After the Arab Spring: Al-Jazeera Losing Battle for Independence
By Alexander Kühn, Christoph Reuter and Gregor Peter Schmitz
Spiegel Online February 15, 2013 – 11:56 AM
For over a decade, the Arab television broadcaster Al-Jazeera was widely
respected for providing an independent voice from the Middle East. Recently,
however, several top journalists have left, saying the station has developed
a clear political agenda.
Aktham Suliman's wristwatch was always ahead. Although he lived in Berlin,
it always showed him the time in Doha, the capital of the emirate of
Qatar -- which is also the home of Al-Jazeera, the television news network
that had been employing Suliman, born in Damascus, as a correspondent for
Germany since 2002.
"Doha time was Jazeera time," he says. "It was an honor to work for this
One and a half years ago, Suliman, 42, re-set his watch to German time,
having become disenchanted with Al-Jazeera. And it wasn't just because the
broadcaster seemed less interested in reports from Europe. Rather, Suliman
had the feeling that he was no longer being allowed to work as an
Last August, he quit his job. "Before the beginning of the Arab Spring, we
were a voice for change," he says, "a platform for critics and political
activists throughout the region. Now, Al-Jazeera has become a propaganda
Suliman is not the only one who feels bitterly disappointed. The Arab TV
network has recently suffered an exodus of prominent staff members.
Reporters and anchors in cities like Paris, London, Moscow, Beirut and Cairo
have left Al-Jazeera, despite what are seen as luxurious working conditions
in centrally located offices. And despite the fact that the network is
investing an estimated $500 million (€375 million) in the US, so as to reach
even more viewers on the world's largest television market -- one in which
its biggest competitor, CNN, is at home.
Al-Jazeera has over 3,000 staff members and 65 correspondent offices
worldwide -- and viewers in some 50 million households throughout the Arab
world. But it also has a problem: More than ever before, critics contend
that the broadcaster is following a clear political agenda, and not adhering
to the principles of journalistic independence.
Such accusations have been leveled against Western broadcasters as well, of
course. But the charge would place Al-Jazeera on a par with Fox News --
which pursues the agenda of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch in the
US -- rather than CNN.
Objectivity in a World of Censorship
Indeed, the Arab programming of Al-Jazeera -- which means "the island" in
Arabic -- was launched in 1996 with a noble goal: It aimed to serve as an
objective medium in a world of rigorous censorship.
The network broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden, prompting outraged
criticism from the US, where it was referred to as a "terror network." At
the same time, it was the only Arab medium that regularly invited Israeli
politicians to debates. Its correspondents didn't hesitate to call former
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a "dictator" -- and Egyptian ruler Hosni
Mubarak a "wimp." What's more, the network's journalists reported on
dissidents, including members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, who were
forced to rot in prison for years under Mubarak's regime. Such courage and
informative journalism earned Al-Jazeera a number of awards.
Since the Arab Spring, though, many former dissidents have risen to power
across the region -- and these fledgling leaders often show little respect
for democratic principles. Al-Jazeera, however, has shamelessly fawned upon
the new rulers.
Today, when Egyptians protest against President Mohammad Morsi and the rule
of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Jazeera is often critical of them, in the
style of the old pro-government TV station. Conversely, according to
ex-correspondent Suliman, Al-Jazeera executives have ordered that Morsi's
decrees should be portrayed as pearls of wisdom. "Such a dictatorial
approach would have been unthinkable before," he says. "In Egypt we have
become the palace broadcaster for Morsi."
This is rather surprising considering that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al
Thani, the emir of Qatar and financier of the network, used to ban such
blatant influence peddling. The walls of the TV station's modern
headquarters in Doha are decorated with quotations from free-thinkers like
Bob Dylan and Mahatma Gandhi.
But the emir, who also has an autocratic style of leadership and
occasionally puts unwanted journalists behind bars, is having an
increasingly difficult time with independent spirits working on his favorite
'I Had to Quit'
A prominent correspondent who, until one year ago, used to report in Beirut
for the network, says: "Al-Jazeera takes a clear position in every country
from which it reports -- not based on journalistic priorities, but rather on
the interests of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar," he says. "In order to
maintain my integrity as a reporter, I had to quit."
Critics say that the emir now essentially trusts only his own people: The
network's director general is now a relative of the emir, as is the head of
the advisory board. They are seemingly required to follow political
guidelines laid down by the palace -- instead of serving the interests of
viewers. Thanks to its oil wealth, Qatar is blessed with the world's second
highest per capita income, and it's a key geo-political player with a clear
When, for instance, mass protests were staged against the neighboring regime
in Bahrain, a close ally of the emir, Al-Jazeera almost entirely ignored the
situation. In Syria, on the other hand, where Qatar supports the
Islamist-leaning opponents of President Bashar Assad with money and weapons,
the network's journalists are extremely close to the rebels. Such proximity
can be dangerous in every respect, even lethal -- as suggested by a widely
circulated online video.
The images show an intersection near Daraa, in southern Syria. A member of
the opposition Free Syrian Army, wearing a bulletproof vest, runs across a
street on the outskirts of Bursa al-Harir, which has been besieged by troops
loyal to the Assad regime for the past nine months. A second man, wearing a
sweatshirt but no special protection, follows his lead. From a Syrian army
checkpoint located a few hundred meters away, soldiers open fire and a
number of shots bring down the man in the sweatshirt.
His name was Mohammed al-Musalma and he was 33 years old. He had been
working for Al-Jazeera under the codename Mohammed al-Horani since April
2012. He was regularly paid by the network and was reputed to be one of the
most experienced citizen journalists in Daraa and the surrounding area.
Musalma was one of numerous local activists who film as much as possible in
the hopes that Al-Jazeera will decide to broadcast some of their footage.
'Poses a Danger'
His death has raised questions. For one, running across a wide street in
view of an enemy checkpoint is extraordinarily risky. And, while it makes
sense that Musalma was not wearing anything clearly identifying him as a
member of the press -- reporters in Syria are advised against doing so --
established media organizations outfit their staff members with safety
equipment, including bulletproof vests. Al-Jazeera, however, would seem not
to prescribe this kind of protection for local activists who serve the
broadcaster as inexpensive part-time correspondents.
Suliman says that he and a number of colleagues broached this topic during a
visit to the headquarters in Doha a few months before Musalma's death. "If a
differentiation is no longer made between activists and journalists, then
that poses a danger to everyone," he says.
According to Suliman, the editor in chief praised the idea of a clear
differentiation. But nothing happened, he says -- except that the shocking
video was deleted from the Al-Jazeera website, where it first was posted.
As far back as the spring of 2011, after Al-Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan
al-Jaber was killed in Libya by government forces, the network had promised
that it would examine the issue of better protection for its staff members,
says Suliman. But he says that nothing was done about the problem then,
Despite numerous inquiries from SPIEGEL, the network has refused to comment
on the allegations. The negative headlines come at a bad time for
Al-Jazeera. For a number of years, its English-language spin-off has been
trying to gain a foothold in the lucrative American market, but leading US
cable companies have given it very little access.
Expansion in the US
At the beginning of this year, Al-Jazeera spent $500 million to purchase
Current TV, which was co-founded by former US Vice President Al Gore. This
struggling left-leaning political channel has been a flop with viewers and
has received miserably low ratings; it can, however, be viewed in over 40
million US households.
"Of course the price is far too high for a niche broadcaster, but the Emir
of Qatar wanted to finally expand in America," says US journalism professor
Philip Seib from the University of Southern California. Seib says that
Al-Jazeera has been experiencing heightened competition in the Arabic home
market from local broadcasters and international rivals. He believes that
the expansion in the US is a logical consequence of this development.
Will the huge investment pay off? The market for foreign news continues to
shrink in the US, and the public has reservations about the Arab
broadcaster. Ann Coulter, the staunchly conservative US columnist, recently
quipped on Twitter: "Al-Qaida could only come up with $400 million."
Such prejudice can only be overcome with top-notch journalism. Al-Jazeera
has advertised for 160 new positions in up to 10 new US bureaus and it has
already received over 8,000 applications. After all, the media crisis has
also cost many American journalists their jobs.
But there is also growing discontent in the US over how Doha tries to lead
public opinion by the nose. Network staff recently complained that a speech
delivered by the emir at the United Nations became the top story on
Al-Jazeera's evening news broadcast.
"It's the same everywhere in the media business: He who pays sets the tone,"
says TV expert Seib. Ironically, though, the news broadcaster from Doha
initially aimed to be more than just a business model. According to its own
description, it once aspired to be "a voice for the voiceless."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen