Al Jazeera may have its flaws, but its persecution is seriously bad news for the world, says PAUL KNOTT
As a news-addicted citizen of the world, it was Al Jazeera’s in-depth report on the last Ecuadorean election that finally won me over. The ground-breaking global news channel covers places and viewpoints others do not. Sadly, its daring approach and Qatari origins have earned Al Jazeera many powerful enemies, who are now threatening its existence.
Al Jazeera has been boldly going where others decline to tread ever since it was launched. It first shot to global prominence by being the only channel that was on the ground to cover the 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraq.
The station quickly acquired even greater fame after 9/11 as Osama bin Laden’s chosen outlet for his missives to the world from his hideout. This led some politicians and commentators to condemn Al Jazeera – ludicrously – as a supposed terrorist mouthpiece.
The Bin Laden tapes are the root of the wider accusation that Al Jazeera sides with Islamist extremists, or at least provides them with a platform to spread their poisonous views. On rare occasions, this complaint can be substantiated, particularly against the channel’s original Arabic language arm. There have been incidents of guests making anti-Semitic remarks, albeit far less shamefully often than has long been the case on some Arab state TV broadcasters. Arguably, Al Jazeera could also at times be more critical of the Hamas movement in Palestine’s Gaza Strip or some of the more unsavoury Syrian opposition militias. But a few isolated failures hardly amount to a policy of promoting extremism. Any of Al Jazeera’s TV news competitors would have jumped to secure exclusive access to bin Laden’s video messages – as CNN proved when it won the scramble for Al Jazeera’s permission to be the second broadcaster of them. The declarations of the world’s most dangerous and sought-after man were clearly newsworthy. And it was firmly in the public interest to hear what was motivating his maniacal plans.
In reality, Al Jazeera was the obvious outlet for the Bin Laden tapes because of its Middle Eastern origins and large audience in the region. Perhaps, more importantly, it had also built the network on the ground to obtain access to them. Its news-gathering instincts and willingness to get off the beaten path meant it was the only major media organisation to maintain a full office in Afghanistan before 9/11, when the Afghan conflict had largely been forgotten by the outside world.
Al Jazeera’s willingness to go beyond embedded journalism with official forces subsequently established it as essential viewing during the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Its commitment to reporting ‘the opinion and the other opinion’, as the station’s motto puts it, is both its greatest strength and a vulnerability. Some governments often seem less keen on allowing opinions other than their own to be heard. Al Jazeera’s Kabul office was destroyed by US bombs in 2001. An accident, said the Americans. Rather carelessly, a similar accident occurred in Baghdad in 2003, resulting in the death of an Al Jazeera journalist. The plausibility of this deadly outbreak of déjà vu was undermined when it was revealed that Al Jazeera had given the US military their clearly marked office’s coordinates to prevent such a misfortune occurring.
India and Israel are amongst the countries that have sought to ban Al Jazeera for what their governments deem to be unfavourable coverage. But the biggest threats to Al Jazeera’s continued existence come from its own neighbourhood.
The channel’s coverage of the Arab Spring which began in late 2010 further enhanced its reputation whilst provoking more wrath from the Middle Eastern establishment. Its earlier investment in groundwork enabled it to report a range of views from the street and explain the real driving forces behind the surprise series of uprisings that rocked the region.
Al Jazeera’s reporting of opposition angles included the views of anti-regime, Islamist political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Given the popular support for the Egyptian revolution and the fact that the Brotherhood went on to win the first democratic elections there, covering the full spectrum of opposition opinion was entirely justifiable journalism. After the military coup which brought the old guard back to power in Cairo, this coverage cost three Al Jazeera team members – Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed – more than a year in prison.
The Arab Spring led many Middle Eastern governments to claim that Al Jazeera inspires, rather than merely reports, events in the region. But any validity in this criticism is largely self-inflicted by the regimes concerned. Al Jazeera attracts a huge audience because it offers an information-hungry populace an alternative to the predominant state-controlled media. Reliable reporting that reflects the full range of views is always going to be influential when the only other available option is discredited official propaganda.
Accusations of abetting Islamist fanatics and being a malign influence lack all credibility when they come from Al Jazeera’s most aggressive current pursuer, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi state is founded on a fundamentalist version of Islam which it has spent decades and a substantial proportion of its immense oil wealth propagating around the world, causing great harm in many places with much more moderate Muslim traditions.
The Saudis and their allies (including Egypt) have made the closing down of Al Jazeera a condition for ending their blockade of Qatar, having fallen out with the rulers of their tiny neighbour. As an absolute monarchy and dictatorship, the Saudis appear to want to shut down free media in the Middle East. Their most urgent imperative is ending uncensored coverage of their brutal and ill-conceived war in Yemen.
Even so, by drawing the news channel into an inter-state dispute with Qatar, the Saudis have highlighted Al Jazeera’s main weakness. It was established and continues to be funded by the Qatari government (another absolute monarchy), which it is indisputably reluctant to criticise.
This connection fuels the allegation that Al Jazeera gives undue coverage to political groups around the Middle East that are supported by the Qatari authorities, such as Hamas. But these groups are important participants in the region’s ongoing story and covered by all impartial media outlets.
Ignoring Hamas’ role in the Palestinian issue would be a dereliction of journalistic duty.
Al Jazeera is not flawless. Soft-pedalling on its Qatari paymasters is its biggest failing. But it is no toxic RT (Russia Today)-style state propaganda tool either. As the best broadcaster in the Middle East, Al Jazeera is a crucial counter-balance to the region’s stultifying state controlled media and provides the rest of the world with a valuable insight into it. It also offers high quality coverage of parts of the planet, such as Africa and Latin America, that the other 24-hour news networks largely ignore.
European believers in free media should speak out in support of Al Jazeera against its authoritarian attackers to help ensure the survival of this distinctive media voice.
Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat; he lives in Switzerland