It’s very rare for a global media network not to upset somebody. Over the years CNN, Fox News, RT (Russia Today), and even the BBC, regarded by many as the brand leader in trusted public broadcasting, have come in for a political pasting and accusations of bias.
But none of them gets close to the abuse heaped upon Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based network, which for more than 20 years has been a thorn in the side of authoritarian rulers in the Arab world and today faces an unprecedented demand for its closure.
The Aljazeera phenomenon has been an iconic and turbulent media voice in a region where religious sectarianism, civil strife and autocratic politics have been resolute obstacle to free speech and much-needed social and democratic reform.
It has pioneered challenging journalism and taken governments to task for their abuse of human rights and their failure to modernise and grant political freedoms.
Except, of course, in Qatar itself, where the network treads carefully not to offend the political establishment that pays for its ground-breaking reporting.
The rise was rapid. By the turn of the century Al Jazeera had become enormously popular. It was broadcasting over 24 hours and had 12 international offices and more than 500 staff. It was challenging every available taboo with phone-in programmes that discussed extra-marital sex, homosexuality, politics and violent extremism.
And it has courted controversy. It has been accused of being “terrorist TV” (the channel of choice for al-Qaeda propaganda videos after the September 11 attacks). In turn it has been accused of being anti-Western, pro-Israeli and, at the same time, of being overtly Islamist and even funded by the CIA.
Not surprisingly, along the way it made powerful enemies and particularly among the ranks of conservative and aging Arab rulers. It has been banned or expelled from numerous countries, and its journalists have become political targets. In Egypt three of its staff were the subject of a global press freedom campaign when they were arrested and jailed on bogus charges in 2013.
Now a far more serious crisis looms – a group of states including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have told Qatar to close the network down. It is an extraordinary demand, contained within a 13-point ultimatum issued by neighbouring Gulf states.
The network has two media faces, the Arabic channel (AJA), which has been a powerful instrument of influence in the Arab world. It speaks loudly on behalf of a small state punching above its weight on the world stage. Qatari leaders have bathed in the diplomatic sunshine of home-grown media coverage highlighting the country’s efforts to make peace among warring Arab communities in Sudan, Lebanon and Palestine.
Beyond the Arab landscape the network became a major player in the English-dominated international media scene with the launch of Al Jazeera English (AJE) in 2006. This new channel recruited some of the brightest, most professional and often disillusioned journalists from the ranks of existing global media. Over the years it has established a solid reputation for fair and objective journalism.
But the same cannot be said for the Arabic channel. Its sympathetic coverage of strident Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine has irritated many observers, including some independent journalists in the region. It has also damaged its credibility and led to a fall in ratings.
Often the two channels have carried the same story, with starkly different angles. These differences have been highlighted since the start of the Arab Spring, which was generally supported by the network. However after a couple of years the Arabic channel threw its editorial weight behind Islamist groups, some of which were rejected by people on the street, as in Egypt and Tunisia, or were caught up in armed struggle as in Syria and Yemen.
The continuing chaos in many parts of the region and the polarisation of Arab politics is behind the latest crisis which has led to the ultimatum issued by Qatar’s political opponents. Some of them, like Saudi Arabia, also have questionable links to militant groups and also fund media, in this case Al Jazeera’s regional competitor Al-Arabiya television.
The political targeting of Qatar, including a ban on travel to and from Doha, is pushing the embattled country into isolation and raising tensions in the region, but it also opens the door to yet more restrictions on journalism in Arab countries where press rights already exist in a twilight zone of legal and political uncertainty.
The Ethical Journalism Network supports journalists in the region — we have carried out programmes with partners in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon – and has recently concluded an agreement with the Al Jazeera Public Liberties and Human Rights Centre to work with the network to strengthen editorial independence and professionalism.
Al Jazeera plays an important role of providing news coverage to citizens in the Arab world and beyond and although many criticisms of its coverage, particularly on the Arabic channel, resonate with many journalists both inside the region and beyond, its suppression is not the answer to regional political disputes.
But it could signal a major reversal for the wider regional campaign for press freedom. That much was made clear by Omar Ghobash, the Ambassador to Russia of the United Arab Emirates’ who has spelled out in blunt terms why countries seeking to shut down Al Jazeera are pressing ahead. “We do not claim to have press freedom,” he told The Guardian, “We do not promote the idea of press freedom. What we talk about is responsibility in speech.”
To journalists and editors everywhere that should ring alarm bells. The fear of yet more censorship and attacks on media freedom should not be taken lightly and it prompted David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, to issue a statement in defence of Al Jazeera. The demand to close the network, he said, “represents a serious threat to media freedom if states, under the pretext of a diplomatic crisis, take measures to force the dismantling of Al Jazeera“.