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. At the same time, the Arab Spring seems to have put al-Jazeera to the test: doubts are growing about the news network’s independence from the Qatari authorities.
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 supports 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 is the first Arab channel that allows Israelis to speak uncensored, which is highly unusual in the Arab world and 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 examples of external influence on al-Jazeera’s editorial stand. Several months ago 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.
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.