Al Jazeera’s popularity stemmed from the perception, shared by a large Arabic-speaking audience, that the satellite newscaster’s editorial decisions were not dictated by any government or party. Under the banner of “the opinion and the other opinion,” Al Jazeera demonstrated its independence by becoming the scourge of the region’s unelected rulers. Such a lack of respect for established authority was rare anywhere, but unique in the Middle East, where the news media to this day remains the meek handmaiden of power.
True, the bills were paid by the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose enormous wealth comfortably supported his modernizing ambitions. But neither the emir nor Qatar featured prominently in Al Jazeera’s coverage, and a Qatari agenda, if such a thing existed, was difficult to discern.
Ideologically, the channel espoused an Islamist perspective, with a strong dash of Third World leftism stirred in. This strange brew produced an unrelenting hostility toward the political status quo in the Middle East and the world. It nourished anti-Israel and anti-US narratives but, less predictably, it subsumed these into a larger story of betrayal with Arab despots as the greater villains. Thus Al Jazeera’s coverage of Israel’s “Cast Lead” incursion into Gaza was a masterpiece of journalistic invective, aimed at the Mubarak regime in Egypt no less than at the Israelis.
Al Jazeera created a pan-Arab audience then sought to mobilize it by sheer power of negation. How far it succeeded – how much credit or responsibility the newscaster deserves for the serial uprisings in Arab lands – is a question still searching for a satisfactory answer. Certainly, a continuity of political aspiration existed between Al Jazeera’s audience and the public protesting in the streets. Often it was the same people, watching and rebelling, and the same shared narratives of contempt for the old regime which were invoked to justify revolution.
That the channel became a geopolitical player, openly taking sides in the conflict, was never questioned either by the insurgents or the embattled governments of the region. Its moment of greatest prestige came with the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. Al Jazeera found itself cheered by the triumphant rebels as one of their own, while being envied by Western news mavens because of its access to events.
Success bred temptation: at some point in 2011, emir Hamad clearly decided to wield Al Jazeera as his official weapon of influence. Wadah Khanfar, director since 2003, was gone by September 2011, replaced by a member of the emir’s family. Khanfar had given coverage a more Islamist tone, but overall had maintained the newscaster’s reputation as a fearless critic of the status quo. That was about to change.
A Qatari agenda, it turned out, did indeed exist. The emir strongly favored the Muslim Brotherhood.
The astute Sultan Al Qassemi first remarked on the transformation in the context of Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics. Because of its “love affair” with the Brotherhood, Qassemi wrote, Al Jazeera ardently supported the candidacy of Mohammed Morsi for the presidency, with the new 24/7 “Mubasher Misr” Egyptian channel “dedicating its coverage in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood around the clock.”
After Morsi’s election, Al Jazeera reporting became very protective of the new president’s image. According to Qassemi, the channel regularly interviewed “guests that it can be fairly certain will be gentle in their criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood,” while its journalists pulled back from “asking Muslim Brotherhood members and spokesmen embarrassing questions.”
In reporting on the region’s upheavals, Al Jazeera’s brand strength – its righteous if intemperate negation – has been placed at the service of emir Hamad. When Qatari policy supports an uprising, Al Jazeera uncritically re-broadcasts insurgent-produced videos and ignores insurgent abuses and internal conflicts. That was the case with coverage of Libya, and is the case with Syria today. When the emir opposes an uprising, however, Al Jazeera grows strangely silent. This has been the approach to the revolt in Bahrain, where Shia protesters, representing the overwhelming majority of the population, were crushed by a Sunni ruler with help from Saudi and Gulf troops – including units from Qatar.
These flip-flops have led to resignations and finger-pointing. “Al Jazeera plays the piper, but Qatar calls the tune,” complained the channel’s former correspondent in Berlin. “There is no independent media anymore,” stated the former Beirut correspondent, who quit over the one-sided coverage of Syria. “It is whose agenda is paying the money for the news outlet.” Al Jazeera, he concluded, “is committing journalistic suicide.”
“This is no longer an Al Jazeera office,” charged Cairo correspondent Samir Omer, following his resignation. “This is an office of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Why emir Hamad, whose rule is more absolute than Mubarak’s ever was, has chosen to embrace the Brotherhood – a revolutionary organization – is a bit of a mystery. His wish to control Al Jazeera is more understandable, but self-defeating. The newscaster was never really independent financially, but it was perceived to be so in coverage by a broad, enthusiastic audience. Popularity hinged on trust, and Al Jazeera’s descent into a typical state-controlled mouthpiece is certain to erode both.
Authoritarians frequently harassed Al Jazeera staff, which they viewed, I think correctly, as a threat to their authority. During a November 2012 demonstration in Cairo, the political polarities were reversed. Young protesters – identical in look and sound to the anti-Mubarak rebels glorified in Al Jazeera broadcasts – heaved Molotov cocktails at the channel’s studio, substantially torching it. The attackers accused “Al Jazeera of bias in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political force from which President Morsi hails.”
If historians seek the exact moment when Al Jazeera flipped from a revolutionary force to another brick in the Middle East status quo, this may well be it.