Once considered the most prominent and influential TV news channel in the Middle East, Qatar-funded Al-Jazeera is now losing its glamour, a change that media experts attribute to problems with its credibility rather than the revolution in digital media.
Established in 1996 by the government of oil-rich Qatar as the Middle East’s first 24-hour satellite TV news channel, it has lost millions of viewers in recent years, having been accused of bias in its coverage of political events following the Arab Spring in 2011.
According to Al-Jazeera, research agencies IPSOS and SIGMA published two surveys showing that Al-Jazeera Arabic is the most watched news channel across the 21 countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In 2014, Al-Jazeera claimed that the number of its viewers in the Arab world exceeded 23 million, based on those surveys. This is more than 34 per cent more than all its Pan- Arab competitors combined. These figures do not mean, however, that the channel has not lost viewers in recent years.
On 27 March 2016, Al-Jazeera announced it would be laying off about 500 employees, or more than 10 per cent of its staff, according to Reuters. Most of those affected are based at the Doha headquarters, according to a statement from Al-Jazeera, which is controlled by Qatar’s royal family. Before the layoffs, the network had about 4,000 staff, a spokesman said.
Mostefa Souag, Al-Jazeera’s acting director general, said the network needed to conduct the layoffs in order to maintain its position in the industry “in light of the large-scale changes under way in the global media landscape.”
Numbers don’t matter
Yamen Sabour, a writer at the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir says that the number of viewers is no longer an accurate indicator of Al-Jazeera’s popularity, as it has gone through dramatic developments over the years since the Arab Spring.
In an article he wrote for the Beirut-based daily on 1 January 2015, Sabour said that Al-Jazeera’s credibility and popularity is now questionable and that the satellite channel, under its slogan “The Opinion and the Other Opinion,” failed to maintain a balanced coverage of uprisings in the Arab world, supporting revolutions while ignoring the views of other parties from regimes.
He said that Al-Jazeera gained great popularity among Egyptian youth during the revolution against former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but two years later lost the same audience when it came out against them in their uprising against former president Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sabour said that Al-Jazeera had lost it glamour and credibility among millions of Arab viewers and failed to introduce a “dream of professionalism and credibility” in the Arab media world, as it had changed from media outlet to a site for promoting hatred and violence.
A survey conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) suggests that the popularity of Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel is fading in the Arab Spring countries. The survey, “Media Use in the Middle East,” showed that the viewer base of the Doha-based network is just four per cent in neighbouring Bahrain, nine per cent in Tunisia (where the Arab Spring began), and 20 per cent in Egypt.
In Bahrain, Google,rather that any mainstream media organisation, was the most popular news medium, with a viewership of 26 per cent. Al-Jazeera even ranked below BBC and Twitter, coming was last with just four per cent.
In Egypt, Al-Hayat and Al-Kanat al-Oula had 23 per cent of the viewership each, with CBC ranking third, with 21 per cent. Al-Jazeera placed fourth, with 20 per cent.
NU-Q surveyed 9,693 respondents aged 18 years and older, aiming to shed light on how people in the region use media and whether they trust their sources of information.
Satellite television industry in the Arab world
Bassem Tweisi, director of the Jordan Media Institute, told Fanack on 3 April 2016 that the satellite television industry experienced a boom after 2010, with the number of TV channels increasing from 450 to about 1,400 in 2015.
Tweisi said that 91 per cent of these channels are privately owned, while the rest are state-owned.
This demonstrates the impact of political investment in the media industry, rather than competition, he said, adding that the value of investment in TV is more than $25 billion, while revenues from advertisement do not exceed $1.5 billion a year. This means that investments in the media in the Arab world are motivated by the political influence sought by some countries, particularly Gulf states, rather than by possible financial returns.
Tweisi said that during the Arab Spring in 2011, news networks were seen mainly as a source of information and as platforms for public debate but later became a tool of political conflict in the region, damaging their credibility.
In 2012, Tweisi said that prominent regional news networks in the Arab world experienced a decrease in popularity among viewers due to credibility issues that led to the establishment of patriotic national channels in 2013 and 2014, particularly in Egypt, Iraq, and Tunisia.
Regional networks, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, played an important role—larger than that of social media—in the Arab uprisings five years ago in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia.
“News networks used to lead social media. Now things have changed, and social media have the lead,” he said, adding that the increasing impact of social media in Arab countries weakened news networks that had been popular.
Egyptian journalist Ashraf Fikri agreed with Tweisi that the decline of major Arab media outlets was a result of their failing credibility and the increasing use of social media.
He told Fanack on 3 April 2016 that some news networks have not only lost their credibility among Arabs, but are now seen as enemies of the public on account of their unprofessional coverage.
“Their fading glamour is because of their mistakes in shying away from media professionalism just to implement the agendas of their financiers or the countries that established them,” Fikri said.
The Qatari government is known to fund Al-Jazeera’s operations but insists that it has never interfered in the network’s editorial policy.
In 2011, however, a member of Qatar’s royal family was appointed head of Al-Jazeera, a move seen by analysts as an attempt to bring the influential satellite network’s coverage more into line with government policy. Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad Al Thani replaced Wadah Khanfar, the Palestinian-born journalist who served as director general since 2003.
According to a report published by the BBC on 1 October 2011, the relationship between Al-Jazeera and the Qatari royal family has always been a source of controversy. Al-Jazeera has always operated under Qatar’s political and economic umbrella, but the network’s critics claim the relationship goes deeper and that the channel is really only an arm of the emir’s government. “What’s clear is that the network’s viewpoint often closely mirrors Qatar’s own agenda, a country whose foreign policy can best be summed up as a delicate attempt to try to get along with everyone at the same time. From its inception, Al-Jazeera has had a similar open-door policy,” said the report.
Al-Jazeera’s spectacular growth took place under Sheikh Hamad who, unlike other Gulf Arab leaders, backed Middle East protest movements and acted as mediator in many wars, according to Reuters.