Al Jazeera: The Year News Went Wild
By: Wissam Kanaan
Published Wednesday, March 28, 2012
For over a decade, Al Jazeera set the standard for news networks in the Arab world, but as the Qatari government’s foreign policy role grew in the region so did its manipulation of its most effective media asset.
It is tense and unhealthy. This is how a source in Al Jazeera describes the atmosphere in the channel these days.
The continuing crises and scandals have shattered the dream of an Arab media channel that defies the rules and can genuinely claim independence from the region’s regimes.
Those who follow Al Jazeera closely had high hopes for the channel prior to a series of scandals involving the fabrication of news, particularly in its coverage of events in Syria.
This was also before the series of staff resignations, which are expected to multiply in the coming days, in protest of its performance.
Recently, many behind-the-scenes meetings were held in the organization to evaluate the impact of such setbacks on the station.
As the situation in Syria develops, it seems these meetings will not help in salvaging the channel from the current turmoil.
Al-Akhbar obtained a copy of a letter sent by Al Jazeera Tokyo correspondent, Syrian-born Fadi Salama, through the talkback system reserved for staff.
He complained about the manner in which the channel has dealt with the situation in Syria, based on opinions from his village and personal experience.
In the letter dated 5 March 2012, he said, “In my village, six of my cousins were killed. Two disappeared after appearing on Al Jazeera as the dissidents Aziz and Bashar...Aziz is a father of five. His voice was breaking while reciting what he was told to say. A gun was pointed to the back of his head...”
He continued, “In my village, the latest to be killed was Ahmad, my cousin from my paternal aunt. His body was found near the garbage dump in Homs. His limbs were chopped off...In my village, they love Assad.”
Salama mocked the policies governing unofficial correspondents, i.e., opposition activists who provide the station with news.
He said that given that “Al Jazeera’s reporters in Syria are committed to editorial standards, objective and fair reporting, and presenting different points of view, I invite them to visit my village. It has many nice stories to tell.”
He insisted that activists reporting to the channel should visit devastated areas to understand the reality of the killings, adding they should be aware of the support that Assad still enjoys.
Such remarks did not have any impact on the channel’s policies. Sources in the station say that the situation in Syria is the sole concern of employees and dominates all conversations.
They add that none of the senior managers knows what is happening. Nobody seems capable of responding to the questions raised by employees fed up with the station’s approach to the unfolding events.
Some expected changes in dealing with the Syrian dossier after the resignation of Wadah Khanfar as general manager in September 2011. But nothing changed as the station’s editorial policy remains tied to the Qatari government.
Out of the series of meetings held by senior management to discuss the Syrian crisis, sources say one was held in Doha sometime between March 8 and 10. It was attended by the heads of Al Jazeera offices from various capitals. The meeting was described as tumultuous due to the wide rift on Syria among the staff.
The sources convey from the meeting that an editorial supervisor spoke of a deadly mistake committed by the channel. He said, “We exhausted all our efforts to overthrow the regime in Syria but Assad surprised us with his resilience.”
This supervisor explained that the scenarios of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya did not work out in Syria. He did not deny that the channel failed miserably in Bahrain and that it was silent about the events there. He admitted that the media coverage of Al Jazeera was controlled by politics.
Finally he regretted that “in reality, Al Jazeera will need to spend years to regain the lost trust by the Arabs and re-enter the competition with the big channels,” according to sources.
Since its launch in 1996, Al Jazeera has exerted a considerable amount of effort to build a strong popular base. Its successes won the channel a trusting audience.
Now, it wants to gamble everything away by implementing the agenda of its host country’s government. It has entered a dark tunnel that could mean the end of a dream called Al Jazeera.
The Kingdom of Illusion
The explosion of satellite channels in 1990s gave Arabs a double liberation. The first was “social” by way of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC).
It quickly won a Gulf audience with its flimsily dressed and choreographed belles. A few years later, the Saudi capital would pounce on and devour the Lebanese station.
The second opening on the Arab satellite front was “political.” Soon after its launch in 1996, Al Jazeera took off regionally and internationally.
In the small rich country of Qatar, an exciting media experiment blossomed. It staked its reputation on diversity, courage, and professionalism.
Events were covered in a manner different than before. The “other opinion” was its motto.
The curious invention became a reference point for Arabs thirsting for what is unspoken and for political debate, even when it became a spectacle.
But how could a political regime not much different from its conservative surroundings allow this “progressive” crack in the wall?
Many decided to ignore the strange brew of the main actors in the channel: the Iraqi Baath early on, liberals open to Israel at one stage, and today the Islamist direction that swept everything with it.
The Arabs now had a channel that can stand up to CNN and broadcast the news from a different angle.
From the US-UK war on Iraq, to the Israeli aggression on Lebanon and then Gaza, to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, history was made live on Al Jazeera.
Then the Qatari regime found a new hobby and decided to become the sponsor the Arab “revolution.” The station rode over Manama’s spring, much like the Saudi tanks that invaded Bahrain, on its way to “lead” the movement for change in Syria.
Professional blunders soon followed as inconsistency became intentional. They later turned into systematic fabrications of events, as the statements and positions leaked in the last few weeks clearly show.
The Syrian regime is no stranger to despotism and oppression, but the “debauchery” of the media’s rhetoric robbed the people of their uprising.
The kingdom of illusion shattered on the rock of the Syrian tragedy and the channel went back to it real size.
Suddenly, viewers found themselves watching state media similar to that in any totalitarian regime. Yet, it is even more menacing due to the amassed experience, reputation, and claims of independence and fairness.
As the scandals and the resignations continue, any account of contemporary Arab media will have to include a deep wound called Al Jazeera.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.