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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Obedient Al Jazeera

Silence on Bahrain puts objectivity into question

Commentary - Executive magazine

Bahraini pro-government supporters hold signs asking Al Jazeera and BBC news channels to stay neutral in their coverage of Bahraini news during a gathering near the Al Fateh mosque


Since Al Jazeera’s launch in 1996 its slogan has been “the opinion and the other opinion.” Its objective of telling both sides of the story has won over many audiences, while at the same time making the channel more than a few enemies — namely Saudi Arabia, which set up Al Arabiya in response to the Qatar-based network’s regional and global rise.


Banned at one point or another in nearly every Middle Eastern country, Al Jazeera has for the most part lived up to its truth-seeking pledge, but its slogan is now in danger of being undermined by its lop-sided coverage of the Arab revolts. The year began all roses for Al Jazeera, credited with being instrumental to the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes due to its round-the-clock coverage of demonstrations and its ability to give the uprisings widespread visibility. As a result, Al Jazeera has been praised in the Western media and by the White House, which was apparently glued to Al Jazeera English’s (AJE) coverage of Egypt. British newspaper The Daily Telegraph gushed in April: “The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011 are being hailed in Washington as the ‘Al Jazeera moment’,” and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald trumpeted: “Al Jazeera is changing minds and hearts.”


Missing from these glowing accounts, though, was that the uprising in Bahrain was barely covered by Al Jazeera Arabic, with only slightly better coverage on AJE. Given Al Jazeera’s integral role in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, its muted coverage of the Bahraini uprising since it began in mid-February has come as a slap in the face to the countless demonstrators there. Furthermore, Al Jazeera gave the detention and alleged torture of hundreds of Bahraini demonstrators scant coverage compared to similar events in Egypt, while the channel also failed to air potentially damning footage of the demolition of the symbol of the uprising, the Pearl roundabout, and 16 Shia mosques — a silence that could only be called an abdication of Al Jazeera’s self-proclaimed duty to objectively inform regional opinion.


At the heart of the matter is Qatar’s membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), established in 1981 as a security pact among the Gulf monarchies in the wake of the 1979 siege of Mecca. Qatar’s position in the GCC pushed Doha to deploy troops to Bahrain when martial law was declared on March 15, but a casualty of this military intervention has been Al Jazeera’s objective news coverage.


With regard to Bahrain, Al Jazeera seems quite clearly to be acting as an extension of the Qatari government’s foreign policy and leaves the channel vulnerable to accusations of “double standards,” politically acceptable uprisings in the name of democracy — in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen for instance — are covered and supported; uprisings against the Qatari national interest — such as in Bahrain — are largely dismissed. Ironically, Al Jazeera was banned in Bahrain last year, which the channel suggested may have been because of a report it aired on the country’s poverty, but which Bloomberg suggested was related to Manama’s wanting to increase Qatar’s rent for use of the Hawar islands.


A 2009 United States diplomatic cable, released by Wikileaks, highlights the geo-political role of Al Jazeera, with US ambassador to Qatar, Joseph LeBaron, noting: “Al Jazeera’s ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar… Moreover, the network can also be used as a chip to improve relations. For example, Al Jazeera’s more favorable coverage of Saudi Arabia’s royal family has facilitated Qatari-Saudi reconciliation over the past year.”


Al Jazeera’s “objective coverage” should also come under greater scrutiny in regards to Libya given Qatar’s vested interests there, including Doha’s role in the NATO-led air strikes and the inking of an oil distribution agreement with the Libyan rebels the day before the strikes began. Uncritical coverage of Qatari issues has also been a hallmark of the station since its inception. Thus, while Al Jazeera has generally helped raise the bar on network news coverage and pushed television reportage to a new level, those who’ve championed the channel as some sort of media Messiah immune to the failings of major Western news outlets should take heed — there is “the opinion and the other opinion”, and then there is the opinion of the Emir of Qatar.


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