Deconstructing Al Jazeera and its paymasters

Related post: The collapse of Al-Jazeera’s credibility

Aim

The aim of this post is to identify some key issues and concerns about the claimed independence and objectivity of Al Jazeera and to highlight various forces and factors which currently shape Al Jazeera’s editorial policy and direction.

Context

Al Jazeera is an international news network headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Initially launched as an Arabic news and current affairs satellite TV channel , Al Jazeera has since expanded into a broad network including the Internet and TV channels in multiple languages. The original Al Jazeera channel’s willingness to broadcast populist and dissenting views, including on call-in shows, created controversies in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The station gained worldwide attention following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when it was the only channel to cover the war in Afghanistan live from its office there.

Strategic investment by the Emir of Qatar?

Al Jazeera is  owned by Qatar Media Corporation, a Middle Eastern multimedia corporation based in Qatar a. Its chairman is Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani. Founded in 1996, Al-Jazeera received a $147 million loan from the Emir of Qatar, where the channel is based, to fund its startup. It has struggled financially ever since but has always received generous support by the Emir of Qatar.

Qatar, whose sovereign wealth fund reportedly has as much as $100 billion in assets under management, is hardly losing sleep over the profitability of the Al Jazeera. According to Zubair Iqbal of the Middle East Institute: Al Jazeera is funded “essentially for strategic reasons. Qatar has ambitions to become a major player in the region. . . . I don’t think they are interested in making money [on the network].” But one way to gain a more global audience, Iqbal says, is for Qatar to back a channel that has many critics in Arab capitals — to underscore the differences between Qatar’s more liberal society versus its rivals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The strategy appears to be working, now that Al Jazeera is more popular than ever. (Source)

Channel without an agenda?

Not everyone buys the idea Al Jazeera is without an agenda. Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, argues that within the Arab world the network – especially the original Al Jazeera Arabic service – is seen as being in tune with the views of its Qatari paymasters. If the division in the Middle East is between those who are pro-American, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and those who are on the rejectionist front, then Qatar is on the [populist] side. ”There’s a lot of baggage between Qatar and the Mubarak regime and Al Jazeera is seen as an instrument of the Qatari Government.” Mr Shehadi concedes that Al Jazeera English is less partisan than Al Jazeera Arabic, which broke the Saudi monopoly on Arab media when it was founded in 1996 by former members of the BBC Arabic TV service. (Independent)

Reported in the media, Arab and foreign countries one of the documents that were leaked by Wikileaks site and describe the Al-Jazeera as a source essential to the influence of Qatar. It also says that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani presented to Egypt to stop the island for a year, if Egypt has provided a permanent settlement for the Palestinians. Al Jazeera quoted the letter says that “Qatar, according to the words of the Prime Minister is concerned about Egypt and its people, which began running out of patience, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says that Al Jazeera is the source of problems in Egypt, and this is not an excuse.”

The paper adds that Hamad bin Jassem Mubarak said “we will stop the island for a year” if they agreed to reach during that period to provide a permanent settlement for the Palestinians. She said that Mubarak did not respond.

But the Guardian newspaper the British saw in the words of Prime Minister the country with the Egyptian President and according to the documents themselves proof that Qatar is using al-Jazeera as a bargaining chip in foreign policy by adapting its coverage of the match with foreign leaders, and offers to stop broadcasting in return for major concessions.

On the other hand draws the paper to that earlier rejected the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, a request to the United States to use its influence to contain some coverage of the island, which is “against” the United States.

But the document says that the U.S. ambassador to Qatar said in 2009 that the island has the capacity to influence public opinion in the region, a source of material to the influence of Qatar. The embassy said in a telegram to the United States that relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are improving in general after Qatar downplayed criticism of the Saudi royal family on Al Jazeera. (Source: All Voices)

Al-Jazeera slanted reports to improve Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the USA?

Qatar has always claimed that al-Jazeera was independent of the Qatari government. But is it so? A Wikileaks cable claims otherwise.

Qatar used al-Jazeera as a diplomatic bargaining chip, US elements claimed in a cable leaked by the WikiLeaks website. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that in a cable sent in November 2009, US representatives in Doha contradicted the Qatari claim that Al Jazeera was an independent network. The Americans claimed that the network slanted the nature of reports in order to improve relations with many countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Stated. (Source)

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah

Al-Jazeera’s opportunist role in the “Egypt revolution”

Although Al Jazeera now faces rivals, including the Saudi-backed al-Arabiya, the channel that first gave voice to dissidents in the region revelled in reporting the demise of Tunisia’s leader, Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Yet, when the flame lit by Tunisia reached Egypt, a country with which Qatar has only recently made up after a diplomatic row, and where events are more likely to affect the rest of the region, al-Jazeera’s first days of coverage appeared restrained, drawing consternation from some ­observers.

Coverage of Tuesday’s “day of rage,” was relatively moderate compared with al-Jazeera’s handling of the revolt in Tunisia, perhaps reflecting, as commentators say, Qatar’s own concern at the fall of one of the region’s most stable regimes and the domino effect on the Middle East.

The station, however, was busy campaigning against the Palestinian Authority, after revealing documents detailing concessions the authority had offered Israel in peace talks.

By Friday, however, as Egypt’s turmoil escalated, al-Jazeera seemed to be back on form, devoting continuous coverage and graphic images of overturned vehicles in Cairo and Suez. The Egypt story had become too big.

Al-Jazeera called on the Egyptian authorities to allow it to freely cover events. The network reported that its live channel, al-Jazeera Mubasher, was on Friday morning removed from the Nilesat platform from which the public receives television channels. This was after the channel was moved to different frequencies. In addition, the network’s bureau in Cairo had its telephone landlines cut, and its main Arabic news channel had also faced signal interference, it said.

The station’s website, has seen a 2,500 per cent increase in traffic on Friday, with more than 50 per cent of the spike coming from the US alone.

Mahmud Shammam, editor of Arabic Foreign Policy Magazine and a former board member at the channel, commenting on the station’s coverage, says: “This is the first time al-Jazeera was under pressure from citizen journalists and social media to cover the events, not the other way round.”

“Media does not cause revolution, they did not move the street in Tunisia or Egypt. Al-Jazeera failed to understand the dynamic of the new power in Egypt and Tunisia; they were late.”

“Though most of those working in al-Jazeera are hostile to the Egyptian regime, Arab governments do not want a hasty change in Egypt and it is reflected in their coverage,” says Hassan al-Mostafa, a media observer and blogger.

“In general, coverage is heavily packaged in an Islamic or nationalist ideology, especially in Tunisia, Palestine and Lebanon, but in Egypt they were more careful. They want to weaken the regime, but not destroy it.’’

Media critics maintain that although al-Jazeera has played a crucial role in widening the space for freedom of expression in the Middle East, it is also a foreign policy tool for Qatar, used to expand the Gulf state’s diplomatic ambitions. According to US diplomatic cables released on WikiLeaks, Qatar uses al-Jazeera as a bargaining chip to punch above its weight in regional affairs. Al-Jazeera’s tone towards Saudi Arabia has also changed over the past year, as relations between Doha and Riyadh have improved. (Source: The Financial Times)

Lopsided and selective

Al Jazeera has been criticized for failing to report on many hard-hitting news stories that originate from Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based. The two most frequently cited stories were the revoking of citizenship from the Al Ghafran clan of the Al Murrah tribe in response to a failed coup that members of the Al Ghafran clan were implicated in, and Qatar’s growing relations with and diplomatic visits to Israel. (Source)

Jeb Koogler echoes this sentiment in his blog The Progressive Realist, in which he asserts that Al-Jazeera “is lopsided and selective in its coverage” due to the “Qatari monarchy’s own diplomatic interests.” Undoubtedly, the fact that the Emir of Qatar is the predominant patron of Al-Jazeera certainly lends credibility to his allegations.

Robert Worth, in conjunction with David Kirkpatrick, penned another article for The New York Times which further delves into the perceived biases of the Al-Jazeera network: “Al Jazeera’s opaque loyalties and motives are as closely scrutinized as its reporting. It is accused of tailoring its coverage to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza against their Lebanese and Palestinian rivals,” they report.

Al Jazeera or Al Wahhabiya

Al Jazeera is also known for its pro-Saudi (pro-Wahhabi) and anti-Shia bias. For example, is has conveniently ignored to report the coverage of Shia persecution in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. Based on these sectarian lines, the channel is noticeably anti-Iran, not unlike other Arab channels of the region. Therefore, Al Jazeera is also known as Al Wahhabiya in the Middle East.

“Given that al Jazeera is almost as anti-Irani­an as Fox is anti-Democ­rat, their discountin­g of the news from the various Iranian media sources (doesn’t terming them all ‘state-run­’ conflict with the narrative that the state fixed the election, given that a lot of them endorsed and supported Mousavi?) can be regarded in the same light.

And while Al Jazeera lies to its viewers that that almost nobody supports the Iranian government, and yet groups like Terror Free Tomorrow and the University of Maryland’s World Public Opinion, who actually go and take the temperature of ordinary Iranians in a scientific way keep finding a different story.

It has been years since I believed that ANY news organisation was unbiased (I had a lot of contact with immigrants fresh from the former Warsaw pact countries just after the wall fell, and they taught me some of the skills for reading through the official narrative to find the truth that they had learned over the years there, and a few years later when someone who had not idea what stance I had on ME issues shushed me while the CBC, who I at the time regarded as almost totally credible played a clip which had an english translatio­n over a recording of a failed Palestinia­n suicide bomber, by the end of which I could see he was very indignant, and when I asked him what was causing it, he provided a radically different translation, which I later independan­tly confirmed to be a lot more accurate, at which point I started using those skills on ALL news sources) and instead of, as you suppose, giving the ‘anti-US foreign policy news stories’ a vigorous welcome, I put them to the same sort of test, which, as I am a well-read polymath, is pretty thorough.

And when it comes to Iranian news stories (or Israeli ones) I often end up digging around for independently verifiable facts before committing to a final stance. It took me more than two weeks of digging before I went from expressing skepticism about the ‘Iranian rigged election’ line to definitive­ly calling it nonsense, because I had to find out what the actual voting process entailed.” (Source: Richard Pearce)

Yvonne Ridley wins case for unfair dismissal against Al-Jazeera

Yvonne Ridley has won her case for unfair dismissal against Qatari news site Al-Jazeera.net. Ms Ridley was sacked from her role as senior editor on the English-language news site in November 2003 with no notice and with no reason. Three weeks after her dismissal, Al-Jazeera told Ms Ridley’s lawyer that she was a ‘threat to national security’ – a charge which carries the death penalty in Qatar.

Ms Ridley had been an outspoken opponent of the war at a time when Al-Jazeera was rumoured to be under increasing pressure from the US government – which described the site as ‘violently anti-coalition’. She had also helped to form a branch of the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) at the Dohar-based broadcaster.

“What’s really ironic is that I was trying to lift the standard of journalism and improve the pay and working conditions of journalists at Al-Jazeera,” said Ms Ridley. ”But I still have great affection for Al-Jazeera. A lot of good people work there on both the English and Arab side, and the TV is still the best thing to have happened to Arab broadcasting in many years.”

A court in Qatar ruled in Ms Ridley’s favour in February. Lawyers are still wrangling over compensation after Ms Ridley’s lawyers rejected an offer from Al-Jazeera of around £10,000.  (Source)

A new era of US-Al Jazeera relations

An article from the Los Angeles Times points out that the Obama administration is actively making an effort to form a workable partnership with Al-Jazeera. Representing a departure from the Bush administration’s chilly relations with the network. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was especially disgruntled with Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Iraq, accusing it of spreading “viscous, inaccurate and inexcusable reports” of US actions in that country.

On the contrary, this contemporary article illustrates that a new era has arrived for US/Al-Jazeera relations, quoting Tony Berman, Al-Jazeera’s chief strategic advisor for the US, as saying that “The cold war that existed between the Bush administration and Al-Jazeera has totally ended, now it’s a professional relationship between an aggressive government and an aggressive news organization.” (Source: The Layalina Review)

***************

Appendix: Will Al Jazeera pay attention to introducing democracy and improving human rights in Qatar?

Human rights in Qatar

An absolute monarchy, Qatar has been ruled by the al-Thani family since the mid-19th century and has since transformed itself from a British protectorate noted mainly for pearling into an independent state with significant oil and natural gas revenues. In 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani became Emir when he seized power from his father, whom he accused of stealing state funds.

Qatar is a destination country for men and women from South and Southeast Asia who migrate willingly, but are subsequently trafficked into involuntary servitude as domestic workers and laborers, and, to a lesser extent, commercial sexual exploitation; the most common offence was forcing workers to accept worse contract terms than those under which they were recruited; other conditions include bonded labor, withholding of pay, restrictions on movement, arbitrary detention, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, men and women who are offered employment with high salary in Qatar are often given underpaying jobs. The report states that Qatari laws against forced labour are rarely enforced and that labour laws often result in the detention of victims in deportation centers pending the completion of legal proceedings. The report ranks Qatar at Tier-3, which groups countries that do not satisfy the minimum standards of labour rights, or demonstrates reasonable effort to comply with them.

Like other Persian Gulf nations, Qatar has sponsorship laws, which have been widely criticized as “modern-day slavery.”

The Government states that it is doing a good job with regards to human rights and treatment of labourers.

Qatar retains the death penalty, primarily for espionage, or other threats against national security.

DOCUMENT – QATAR: AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL CALLS FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION GUARANTEES, AND AN END TO DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST DOMESTIC WORKERS

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

PUBLIC STATEMENT

AI Index: MDE 22/001/2010

9 June2010

Qatar: Amnesty International calls for freedom of expression guarantees, and an end to discrimination against women and sexual violence against domestic workers

United Nations Human Rights Council adopts Universal Periodic Review outcome on Qatar

Amnesty International welcomes Qatar’s engagement with the Universal Periodic Review and its support for a number of key recommendations, in particular its support of recommendations to consider ratifying the ICCPR and the ICESCR;1Amnesty International urges Qatar to ratify the Covenants without delay and without entering any reservations.

The organization further calls on Qatar to implement key recommendations to lift restrictions on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to take steps to promote freedom of the press in all forms of media.2In this regard, it encourages Qatar to repeal provisions that criminalize legitimate forms of freedom of expression, such as those in the Law on Press and Publication that prescribe imprisonment for criticizing the Emir, for writing about the armed forces without permission and for offending divine religions,3as well as those in the Penal Code that punish blasphemy and consensual “illicit sexual relations”.4

Amnesty International regrets Qatar’s rejection of recommendations to review and repeal laws that discriminate against women.5It calls on Qatar to reconsider these recommendations and to repeal or amend laws on guardianship, which restrict women’s freedom of movement or discriminate against them in relation to nationality.

Amnesty International welcomes Qatar’s support of recommendations to improve the protection of female domestic workers against violence and sexual abuse.6 The organization is concerned, however, that key recommendations to reform legislation on sponsorship have been rejected.7

Amnesty International also regrets that Qatar rejected recommendations made by five states to establish an official moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view to abolishing it,8and calls on the government to urgently reconsider its position on these recommendations.

Finally, Amnesty International welcomes Qatar’s support of the recommendation to continue to ensure fair trials.9 In implementing this recommendation, the organization also urges Qatar to ensure an end to the use of arbitrary detention without charge or trial, including in the context of counter-terrorism and public security.10

(Source:  http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE22/001/2009/en)

…….

DOCUMENT – QATAR: FURTHER INFORMATION ON: FEAR FOR SAFETY: HAMDA FAHAD JASSEM AL-THANI

PUBLIC AI Index: MDE 22/003/2006

20 October 2006

Further Information on UA 63/05 (MDE 22/001/2005, 15 March 2005) and follow-ups (MDE 22/002/2005, 18 August 2005; MDE 22/001/2006, 14 February 2006) – Fear for Safety

QATAR Hamda Fahad Jassem Al-Thani (f)

Hamda Fahad Jassem Al-Thani safely returned to her husband in Egypt on 17 October.

On 10 June, Hamda Fahad Jassem Al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling family, sought to escape from her family home, where she had beenforcibly confined against her will since November 2003. However, she sustained an injury to her leg during her attempt to escape. Following the intervention of the Qatari Human Rights Committee, an ambulance was sent to her family home, and she was admitted to hospital. The Ministry of Interior prevented members of her family from visiting her in hospital, and following the completion of her treatment, the Office of the Attorney General completed the papers necessary for her to obtain a passport. In March 2006, the Ministry of Interior and the Attorney General had assured Amnesty International that Hamda Fahad Jassem Al-Thani’s safety was assured.

Hamda Fahad Jassem Al-Thani married an Egyptian national, Sayed Saleh, in Egypt on 5 November 2002. Nine days later, she was allegedly drugged and abducted by members of the Qatari security forces, who took her back to Qatar. According to reports, she was detained in secret in the al-Selyea area of Doha for five months, until April 2003, and then transferred to the offices of the state’s Special Security Directorate in Doha, where she was detained until November 2003. The security forces reportedly then handed her over to the custody of her family, who have held her against her will at their home since then.

Hamda Fahad Jassem Al-Thani took plane from Doha to Egypt on 17 October and is now with her husband in Egypt. They both thanked Amnesty International for its efforts on Hamda’s behalf.

Many thanks to all who sent appeals. No further action is needed.

ps: Take a note of where this person flew to after her release by Qatari authorities. (Source: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE22/003/2006/en/ccca433d-d3e2-11dd-8743-d305bea2b2c7/mde220032006en.html)

Qatar

Qatar is an Arab country in the Middle East, occupying the small Qatar Peninsula on the northeasterly coast of the much larger Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south; otherwise, the Persian Gulf surrounds the state. A strait of the Persian Gulf separates Qatar from the nearby island nation of Bahrain. Qatar is an oil- and gas-rich nation, with the third largest gas reserves.

Area: 4,416 sq miles (11,437 sq km)

Population: 907,000 (2007 est.); Qatar-born Arabs are the minority, with just a quarter of the country’s population qualifying as citizens

Ethnic Groups: Arab 40%, Indian or Pakistani 36%, Iranian 10%, other 14%

GDP and GDP per capita: $53 billion and $62,000 (2006 estimates)

Government and Politics: Qatar is an emirate—that is, a authoritarian monarchy headed since 1995 by Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. He appoints his council of ministers. Qatar has a 35-seat Advisory Council that acts as a legislature. Its members are appointed by the emir. The only elections in the country are held for the 29-member Central Municipal Council, which plays only an advisory role and only with regard to municipal services. Political parties and groups are banned.

Religion: Islam is the official religion. Among the minority citizen population, Sunni Muslims account for 90% and Shiite Muslims for 10% of the minority citizen population. Overall, Muslims make up 78% of Qatar’s population. Christians include 80,000 Roman Catholics, 10,000 Anglicans, 3,000 Copts, and Protestants. There are also Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahai communities. Qatar is more tolerant of non-Islamic religions than other Arab states, with non-Muslims serving in government and allowance made for non-Islamic places of worship.

Economy:

Oil accounts for 62% of total government revenue, with oil reserves projected to last 40 years at a production rate of 1 million barrels per day. Qatar’s per capita income of $62,000 is the fifth-highest in the world. Qatar’s natural-gas reserves are the third-largest in the world, yielding huge production facilities and exports. The country has invested in heavy industry and petrochemicals. There is no individual income tax but corporations pay up to 12%, with economic zones eliminating corporate taxes for 20 years. Overall the country’s economy has been growing by close to 10% a year since 2003, a stunning rate.

Military:

Qatar’s military is 12,000-man strong. It has 30 tanks, an air force of some 12 combat aircraft, seven combat vessels and 13 patrol crafts. It depends largely on the United States for its defense. The Middle East headquarters of the United States military’s Central Command, which assumes military oversight of 23 Middle Eastern countries, is in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Qatar is part of a $20 billion U.S. arms-sale package unveiled in 2007 for five Arab countries in the region. (Source)

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