Where does Al Jazeera stands? The People’s Television?
These past week Al Jazeera television has been at the centre of debates following the resignation of Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s top executive since 2003, after disclosures from the group WikiLeaks indicating that he had modified the network’s coverage of the Iraq war in response to pressure from the United States. He on the opposite said he had been discussing his decision to step down with Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, the chairman of the board, for some time and dispelled suspicions that it was linked to political pressures. According to other sources, his resignation followed a harsh dispute with Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara, also working at the Qatari television. Wadah Kanfar has been replaced by Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the royal family, who is not a journalist, but an executive at QatarGas, a state-affiliated natural gas producer.
The issue of Wadah Kanfar’s resignation and WikiLeaks’ revelation actually asked a much a deeper question: Where does AlJazeera stands? Is it an independent television supporting the people of the region in their struggle or is it a tool and reflection of Qatar’s political and economic interests? These questions deserve a global analysis of the most popular Arabic television channel and of the Kingdom of Qatar.
Al Jazeera was created in 1996 and is primarily financed by the royal family of Qatar until today. The Qatari channel was very successful to capture the feelings of the people of the region, actually way before the uprisings in the Arab world, by its full time coverage and with an editorial line mixing Pan-Arabism, Islamic feelings and a liberal perspective. It is undisputable that Al Jazeera has played role in the democratization of the Middle East by their reports and programs on the uprising, even fueling it in many ways, and before as well. Al Jazeera television has actually been forbidden in Egypt during the Revolutions, as well as elsewhere for its coverage criticizing several governments or screening the uprising. The professionalism of the Qatari television channel has been acknowledged worldly, while its programs and reports are followed throughout the globe. Aljazeera has hosted various opponents of authoritarian regimes, welcoming on their TV set nationalists, liberals, leftists and islamists, (these latter having nevertheless much more time and space on screen), while giving voice as well to officials of authoritarian regimes.
AlJazeera became a reference for people and any critics towards it were nearly forbidden by many because of its “positive” role in broadcasting and supporting the revolutions.
The newly resigned Wadah Khanfar actually declared that “Yet we (Al Jazeera) remained steadfast in our editorial policy – in fact, each attempt to silence us further emboldened us and increased our resolve”, while since Al Jazeera’s launch in 1996 its slogan has been “the opinion and the other opinion”Really?
These positives features should not blind us on AlJazeera television, and the role it played to frame public opinion of the region to fulfill the interests of Qatar’s political interests. To understand this relationship we firstly have a look on Qatar’s profile and political perspective.
Qatar is a Kingdom in which the monarch and power is concentrated in a single family that controls the state apparatus and large strata of the economy. The so-called nationals are hardly 20 percent of the population, and 80 percent are expatriates without any rights, essentially guest workers from the Philippines, other countries that work in conditions close to slavery.
Qatar is a strong ally of the US, they actually host one of the most important air bases in the region, and the forward headquarters of CENTCOM, the central command of the US Armed Forces, in the Udeid base in Qatar, which is decisive to monitor US military action over the whole region. They are a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional bloc of the six oil rich Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and four other countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Oman. The popular uprising in Bahrain was actually crushed by the common action of state repression and the military intervention decided by the GCC, which was led by Saudi Arabia and backed by Qatar. Finally Qatar welcomes on its territory an Israeli commercial representation in the capital Doha, while Qatar state-owned investment firm Qatari Diar agreed to take a 5 percent stake in the company Veolia, while this latter is on the BDS list for its involvement with Israeli apartheid infrastructure and transport projects.
On the other hand, Qatar has funded directly or indirectly to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, while they maintain diplomatic relations, although difficult, with Iran. They have also very close ties, funding ties, with the Muslim Brotherhood in various countries, and the Muslim Brotherhood is an important political force behind the political message of Al Jazeera. The Egyptian theologian Yusuf Qaradawi is actually considered as the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he has his program and regularly preaches on the channel. The Syrian scholar and now appointed head of Syrian opposition council, Burhan Ghalioun had criticized few years ago the role of Al Jazeera in fostering the role of Islamists in the Arab region and giving them the screen far more space and at the detriment of other political forces. The revolutions have nevertheless on many aspects push Al Jazeera to change its screen landscape because of the multiplicity of political forces involved in it, in which the Islamic movements were not far from being the leading force.
How do these features and political interests translates on Al Jazeera television channel?
Programs critical towards GCC countries are rare or nearly nonexistent on Al Jazeera, whereas popular demonstrations in these countries were not given any importance. In the case of Saudi Arabia, following an agreement signed in 2008, rather in favor of Qatar, after years of political tensions, on the issue of borders, Al Jazeera in return doesn’t welcome anymore or far less the Saudi opposition on its screen.
The absence or the misled coverage on the popular uprising in Bahrain is also a very good example in the influence of the Qatar political establishment, which was supporting the military intervention led by Saudi Arabia to crush the protesters, on the television channel. In addition to this, they gave much more voice to the regime to justify its repression against an “Iranian coup” than–and much less to the opposition than what they did in other countries, like Egypt or Tunisia.
The coverage on Libya was on the opposite utterly in favor and enthusiastic for the rebels and for the NATO military intervention, despite the fact that the foreign intervention was presented on a lot more careful and shy manner on the Arabic channel, than on the English one, because of the general distrust of the people of the region towards it. In the same time NATO strikes on civilians and exactions of rebel forces on African migrants were not given much importance on TV reports and programs. Qatar was actually heavily engaged in overthrowing Muammar al-Qaddafi and assisting the TNC forces in sending them arms, oil and money. Qatar Special Forces had for example trained the TNC’s “Tripoli Brigade”, while it is working behind closed doors in the formation of the new Libyan government to have its close ally in top positions such as Mahmoud Jibril. He is a neoliberal economist who presided over the Gaddafi regime’s neoliberal reforms from 2007 until the uprising and who was involved in asset management for Sheikha Mozah, the politically active wife of the Emir of Qatar. The strong support from Qatar to the TNC may guarantee a chunk of oil reserves to the Emirat.
The coverage in Egypt, although clearly in favour of the revolutions, concentrated its reports and TV programs on demonstrations in Cairo and other cities, while workers strikes were given no or very few time on screen. The idea and images of workers striking in favour of the revolution and for better socio economic conditions might inspire migrant workers with poor socio economic conditions in Qatar and GCC countries to act against their situation. In the same vein, critics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which are funded by Qatar, have not been given much space since the resignation of Mubarak, despite the support of the Muslim Brotherhoods and their call to urge Egyptians to back the ruling Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which people are demonstrating against it in order to continue the revolution. In addition to this, the Muslim Brotherhood praised SCAF role in protecting the revolution and backing the people, while this latter is on the opposite trying to stop by any means. The political links between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhoods in various countries is clear through firstly funding, but also to their support to neo liberal policies, a sort of peace status quos with Israel and closer relationship with the US. Al Jazeera’s role in this relationship is to foster the role of the Muslim Brotherhoods in their respective societies among the people to favour their political and economic interests in the region.
In conclusion, one has to understand Al Jazeera’s role as a tool of Qatar’s political and economic interests, which may very well share similar objectives with some popular movements in some precises period of time and context, but it should not be considered as the Television of the people or representing its interests, it is definitely not. The revolutions have showed the contradictions of many actors and political groups in the region, we are now seeing the ones of Al Jazeera.