fourth, Arabic audiences were finally able to get relatively independent information from an Arab rather than a western perspective. Until Al Jazeera came along, viewers depended on the Arabic services of the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) or Radio Monte Carlo, or, if they were really desperate, the Arabic service of the Voice of America.

The United States disconnect with the region was encapsulated by animosity towards Al Jazeera over its position on the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Before the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera was the only station to have a correspondent based in Kabul. The US military later accused him of working with Al Qaeda and arrested him.

Many in Washington and elsewhere questioned the station's ability to report objectively. And, to an extent, Al Jazeera revelled in that reputation for standing up to Washington, which makes the WikiLeaks revelations of collusion a complicated issue. It could be that the Doha-based organisation was just making compromises that seemed necessary for its operations.

An honest assessment is that is has been difficult to pin any one political label on Al Jazeera, aside from its obvious pro-Qatar stance. During the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera's English station provided the authoritative record of events with impeccable minute-by- minute reporting despite the fact that its correspondents were officially banned in some countries and its camera crews arrested and beaten more than once.

It is much too early to judge the outcome of this change of regime at Al Jazeera in terms of news coverage. One only hopes that it does not herald the end of what was a courageous - and certainly at times difficult - first step in Arab journalism.

 

csalhani@thenational.ae