Many Americans complain about the inherent bias found in U.S. news coverage, but the problem may be universal.
Take Al Jazeera, an independent broadcasting network headquartered in Qatar. Though the network was long touted as a bastion of unbiased journalism, recent allegations by former Al Jazeera staff members have called its overall objectivity into question.
Al Jazeera (Arabic for ‘the island’) aired its first broadcast in 1996, but the network first rose to prominence five years later, in the shadows of 9/11. The station’s Arabic-speaking journalists covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other notable events in the Middle East, for which many foreign reporters simply could not obtain direct access. The unique footage, coupled with vehement criticism from President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, made the network a countercultural hit with many Western viewers. Demand among this demographic led to the launch of Al Jazeera English in 26.
The broadcaster’s watershed moment took place in February 211. As Egyptians staged a revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, Al Jazeera crews were embedded in city streets and outlying communities, conducting visceral, firsthand interviews in the country’s native language. Meanwhile, other international journalists struggled to submit material of the same caliber.
The network’s immersed coverage of this conflict earned commendations from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and many likened the station’s coverage of the revolution to CNN’s breakout coverage of the 199-91 Persian Gulf War.
Al Jazeera effectively became the go-to source for Middle Eastern news. Though many Westerners did not have cable access to Al Jazeera English during the skirmish, an estimated 1.6 million people viewed the network’s Egyptian coverage via streaming video.
In 211, a report by Allied Media Corp. indicated that 4 million residents of the Arab world were tuning in to watch Al Jazeera. Just one year later, testimony from a handful of disgruntled former employees threatens to tarnish the broadcaster’s bi-partisan reputation.
In March 212, Al Jazeera’s Beirut office saw the resignation of local correspondent Ali Hashem, as well as the station’s producer and managing director of the news bureau. The purported cause of this mass exodus: Al Jazeera’s biased coverage, particularly in Syria and Bahrain. One year ago, Ghassan Ben Jeddo resigned as head of the Beirut bureau for similar reasons.
A source told Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar that Ali Hashem quit after the station refused to air video footage of rebel troops clashing with the Syrian Army, led by President Bashar al-Assad, in the Wadi Khaled Valley, and his Al Jazeera superiors branded him as a shabeeh (regime supporter). The source also said Ali Hashem was outraged when supporters of HM Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, carried out atrocities against Bahraini civilians—and Al Jazeera remained mum on the subject.
Mousa Ahmad, the producer who resigned, reportedly did so because Al Jazeera failed to report the Syrian reform referendum in late February. A 57 percent voter turnout was reported, with 9 percent voting for a new constitution, which would essentially end 5 years of single-party leadership by the Ba’ath Party and pave the way for multi-party presidential candidacy.
Not surprisingly, regional politics have played a role in the controversy. Many suspect the company is currying favor with the current Qatari government, which owns Al Jazeera through the Qatar Media Corporation, and which has long opposed the Assad-led Syrian regime. In the wake of the scandal, journalist and author Afshin Rattansi told RT that notions of favoritism have grave implications on Al Jazeera’s favorable standing in the Middle East.
“It is very disturbing to hear how Al Jazeera is now becoming this regional player for foreign policy in a way that some would arguably say the BBC and others have been for decades,” he said. “If Al Jazeera Arabic is going to take a war-like stance after [the] Qatari government, this would be very ill.”
Earlier this week, the network announced plans to begin airing a new French channel to coincide with this summer’s European soccer championships. The sport’s popularity has skyrocketed in Qatar since December 21, when the country was named as the site of the 222 World Cup.
For now, Al Jazeera remains popular in the Middle East. However, network producers may want to reconsider their angle for covering the fight between Assad loyalists and Syrian insurgents. Just as Al Jazeera earned universal praise for its coverage of the Egyptian Revolution, the company could lose its favorable worldwide standing for treating the Syrian conflict so subjectively.