Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Hitched to Qatar's rising star, Al Jazeera takes a bumpy ride skyward

Al Jazeera's relationship with Qatar's emir, who founded the channel in 1996, has drawn more criticism as Qatar takes an increasingly prominent role in the region.

To some viewers, the coincidence of Qatari policy and Al Jazeera’s aggressive reporting on Libya and Syria seemed too close for comfort, particularly when other revolutions – those that hit closer to home for Qatar and its Gulf allies – got less attention.
As daily reports streamed in from the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the Syrian border, Al Jazeera “forgot there was a country called Bahrain for three or four months,” recalls Mehran Kamrava, director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Others are more measured in their criticism. Ahmed Souaiaia, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Iowa who has written extensively about Al Jazeera in the Arab Spring, says he believes the Qatari-friendly glaze was evident mostly on the Arabic channel, which is geared toward a regional audience.

Anstey and Khanfar have defended their Bahrain coverage, noting that the station was trying to cover five revolutions in a limited amount of time. “We did not give the same weight to the Bahrain story,” Khanfar admitted in the forum at MIT, explaining that he believed Bahrain was not a revolution but a sectarian conflict. “[Bahrain] did not end with a majority – and overwhelming majority of people – who could revolt against the regime.”

That explanation will hardly allay criticism, however, since the government's campaign of sectarian repression also played a key role in tamping down protests, which were predominately Shiite – reflecting the country's large Shiite majority, who have long felt sidelined by the country's Sunni leaders.

Arabs 'very adept in flipping channels to find truth'
For the moment, Al Jazeera appears to be going nowhere but up. It plans to open a Balkan channel and a Swahili channel soon, the first language channels since English was introduced in 2006. Other languages, such as Spanish, may follow.

Anstey knows it’s the audience who will ultimately decide the broadcaster’s fate. “Yes we are headquartered here, [but] we are wholly independent from the state of Qatar,” he maintains. “Our coverage absolutely demonstrates to our viewers that we are impartial.”

Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online at Al Jazeera English, told the February panel at MIT that the channel has already proven itself able to ask hard questions of Doha; the channel broadcast several reports questioning Qatar’s readiness to host the 2022 World Cup.

If viewers perceive a bias, real or imagined, Al Jazeera and its critics alike know the stakes.

“The Arab peoples are used to state-controlled media and it will not be a shock for them to see Al Jazeera sliding back into that category,” says Prof. Souaiaia. “They are very adept in flipping through the channels to find the truth.”

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

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