Reassessing al-Jazeera

This is an important piece on al-Jazeera. Olivier Da Lage starts off noting the commonplaces about al-Jazeera's pioneering role in Arab satellite TV and the political impact of its hard-hitting reporting and interviews. And then he makes this crucial point:

But Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 and this is 2010, 14 years later. We cannot be satisfied repeating the same clichés, however true they may be, about the pioneering role of Al Jazeera. In the course of these 14 years the media and political landscapes around Al Jazeera have profoundly changed, largely due to the role it played in disrupting the traditional media system in the Arab world. But these changes, in turn, affected Al Jazeera for two main reasons. The most obvious reason is that, in 1996, Al Jazeera's style of reporting was unchallenged in the Arab world. This is no longer true. By setting the standard, Al Jazeera created the conditions and the framework for real competition and pluralism, and everyone had to more or less adapt to the Al Jazeera model. As a result, Al Jazeera is still a figurehead and a major actor, but it no longer has a monopoly on professional and independent reporting in Arabic. The second reason might be less obvious but it is linked to the reason for which Al Jazeera was originally created. Irrespective of the sincerity of the new Qatari Emir regarding freedom of the press, Sheikh Hamad had set himself a major objective: put Qatar on the geopolitical map well beyond the size of its territory and population. Al Jazeera was instrumental in achieving this goal, as the subsequent years have proven.

By its constant interviewing of political opponents, Al Jazeera infuriated virtually all Arab heads of state, and western leaders alike. Some of its bureaux were closed, and diplomatic relations were (temporarily) severed. Throughout this turmoil, the Qatari Emir stood by Al Jazeera's management in the name of democracy and freedom of the press. Whether his interlocutors were convinced by his stance remains to be seen, but they had to accept it, and, usually after a few months, the bureaux were reopened and ambassadors sent back to their posts. The trick was not to alienate every Arab government at the same time, and one must admit that Al Jazeera did a good job of taking them on one by one, making it easier, if not easy, for the Qatari government.

Meanwhile, as Sheikh Hamad had planned, Qatar had developed a reputation for itself. Its diplomacy became active in mediating between Arab or Muslim factions, a role that previously had been the domain only of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Despite numerous misgivings, most Arab states - notably Saudi Arabia - had reluctantly come to terms with the existence of Al Jazeera, and had normalised their relations with Qatar. Several high-level meetings between the Qatari and Saudi leadership marked this reconciliation after long-standing strains in their relationship. (In 1992, there were even armed skirmishes on their border, resulting in three deaths.)iii

Mohammed Jassim Al Ali had been Al Jazeera's managing director since its inception, and he had embodied the new brand of journalism, and its resistance to government pressure that was represented by the channel. Needless to say, he was not very popular with the Saudi or American authorities. So, when his replacement was announced in May 2003, it was difficult not to see a connection. Since then, no one disputes the fact that Al Jazeera has retained its professionalism, but many observers contend that its programmes are less offensive to Saudi Arabia or the United States than they previously had been. Many point out that the first Al Jazeera was a curious blend of Islamic conservatives, Arab nationalists, and, to some extent, free thinkers. The new Al Jazeera has definitely a more religious and conservative flavour. In a nutshell, many have the feeling that Al Jazeera has been normalised along with the normalisation of Qatar's diplomatic relations.

Al Jazeera's conservatism is indeed becoming more and more obvious — even when they interview secularists, they often counter them with several opposing points of views from the religious perspective. And it's obvious to anyone who knows some of their staff in Doha that the channel is basically infiltrated by Muslim Brothers (Egyptian and otherwise) as well as other Islamists. It's still very good, because it's professional, but it's been sad to see its leftist/nationalist side eclipse, not just for political diversity and the religion issue, because one suspects some of these old secularists were also the people most willing to be critical of state policies.