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In the Eye of the Storm: Can Al Jazeera Survive the Gulf Crisis?

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In June 2015, the leader of the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda gave his first ever television interview. In an undisclosed location in northern Syria, Abu Mohammed Al Jolani was shown seated on what appeared to be a gilded wooden chair in a windowless room, opposite Ahmed Mansour, a prominent anchor from the Arabic news network Al Jazeera.

The interview encapsulated everything that makes Al Jazeera one of the world’s most influential and most controversial news networks. It was a tremendous scoop, getting one of Syria’s top jihadists to talk on camera, outlining his troubling vision for the country. At the same time, the interview offered fodder for critics who say Al Jazeera regularly offers a platform for extremism and sectarian discourse. Some of the questions were softball. Here was Ahmed Mansour, one of the network’s top presenters, smiling at a hardline militant associated with al-Qaeda. “It’s like getting an interview with Osama bin Laden,” said Mostefa Souag, Al Jazeera’s director-general, in an interview with TIME in his Doha office in July. “Agree or disagree with him, people want to know what he thinks.”

This kind of editorial boldness has thrust Al Jazeera into the center of a geopolitical showdown among Arab states. Created in 1996 by a grant by the Qatari royal family, the network has long irritated the region’s other autocratic states by providing an outlet for debate and opposition. On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a diplomatic blockade on Qatar, accusing the tiny emirate of supporting “terrorism” throughout the region. The four countries issued 13 demands, including shutting down Al Jazeera, a request Qatar rejected as a violation of its sovereignty. The “gang of four” countries later watered down those demands but is still calling for a restructuring of Al Jazeera. Israel, which has quietly built a behind-the-scenes relationship with Saudi Arabia, also moved last week to shut down Al Jazeera’s local operations.

Foreign ministers from Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. discuss the diplomatic crisis with Qatar in Cairo on July 5, 2017.Khaled Elfiqi—AFP/Getty Images

Today, more than ever, opinion on Al Jazeera is starkly divided. The network’s supporters in the Middle East and the Gulf celebrate it as an outpost of free expression in a region stifled by autocratic rule. Opponents call it a mouthpiece for the Qatari government and for the forces of political Islam. The split is driven by the same divisions behind the Qatar-Saudi dispute, including bitter disputes over the legacy of the 2011 Arab revolutions and the role of Islamists in the region’s politics. Network executives say they do not have current ratings figures, so it is impossible to determine whether viewership has declined, but there is no doubt that Al Jazeera Arabic’s reputation has suffered.

And so a news channel that breathed fresh air into the stultified, heavily controlled world of media in the region — not least by openly discussing on the air issues, like Islamism, that Arabs were discussing among themselves — now faces a reckoning. Many who previously admired Al Jazeera have lost faith in its editorial judgment, and it is being called the very thing it always claimed not to be: a mouthpiece of the government. “There is no doubt [Al Jazeera] has lost a lot of its professionalism and credibility over the years,” said Rasha Abdulla, a media expert at the American University in Cairo. “It became completely one-sided.”

A journalist works in the Doha newsroom in April 2001.
A journalist works in the Doha newsroom in April 2001.Matthias Jung—laif/Redux

A new approach to news

With a proclaimed audience of more than 310 million households worldwide, Al Jazeera’s reach is huge. Its journalists have been killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, jailed in Egypt, and banned by the Syrian regime. Sit down to dinner in almost any home in Cairo, Beirut, or Baghdad and ask about Al Jazeera: you’re likely to hear opinions.

In its early years, the network introduced a fresh option to audiences in the Arab world: fast, professional, independent news. The network looked and felt different from the stale offerings of state-run TV. Journalists from an aborted BBC Arabic channel formed the nucleus of the new newsroom in Doha. Salah Negm had been an executive producer at BBC Arabic before moving to the brand-new Al Jazeera. “I wanted the accuracy of the BBC and the speed of CNN combined. That was the target,” says Negm, who is now news director at Al Jazeera’s English channel.

In the late 1990s, Qatar’s Emir abolished the country’s ministry of information and ended formal censorship. Freedom of the press, however imperfect, became a brand for Qatar. It was an approach that paired with Qatar’s “open door” foreign policy that makes the country both the location of the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East and refuge for officials from Hamas and the Taliban.

Al Jazeera soon attained global relevance through its breaking news coverage. The channel was one of the only networks that managed to send a cameraman to film the Taliban’s destruction of the enormous Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001. Later that year, the network obtained the infamous tapes of Osama Bin Laden addressing the 9/11 attacks. When U.S. networks rebroadcast the tapes, American audiences received their first, awkward introduction to Al Jazeera.

Heather Allan, one of the News Managers at Al Jezeera English, takes part in a morning editorial meeting in Doha on March 23, 2011.
Heather Allan, then a News Manager at Al Jazeera English, takes part in a morning editorial meeting in Doha on March 23, 2011.Benjamin Lowy—Reportage by Getty Images

Around the same time, the channel was becoming an icon in the Arab world with rolling coverage of the events at the center of the region’s consciousness: the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. They took an intensive approach to both events, deploying cameras that documented Israeli and American bombings, but also broadcasting Pentagon news briefings and becoming one of the few outlets in the Arab world to air Israeli officials’ comments. If Al Jazeera’s reporting had a point of view, it usually also aired the opposing viewpoint.

“On the big issues that really resonate with people all around the region, in the minds and hearts of people, the Arab-Israeli issue, anti-western sentiment and the Iraq war, and the Arab uprisings, on those three seminal, big-sticker, gut issues, they they were right out front leading the charge,” says Rami Khoury, a journalism professor at the American University in Beirut and a nonresident senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “They covered those things intensely. They covered them fairly.”

Al Jazeera reached its peak with the uprisings that rocked the Arab world in 2011. With its populist outlook and large network of bureaus across the region, Al Jazeera was built to cover the revolution. Al Jazeera Arabic’s live broadcasts of demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria helped create a unifying narrative of the Arab Spring, with audiences tuning in every Friday to watch synchronized protests across the Middle East. Al Jazeera English—established in 2006—provided critical coverage of the uprising to the non-Arab world.

The English language channel to this day maintains editorial independence, and remains free of much of the partisanship that critics say surfaces on the Arabic side. Al Jazeera English’s programming differentiates itself from Western cable news with deep coverage of the world outside of Europe and America. (Full disclosure: As a freelancer I authored three articles for the now-defunct Al Jazeera America website in 2013 and 2014.)

Al Jazeera journalists Mohammed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed behind bars at a court in Cairo on May 15, 2014.
Al Jazeera journalists Mohammed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed behind bars at a court in Cairo on May 15, 2014.Reuters

The region reached a turning point in the summer of 2013 when Egypt’s military overthrew the country’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in a free election that followed the 2011 uprising. Twenty of the channel’s Egyptian employees resigned, with one citing a “lack of neutrality” and another reportedly accusing the network of airing “lies.” In December 2013, Egyptian authorities arrested three Al Jazeera journalists, charging them with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which by then had been banned as a terrorist group. The three spent more than 400 days in prison. A fourth Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Shami, was also jailed. The network’s Egypt-dedicated live channel Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr was banned by the authorities.

Some of Al Jazeera’s defenders argue that the Qatari channel’s programming is no worse than the opinionated reporting on Fox News — founded in 1996, the same year as Al Jazeera — or the pro-Saudi coverage on rival network al-Arabiya. Still, observers point to a pattern of concerning episodes on Al Jazeera. In 2016, presenter Faisal al-Qassim suggested the idea of ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Alawite population. During the political crisis in Egypt under former president Mohamed Morsi in 2012 and 2013, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr became seen as openly supportive of the Islamist leader. Even prior to 2011, the network used its huge reach to breath air into questionable stories, such as a dubious claim in 2009 that Palestinian officials had plotted to kill Yasser Arafat. The network’s use of “martyrs” to refer to the dead in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, although not unusual in Arabic media, has also raised questions. Critics see this as a toxic combination that overshadows the network’s past contributions to free debate in the Arab world.

“It’s played a particularly unhelpful role in terms of promoting narratives and language that have fostered sectarianism and militant attitudes. They’ve indulged those worldviews in a way that I think is really destructive,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a think tank in New York.

Seeing things on both sides

In Doha, Al Jazeera’s executives blame authoritarian states that want the network shut down. Souag, Al Jazeera’s current director-general, says the network has been charged with bias simply for giving airtime to opposition groups alongside the region’s governments. “This was a perception made by a huge propaganda campaign,” he says. “If they say ‘oh you present the Brotherhood’s point of view. We say, we equally present the government’s point of view. We equally present the secular point of view, the nationalist point of view,” he adds.

He points to his network’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of its balance. “Before Al Jazeera, no Israeli official would appear on an Arab screen. Al Jazeera for the first time brought them on live. We were accused of being agents of the Mossad.”

Still, those critiques of the channel do little to explain the pro-Saudi bloc’s call to shut down Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia’s own network, al-Arabiya, has also aired sectarian speech, and refrains from criticizing the royal family in a way that mirror’s Al Jazeera’s deference to Qatar’s rulers. Moreover, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are among the most repressive states in the region when it comes to freedom of expression. Reporters are being jailed and critics silenced on an unprecedented scale; in Egypt, at least 25 journalists were in prison by the end of 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Some in Qatar see the attempted shutdown as a concerted attempt to quash Qatar’s influence. “They are trying take away the most important soft power of Qatar, which is Al Jazeera. Second, they are trying to settle the Arab Spring account,” says Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s former director-general. The network also insists it makes editorial decisions without government interference. Souag says he has never received a single request from the Qatari government to change its coverage.

Employees work inside the Al Jazeera in Jerusalem on Aug. 7, 2017.
Employees work inside the Al Jazeera in Jerusalem on Aug. 7, 2017.Ammar Awad—Reuters

Saudi observers say that Saudi Arabia itself was likely not behind the demand to shutter Jazeera, pointing instead to the other members of the quartet. “It was very neutral when it came to Saudi. Only after this crisis erupted has Jazeera been activated to be against Saudi. Before that it was not. Probably it was not Saudi Arabia,” said Abdulrahman Rashed, the former general manager of Al-Arabiya.

Yet Al Jazeera executives seem unwilling to acknowledge just how controversial their Arabic channel has become in some of the region’s largest markets, especially Egypt. Souag stressed that his network is committed to hearing — and airing — all points of view. “People need to know the truth and need to listen,” he said.

But over the course of a 21st century marked by a fracturing media landscape, what the “truth” is has become slippery. From the Kremlin to the Trump White House, more and more governments are today choosing to undermine impartial reporting, using the label “fake news” to call into question the facts established by journalists.

Nowhere is the struggle over news more intense than in the Middle East. The Arab world’s bitter fight over the facts of the region’s revolutions and wars since 2011 foreshadowed the struggle over news in the West. The region’s governments and opposition groups have waged a relentless campaign to define reality on their own terms. In Egypt, the government calls the 2013 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi a revolution, while others call it a coup. The Muslim Brotherhood casts itself as a pragmatic political group, while opponents regard it as a dangerous religious movement. In Syria, the regime cast its campaign against rebels and jihadis alike as a war on terrorists.

There is a wealth of facts to comb over in those debates, but whatever space there was for consensus has now all but vanished. And yet Al Jazeera still claims what may now be the impossible task of tracing an independent path, even if much of its audience has grown wary of its leanings. For now, the network is resisting the demands placed upon it by Qatar’s opponents in the Gulf. But if the campaign succeeds in modulating the Arab world’s most distinctive and divisive voice, something essential might be lost from the region’s media landscape. “Al Jazeera used to fill a void of professional journalism,” says AUC’s Abdulla. “The problem is, the trend now is just to shut things down.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE imposed a blockade on Qatar. It was June 5, not June 4.

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