In early June, six Middle East countries – UAE, KSA, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen – severed diplomatic ties with Qatar. Since then, there have been talks to resolve the crisis; however, Qatar has rejected the list of demands by the Arab states including that of shutting down Al Jazeera.
The broadcasting network was first set up in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and is owned by the Qatar government. Although the network has been praised for its investigative and outspoken journalism, it has also been accused of partisan and biased coverage.
Not only is Al Jazeera actively destroying its reputation in the Middle East, but also among Western countries such as the US.
A recent study by Saudi daily Arab News and YouGov surveying the US public shows that of the 63 percent aware of Al Jazeera, an astounding 44 percent associate it with giving a platform to terror groups linked to Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, 35 percent would rate its news reporting as “poor quality” and 40 percent believe the channel promotes negative influence in terms of the US image abroad and perhaps, more importantly, 40 percent also believe that the channel promotes negative influence on US public opinion about the Arab world.
In 2009, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank shut down the Al Jazeera bureau in Ramallah over accusations of “negative, biased, and unbalanced reporting,” according to an article by Najat AlSaied, a PhD researcher in media and development at University of Westminster in London. The same article questions, “How could Qatar promote democracy when its authorities sentenced a Qatari poet, Mohammed Al Ajami, to life imprisonment in 2012, allegedly for praising the “Arab Spring” and suggesting that he would like to see the same thing in his country?”
A 2010 WikiLeaks report claims that the Qatar government manipulates Al Jazeera coverage to suit political interests. It’s the same year that five of Al Jazeera Arabic’s hosts resigned due to biased treatment against women, says AlSaied.
The channel further lost key staff members in 2012 due to its biased coverage. Correspondent Ali Hashem, managing director Hassan Shaaban and producer Mousa Ahmad, resigned due to the channel’s biased coverage of the Arab Spring – more specifically, the events in Syria and Bahrain. In fact, emails leaked by Syrian hackers showed Hashem expressing his anger over the channel’s one-sided coverage of Syria and its refusal to cover the events in Bahrain.
But, the biggest blow came in 2013 when 22 members of its staff in Egypt resigned over what they called biased coverage of the events in Egypt, according to local media.
And this is even before the Arab states severed ties with Qatar.
Most recently, in June 2017, Al Jazeera was responsible for inciting terror and death threats against rival broadcaster, Saudi-based MBC for its TV drama Al Gharabeeb Al Soud (Black Crows). The series is a dramatized version of life under the Daesh rule in Syria and Iraq, therefore raising questions over whether Al Jazeera and other Doha-backed channels are standing up for extremist ideology.
In fact, an MBC executive told Arab News that Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language service, attacked the show, encouraging terror threats against the channel and its employees. The channel has also attacked the show on social media implying that it is demeaning to Sunni Islam.
At a time when peace in the Middle East continues to be a work in progress, media’s role has never been important. Unfortunately, for media channels such as Al Jazeera, ‘freedom of speech’ is a term that has been heavily misconstrued. Does ‘freedom of speech’ apply to media outlets if that speech promotes terrorism? That’s a question Bahrain’s information minister Ali Al Romaihi is familiar with. Last year, he called for measures to ensure media is not allowed to incite terrorism and was faced with accusations of limiting freedom of expression. Addressing this issue at meeting of Arab information minister in Cairo in July 2017, he said, “We cannot talk about freedom of expression when a television channel becomes a platform to promote terrorist groups and to portray them as militant movements seeking freedom and democracy, and to portray terrorist acts as peaceful protests and demands. Such a channel has thus become the media arm of terrorist groups.”