WASHINGTON // Since it first started broadcasting in 1996, Al Jazeera Arabic has carried the slogan: “An opinion and a counter opinion”.
It was a motto designed to reflect the channel’s ambitions of stirring debate. More than 20 years later that motto may have become its Achilles heel as the network faces accusations of giving a platform to extremists and promoting an incendiary narrative.
The Qatari-owned news channel that pioneered a change in the landscape of Arab media - in both its coverage and its outreach - is at the centre of the political dispute between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain on the other. “The closure of Al Jazeera channels and its offshoots” was bullet point six on the list of 13 demands handed to Doha from the Arab states.
Why Al Jazeera? and is the goal a shut down or a restructuring?
A war of narratives
From the outset, Al Jazeera made a splash, upsetting Arab governments from Algeria to Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories. It became the first Arabic channel to report from the Israeli Knesset and interview Israeli politicians.
It gained steam and topped the ratings while indulging in what the late intellectual Fouad Ajami dubbed as “the Hollywoodization of news with an abandon that would make the Fox News Channel blush.”
"Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage", Ajami wrote in a 2001 profile of Al Jazeera in The New York Times.
It is Al Jazeera Arabic, not its English sister channel nor the online offshoots, that is at the centre of the Gulf dispute said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.
While Al Jazeera English is widely known in the west, it is Al Jazeera Arabic that has caused concern in the Arab world. From providing air time for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to carrying the statements of ISIL’s propaganda via its ‘Amaaq’ site, Al Jazeera Arabic has provided a platform for extremist and internationally-designated terrorist groups.
The criticism is focused on on the Arabic channel because “there is a war of narratives taking place in the Arab world and Al Jazeera is seen as a threat to the narrative that Qatar’s foes are advancing as a part of a major political struggle.”
The struggle, according to Mr Telhami, involves Arab governments “that see all political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as ultimately militant, and whose existence and empowerment fuels terrorism”. They also view Al Jazeera's coverage through that prism.
Alberto Fernandez, a career US diplomat who is currently vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, said Al Jazeera’s “main problem is that it often mainstreams bigoted, intolerant discourse.”
Mr Fernandez who has appeared frequently on Al Jazeera Arabic in the last 12 years,recalled one appearance in 2015 “where I found out that I was matched against a Sweden-based Iraqi exile, a former Communist who had, on a previous live appearance on Al Jazeera, made clear his support for the Islamic State while on the air.”
One of the most controversial Al jazeera segments featured Youssef Al Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric based in Doha.
The cleric has used his spot on the show to praise Hitler and to describe the Holocaust as divine retribution.
Qaradawi also used his segment to launch attacks against other Gulf countries, including the UAE. His appearances were a key part of the previous dispute with Qatar and its neighbours in 2014.
Al Jazeera is also regularly criticised for its support of various militant groups.
The channel celebrated on air the birthday of assassinated Hizbollah fighter Samir Kuntar and asked if the Alawites of Syria should be killed.
These examples illustrate a discourse “that helps the narrative of ISIL and Al Qaeda and is a huge problem in the Middle East,” said Mr Fernandez.
A former Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "There was no censorship in the news channel but there was clearly a biased editorial line that favoured the Islamists”.
The staffer who resigned before the Arab Spring tied Al Jazeera Arabic’s editorial line directly to Qatar’s foreign policy. “They are the same,” the journalist said.
A lapse in the standing of Arab media was broadly felt after the Arab Spring, Mr Telhami said. "Qatar's role as a country has changed dramatically, and with it, the way Al Jazeera has been seen ... satellite TV was spreading, they became as effective by catering to pan-Arab and pan-Islamic issues" added Mr Telhami, author of The world through Arab eyes.
While Al Jazeera “has been open to opposing views, it also has not deviated much from official Qatari policy in issues like Syria and Libya - issues over which the Arab public had become very divided, which cost Al Jazeera viewership,” he said.
“Other Arab governments, threatened by the uprisings, moved to control the media narrative even more.”
In Syria, Al Jazeera Arabic received the most criticism for twice interviewing Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, the head of Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, Al Qaeda’s Syria wing until July 2016 when they claimed to cut ties and rebranded as Jabhat Al Nusra.
“Al Jazeera does this but then there are stations in other Arab cities who do the same,” said Mr Fernandez. “There is the propaganda of sectarian militias and their counterparts in bigoted, poisonous stations like Wesal TV”, he added, describing an anti-Shiite outlet subsidised by Salafists across the region.
While the debate since the list of demands was handed to Qatar on June 22 has centred on shutting down Al Jazeera, sources involved in the talks between Doha and the Arab states are instead offering ideas to restructure and rebrand Al Jazeera Arabic.
A change in message and mission could constitute a path for solution without closing the news channel, said two regional diplomats involved in the talks with Qatar.
Mr Telhami said Al Jazeera’s early success came from the fact that the Qatari government was mostly trying to gain market share, rather than pitch a particular story, and that the network “tried to cater to Arab hearts and minds, not shape them”. After the Arab Spring uprisings Qatar’s foreign policy ambitions to support Islamist groups in countries like Egypt and Libya became constraining factors for the network..
Ideas to create a new board of directors, restructure the programming and shy away from incitement when it came to Egypt are on the table, said the two regional diplomats.
“The problem is Qatari foreign policy more than AJA itself,” said Mr Fernandez. “The station is a reflection of that policy in terms of who is criticised and who is coddled,” he said.
He does not feel that demanding changes from Al Jazeera is an encroachment on freedom of the press.
“What we are talking about here is bias not censorship and taking conscious positions that promote hatred and lead to violence.”
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