Al Jazeera in Syria: A Case of Tunnel Vision
By: Elias Mahdi
Published Wednesday, March 28, 2012
With the onset of the crisis in Syria, Al Jazeera dropped any pretense of balanced coverage. Those who tried to buck the trend failed and eventually had to toe the line of the Qatari government.
For some time, Al Jazeera has been inundated with media leaks about its inner workings, most notably when the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the main server and leaked some of its contents.
Al-Akhbar obtained a copy of the “order of the day” sent on the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The channel’s head of news Ibrahim Helal sent out a memo dated 15 March 2012 with the title “Our Coverage of Syrian Affairs.”
Compared to other communications obtained by Al-Akhbar, this document shows he has clearly changed his tone since his appointment in November 2011.
The latest message needs to be understood within the framework of the channel’s new policies. Al Jazeera’s mask of representing “the other viewpoint” has fallen since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, especially in Syria.
When the former director general Wadah Khanfar left in September 2011, the channel’s administration changed. The Egyptian-born Ibrahim Helal was then appointed as head of news.
He replaced an Algerian, Moustafa Sawwaq, who was appointed as director general of the Arabic channel.
Another Algerian, Mohammad Safi, was appointed as director of input instead of the Jordanian Mohammad Daoud. Abdul Haq Saddah, also from Algeria, was appointed as head of planning.
These changes came as a result of an internal settlement of accounts. Thus begins the era of the hawks in the Qatari news channel.
At the beginning, Helal attempted to fix some of the cracks in the channel’s approach to the uprisings in the Arab region. He had mentioned to some confidants that it had become unprofessional, especially in relation to Syria.
He began with a letter to the editorial department, reporters, anchors, and heads of departments (entitled “Greetings to you all,” on November 2).
Helal sought to revive the channel’s credo of broadcasting both points of view to show respect to viewers, and not fall into the trap of “ostracizing others” and “authoritarianism.”
Even after his appointment, some report that he said, “My mission is to take back Al Jazeera from some kids who were playing with it.”
Helal attempted to encourage accuracy and adopt professional standards. He tried to reduce the time allocated to Syria in daily coverage, especially in the main news programs such as The Day’s Harvest, and the open coverage every Friday.
Helal believed that this type of coverage had no added value and was undermining the channel’s work. He would stress to key news staff that he was not convinced of the numbers of daily casualties reported by the Syrian Revolution General Commission. He was nevertheless forced to use those figures.
The killing of French journalist Gilles Jacquier in Homs on 11 January 2012 led to Helal losing his composure. Rather than highlighting Jacquier’s death, the editorial department focused on the numbers of Syrians killed and exaggerated the number. Helal thought this was purely sensational.
He sent out a letter entitled “The Killing of the French Journalist” on 12 January 2012. It was highly critical of the “obsession” and “celebration” of “the death toll.” He stressed the sanctity of Al Jazeera’s slogan and insisted on “not adopting a position just to appease viewers.”
All these attempts were to no avail. Helal, a veteran of the BBC, failed miserably and decided to go with the flow, which was in line with Qatari foreign policy. This is reflected in the tone of his last memo, dated 15 March 2012.
The self-proclaimed professional journalist was magically transformed. Under the title “Our Coverage of Syrian Affairs,” the memo began with a historical background of Syria saying that it is a sovereign Arab country with geographical integrity. It continues to say that “rumors” about Al Jazeera’s performance on Syria are a sign of its power.
Senior employees admit in their private circles that no one who works for the channel can express opinions on Syria contrary to those of the Qatari emir. Otherwise, they will be ostracized and humiliated until they leave.
The most important part of the memo is the editorial policy regarding Syria. It bars criticism of foreign intervention and the Free Syrian Army and encourages giving members of the opposition more airtime, especially from minorities.
Helal’s tone has changed and he no longer voices his concern over any flaws in the channel’s performance.
One day Al Jazeera sat on the throne of Arab media, now it is little more than a branch of the royal court.
Muslim Brotherhood Takeover of Syria Desk
The Syria Desk was created last November when Ibrahim Helal took his post. The desk was the exclusive source for the Al Jazeera’s coverage of Syria and the only interlocutor with activists and coordinating committees.
Syrian-born Ahmad al-Abda was appointed to run the desk. He is the brother of Anas al-Abda, a member of the Syrian National Council and a theorist for the Muslim Brotherhood.
To avoid being discovered, he is known as Ahmad Ibrahim by the channel’s employees.
The team included Elaph Yassine, who had previously worked as a VIP flight attendant on Saudi Airways until the beginning of 2011.
The head of Al Jazeera’s office in Pakistan and Muslim Brotherhood member Ahmad Zaidan assists in the desk’s work. In the 1980s, he used to be member of the Fighting Vanguard, an Islamist militia associated with the Syrian Brotherhood.
The desk’s main work revolved around developing stories and choosing activists and eyewitnesses to interview.
It later encouraged activists to hold short nighttime protests in several locations, to be carried live during the news reports. The goal was to claim that demonstrations are happening continuously, even at night.
The Syria desk would also oblige every newscast to interview activists from Syria, even if there is nothing new. They would ask them to speak about past events just to incite against the regime.
When the military campaign against Homs intensified two months ago, Al Jazeera’s reporters in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan were asked to monitor the situation, but only from their side of the border with Syria.
The planning department in the station disseminated a memo stipulating that the reporters should read news written in the newsroom in Doha. All they had to do is say it is close to where they are. Al-Abda was in charge of providing the reporters with information.
While some working at the Syrian desk may doubt the number of casualties reported by the Syrian Revolution General Commission, it tends to completely ignore reports by the Free Syrian Army on casualties inflicted on the regular army.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.