Syrian Protests and the Media (II): Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya
It says something about the changes in Arab media that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya’s coverage of Syrian developments are now compatible. In the past, the difference between the two channels was quite marked: the bitter Saudi-Qatari feud created a wide margin for Al Jazeera to operate in. Different topics and different points of views were expressed and represented on the channel, to the great dismay of the House of Saud.
It can be argued that Prince Nayef pushed the House of Saud for rapprochement with Qatar because he feared that the channel was successful in giving voice to Saudi dissidents and in destabilizing the kingdom. The eruption of the Arab uprising brought the two governments closer and both now form the leadership of the Arab counter-revolution—the movement to abort the Arab uprisings and to channel popular energies in a direction that is not threatening to the US and GCC’s interests. Al Jazeera is now a different channel altogether. It is not a news channel anymore. The channel which thrived when it acted independently and when it covered the entire Arab region , and the world, is now beholden to a narrow propaganda agenda dictated by the GCC strategy following the repression in Bahrain. The Qatari government which was aligned for years with the Syrian government suddenly broke with Bashar Assad and followed the Saudi agenda on Syrian developments.
Of course, both governments are dictatorial governments with no commitment to democracy or human rights. Saudi media heaped praise on the Syrian government during the long decades of Saudi endorsement of the regime of Hafez Assad, while the Qatari ruler counted Bashar as one of his close allies in the region. But since 2005, Saudi media has been very critical of the Syrian government although the improvement of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia eliminated criticisms of the former from the Saudi press. Suddenly, the voices that championed Syrian freedoms in the mouthpieces of Saudi princes went silent. That continued until new directives came in the spring of 2011 when Saudi Arabia (and the GCC and US) decided to go all out against Syria. Al Jazeera quickly adjusted but, unlike Al Arabiya (the news channel owned by King Fahd’s brother-in-law), the network had professional standards that it always struggled to meet. Unlike Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera was a serious news network that took its mission very seriously and that worked hard not to allow the Qatari ownership to severely harm its journalistic mission. All that changed. Al Jazeera’s mission since the crucial GCC meeting that formed a solid alliance behind Saudi military intervention in Bahrain, became primarily a propaganda channel. The network’s coverage on Syria is largely devoid of news and professional reporting. It mostly hosts Syrian dissidents from around the world and opens its phone lines to anonymous eye-witnesses around Syria—we are told but we can’t verify that because the network never verifies that either.
But this is not a comment on repression by the Syrian government: it is about the deterioration in the standards and reputation of the premier news channel in the Middle East, if not beyond. The network has ignored news developments in the Arab world: the Yemeni protests were not extensively covered and protests against the Military Council in Egypt barely gets coverage. And the network was late in covering the protests against the Israeli occupation embassy in Cairo. It became devoted to covering Syria in a non-professional way to encourage protests. The mission became political, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the political mission. The network often reports on “developing stories” from Syria that don’t materialize the next day. The famous news talk show, Al-Ittijah Al-Muakis which used to debate political developments in most Arab countries—but not in Qatar, of course—became exclusively devoted to the Syrian issue. It is now a replica of Saudi media although Al Jazeera became even more sensational and crude in its propaganda than some of its Saudi ally media. In other words, the truth about Syria is lost: missing between the propaganda of Saudi/Qatari media, and the media of the Syrian regime.