Claims that al-Jazeera, the Qatari-based media outlet, is biased would hardly be considered news to those who follow Middle East media coverage. Al-Jazeera in Arabic has been preaching anti-Jewish, anti-Israel and anti-Western “analysis” masked as journalism for a while now, and is facing criticism around the world, often from its own former employees. Al Jazeera in English has attempted to be more subtle in the way it slants its reporting and thus distance itself from the obvious advocacy of its Arabic counterpart.
The coverage of the current unrest in Egypt, however, revealed that the one-sided editorialising is much more far reaching than the usual “dig” or outlandish conspiracy-theory allegations against the regular targets of al-Jazeera bias – Israel and the West (mainly the US).
It’s very clear that the long media arm of the Qatari regime has picked sides in the Egyptian domestic drama, and backing for the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi is very apparent in its coverage of the unfolding events. Things have become so bad that reportedly up to 22 journalists working for al-Jazeera, both in the local Egyptian channel – “Mubasher” – and in Doha, have resigned, many admitting that the reason for their resignation is the pressure from the top to produce biased reporting.
While many news outlets and online sites have reported the resignations and growing concern and criticism over al-Jazeera’s biased reporting of the unrest in Egypt (see examples here, here, and here), perhaps one of the most credible and damning analyses of al-Jazeera, and especially al-Jazeera Mubasher, regarding coverage of events is Egypt comes from Abdallah Scheifer, Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo and a journalist who has covered Egypt for Arab and Western media for nearly half-a-century.
Scheifer asserts that while the proliferation of new private Arabic-language TV channels has improved overall coverage of Middle-East events – previously dominated by state-owned media outlets – this positive trend has now taken a turn for the worse:
“That began to change in the last couple of years, when al-Jazeera‘s oldest Arabic-language channel and its local Egyptian satellite operation al-Jazeera “Mubasher” increased the existing tendency to cheerlead for one side in the Arab Spring upheavals taking place in Syria and Egypt.”
Al-Jazeera‘s tendency to pick sides has reached new heights, according to Scheifer, after Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were deposed by the Egyptian military following mass-protests, and this has definitely affected al-Jazeera English as well as the Arabic channels:
“Al-Jazeera English started to diverge from the news values it previously shared with channels broadcast by the likes of the BBC and France 24.
This was mirrored by al-Jazeera English’s sister Arabic station.”
Scheifer explains that after Morsi was ousted al-Jazeera English coverage started to broadcast exclusively from pro-Morsi rallies and demonstrations, ignoring parallel anti-Morsi events, or limiting air-time dedicated to their coverage.
In the days prior to Morsi’s removal and shortly afterwards, al-Jazeera had correspondents reporting from both Tahrir Square – where opponents of deposed President Mohammed Morsi were based – and at Nasr City, the largest pro-Mursi gathering. But this soon ceased.
“For example, last week a presenter said there were two rival demonstrations underway, at Tahrir Square and Nasr City, but there was no coverage from the former location.
Perhaps the crowd at Tahrir, by now distinctly against al-Jazeera, had chased its crew away, but that would not have prevented the channel from taking footage from TV news agencies or relatively non-competitive channels that are always ready to sell footage to each other. Interviews with anti-Morsi demonstrators would remain rare on al-Jazeera English in the days to come.”
According to Sheifer, al-Jazeera also avoids reporting, or downplays, events that might portray the Muslim Brotherhood in a bad light. They have barely mentioned the violent role of Brotherhood gunmen during clashes with Egyptian Security forces, even when there are eye witnesses and footage by other media outlets. They have ignored the recently established popular committees around Muslim Brotherhood rallying points, although even Muslim Brotherhood spokespeople have commented on them. They have minimised reportage about pro-Morsi and Brotherhood attacks on churches.
Of course, with a wave of resignations, including one made live on air on a competing TV channels, al-Jazeera had to respond to the bias allegations. In an article for the Telegraph, Managing Director of al-Jazeera Mubasher, Ayman Gaballah, tried to spin the bias claims against his channel into a discussion over press freedom:
“Egypt is bitterly polarised right now between rival political factions. Let me attempt to bridge the divide on something I hope we can all agree – press freedom.”
He continued to complain about repression of al-Jazeera reporters and the “McCarthyite atmosphere” post-Morsi – conveniently ignoring the fact that Morsi himself was not exactly a champion of a free press. Except during his time in office, his opponents were the ones to face repression, not al-Jazeera.
Gaballah complained that Egyptian media “have said we are an ‘enemy of Egypt'” and in a counter attack, accused other media outlets of bias. He claimed that al-Jazeera has no stakes in the internal Egyptian turmoil: “Let’s set the record straight about this latter point on these pages, since outlets in Egypt won’t. Al-Jazeera carries no torch for any political party.”
He claimed al-Jazeera covered rallies against Mubarak, then criticised Morsi “without going overboard as many others did”, and now they are simply doing the same with the current interim government.
In regards to resignations, he argues that the incitement and the crackdown against al-Jazeera is the real explanation for the decision by large numbers of reporters to leave the station: “In these circumstances, it’s understandable that some of our staff have remained at home, while others (mainly new to our Egypt channel after its recent expansion) have considered their futures in the organisation, with their careers and families to think about.” Not one word about the open criticism and bias allegations made by his ex-employees.
In an interview with NPR, Arab media expert Courtney Radsch, who formerly worked for Freedom House, paints a very different picture of the resignations:
“So there are a variety of reports of between seven to 22 people who resigned. Most of the resignations appear to have occurred in Egypt at the al-Jazeera Mubasher channel, which is the al-Jazeera live channel. But there are also reports of up to four people residing in the main office in Doha. Right now, things are still unfolding. But they appear to have the resigned over protests related to biased coverage of the events in Egypt, and being told to be more pro-Morsi.
There were also concerns that they were giving overdue attention to Morsi supporters, and that that was being perceived as against what many others saw as the popular uprising happening in the streets.”
When asked about the motivation behind al-Jazeera‘s editorial line and the influence and role of the Qatari regime in dictating priorities and framing in the Middle East upheavals, Radsch answered:
“I think it’s fair to say that al-Jazeera is an instrument of Qatari foreign policy, just as Al-Arabiya is an instrument of Saudi Arabian foreign policy. There’s been such a difference in coverage between Bahrain and Syria that I think it really illustrates that, indeed, the channel does reflect the broader political priorities of the foreign policy establishment in Qatar.”
These telling accounts of al-Jazeera bias, which applies to Egypt but also the broader Middle East, are worth keeping firmly in mind when assessing the credibility and fairness of its reporting from the region.