Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Behind the image of Al Jazeera

In their highly informative study The Culture of Al Jazeera. Inside an Arab Media Giant (2007), Mohamed Zayani and Sofiane Sahraoui reveal that al-Jazeera’s culture is not as open and tolerant as it is often made out to be. On the contrary, the organization comes across as secretive and close-mouthed, suffering from cronyism and ‘a feeling that the margin of freedom inside the network has been receding lately’.

Its claim to independence is ‘taken with a grain of salt by some of its own staff’. Some controversial statements uttered in live programs are deleted in the reruns. Documentaries critical of domestic Qatari practices and policies are censored. The authors speak cautiously and in veiled terms about ‘an awareness that some occasional decisions pertaining to certain programs or maybe topics come from an undeclared or anonymous source’.

Of course, Qatar’s ruling elite never intended to be brandished or scrutinized by its own brainchild. 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.