Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Al Jazeera: Influential and Controversial

Over the years, Qatar-based Al Jazeera has gained a prominent role among Arab media, offering a platform for alternative voices. The media company was also target of regimes in the region and doubts emerged over its independence from Qatar's leadership.

Al Jazeera: Influential and Controversial
Egyptians gather to watch the Al Jazeera satellite television station on a set placed on top of public telephone booths in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, following a seventh day of protests calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime on January 31, 2011. KHALED DESOUKI / AFP

Rise to Prominence

The launch of the Doha-based satellite television channel Al Jazeera in 1996 – one year after the new Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came to power – has radically altered the Arab media world. It was the first regional station to offer hard news and field reporting combined with controversial political and social debate. But most of all it struck a populist pan-Arab chord that had not been experienced in the region since Nasser’sVoice of the Arabs’ radio broadcasts in the 1960s.

Al Jazeera not only allowed viewers to speak their minds through live phone-ins, it also offered a platform for political dissidents and populist preachers such as the Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi. It broke with some political and social taboos, while at the same time keeping strictly in line with Arab popular sentiment on high profile issues such as the US policy on the Middle East or the issue of Israel/Palestine.

The effects of Al Jazeera’s rise to prominence have been diverse. Many other satellite channels have sprouted up in the region since, such as Sunni Lebanese Future TV and Saudi controlled, but Dubai based, al-Arabiya. These stations may have imitated Al Jazeera’s modern presentation but have not been able – or willing – to reach the same level of controversy, and thus influence, of the trendsetter.

Although Qatar itself is not a democracy and Al Jazeera rarely reports negatively on the country, it has stood strong in its reporting on the region and further afield, covering topics that other outlets often ignore.

Al Jazeera has played an important role in the Arab Spring, covering the Arab uprisings, giving rebel leaders a platform and airing user-generated content off the Internet, seemingly reflecting the reality on the Arab street.

Moreover, it resonated with a generation born under dictatorship but raised in the age of the internet. When young people took to the streets in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to turn dreams of democracy and freedom into a reality, Doha’s instinct for defying the status quo through its influential soft-power weapon – Al Jazeera – intersected with these young people’s aspirations.

At the same time, the Arab Spring seems to have put Al Jazeera to the test: over the years, doubts were growing about the news network’s independence from the Qatari authorities.

External influences

Critics believe that editorial ties have existed between Al Jazeera and the Qatari leadership from the early days. For example, for a long time Al Jazeera was a strong critic of Saudi hegemony in the region. Yet it abandoned its criticism of the Saudi leadership after a rapprochement between the two countries. While the uprisings in Libya and Syria – which Qatar supported politically (and in the case of Libya militarily) – were covered extensively, those in Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – all fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members – received considerably less attention.

In addition, as the only Gulf State with low-level ties with Israel, Al Jazeera was the first Arab channel that allowed Israelis to speak uncensored, which was highly unusual in the Arab world. This also points to governmental influence.

A growing number of viewers in the Arab world and elsewhere have criticized Al Jazeera for being strongly guided by a Qatari political agenda. This also caused tensions inside the organization. In March 2012, Al Jazeera’s Beirut correspondent Ali Hashem resigned. Emails were leaked revealing his frustrations over Al Jazeera’s coverage of Syria. The news network had refused to air photos he had taken of armed fighters clashing with the Syrian Army in Wadi Khaled. Furthermore, it had ignored Syria’s constitutional reform referendum which saw a 57 percent turnout, with 90 percent voting in favour of change.

At the same time the uprising in Bahrain was barely covered at all. Al Jazeera’s Beirut bureau chief Ghassan Ben Jeddou also resigned, complaining that the news network had lost its neutrality in the wake of the uprisings. Former Al Jazeera English blogger Ted Rall stepped down after his blogs and columns had been rejected, noting that a change in policy had taken place recently.

There are other examples of external influence on Al Jazeera’s editorial stand. In 2011 Wikileaks published a cable of the US embassy in Qatar which revealed that Al Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, had met with the US ambassador in Qatar. After the ambassador had complained about unfavourable content on Al Jazeera’s website concerning the war in Iraq, Khanfar promised to tone it down and removed the content. September 2011 Khanfar suddenly resigned.

He was replaced by a member of the royal family who had a professional background as a gas executive – not as a journalist. While Khanfar gave no reason for his decision, well-informed sources said he was asked to leave by the royal family. Analysts regarded this move as an attempt to bring the influential satellite network’s coverage more into line with government policy.

The Qatari government is known to fund Al Jazeera’s operations but insists that it has never interfered in the network’s editorial policy.

All the criticism deals specifically with the Arabic-language news channel. The channel’s English-language counterpart, Al Jazeera English, established in 2006, has not been the subject of controversy and has won a number of international awards for its journalism, including awards for its coverage of the Bahraini uprising. It was recognized as News Channel of the Year at the UK’s 2012 Royal Television Society Awards and has held the same title for three successive years at Britain’s Freesat Awards.

Under scrutiny

From the beginning, Al Jazeera has attracted fierce criticism from the West for its supposed radical Islamist stance and anti-Western rhetoric. US politicians in particular have expressed their annoyance at Al Jazeera’s coverage of the wars the US has led in Afghanistan and Iraq. No one in the region subsequently believes the official American statements that the bombings of Al Jazeera’s offices in both Kabul (2001) and Baghdad (2003) were unfortunate accidents.

Within the region itself, autocratic regimes have felt threatened by Al Jazeera’s airing of opposition voices and have more than once closed its foreign offices or intimidated its correspondents.

Al Jazeera was again targeted by regimes in the region when they isolated Qatar in 2017. During the blockade of Qatar by other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states during 2017-2021, the blockading countries demanded that Qatar would close down Al Jazeera, accusing it of incitement through the channel (and other media). Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main beneficiaries in the early days of the Arab Spring, angered the countries laying siege to Qatar and forced them to step in.

As Al Jazeera, both in Arabic and in English, has been known for its critical coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it was also targeted by Israel. In August 2017, Israel announced the revoking of Al Jazeera journalists’ credentials in the country and the shutting down of its Jerusalem bureau. Citing “Israel’s security”, it accused the channel of provoking incitement.

In recent years, Al Jazeera has reportedly lost popularity and credibility in the Arab world, as research has shown. Al Jazeera was criticised for failing to maintain a balanced coverage of uprisings in the Arab world, on the one hand supporting revolutions while on the other ignoring the views of other parties, such as regimes. As a result, viewership declined, especially in countries which had experienced popular upheaval.

Be that as it may, the inception of Al Jazeera was motivated mainly by the wish to bring Qatar into the world spotlight and, eventually, allow it more freedom of action in its dealings with the West – including Israel – and Iran. For this to happen, Qatar had first and foremost to free itself from domination by ‘Big Brother’ Saudi Arabia and the other GCC States.

Al Jazeera has been an extremely successful instrument in this respect. By allowing – among others – Saudi and Bahraini opposition figures to present their opinions on Al Jazeera, the station (and indirectly Qatar) has become a political force to be reckoned with. Moreover, trendy Al Jazeera has strengthened the image of Qatar as a modern, confident and forward looking country. Al Jazeera has undoubtedly broadened the boundaries of free speech in the Middle East.