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Al-Jazeera biases spark backlash in Egypt

Jul 16, 2013 | Jeni Willenzik

Al-Jazeera biases spark backlash in Egypt
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Al-Jazeera has been subject to a significant backlash as a result of its alleged favouring of the Muslim Brotherhood in its reporting of Egypt’s recent crisis. Since Egyptian Army Commander Abdul Fatah al-Sisi declared that the Egyptian constitution was being suspended on July 3, 22 of al-Jazeera’s staff members have resigned in response to what they consider to be its “biased editorial policy” in covering the events.

Additionally, al-Jazeera reporters were forced out of an Egyptian news conference to the sound of chanting by other journalists, while threatening leaflets were dropped near the al-Jazeera offices in Cairo displaying graphic images and slogans such as, “A bullet may kill a man, but a lying camera kills a nation.” According to Foreign Policyal-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief was arrested by the interim government for “charges of threatening public peace and national security through broadcasting incendiary news,” and numerous Egyptians have petitioned to remove al-Jazeera’s license to broadcast in Egypt.

Former al-Jazeera English anchor Karem Mahmoud explained his decision to resign from the network, accusing al-Jazeera’s management of insisting on publicising “unacceptable” statements, giving more space and air time to one group over another and telling its journalists which side to favour in their reporting. The network has also been accused of airing incendiary speeches that potentially escalated the crisis, such as a call for an “uprising by the great people of Egypt against those trying to steal the revolution with tanks” by the Freedom and Justice party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm.

The growth of al-Jazeera, founded by Qatar’s ruling family in 1996, has coincided with Qatar’s increased affluence, influence and global presence over the past two decades. Qatar specialises in excersing soft power via public diplomacy, large foreign investments across several continents and the donation of billions of dollars in aid each year to various Islamist movements and governments that it favours, including Morsi’s.

Many analysts critique al-Jazeera for its political motives and editorial slant. According to a Newsweek article published last month, the Arabic version of al-Jazeera was originally used as a “vehicle for members of Al Qaeda to speak their version of truth to power.” Though the network supplied extensive coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions that ousted dictators such as Mubarak, it has today “identified so closely with Muslim Brotherhood bidding to take and hold power that many viewers have come to see al-Jazeera as hopelessly biased.”

According to Arab media researcher Fadi Salem:

Al-Jazeera in the past positioned itself as the ‘resistance’ channel in the region. In 2011, it became the ‘Arab spring’ channel. Today, unfortunately,al-Jazeera Arabic is the ‘state channel’ of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab region… Many of the editors and anchors in al-Jazeera Arabic are de facto Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers… This has been reflected in the channel’s pro Islamist coverage over the past two years, relying heavily on a combination of incitement, bloody scenes, and Islamic preachers and media commentators.”

The al-Jazeera English journalists who resigned were adamant in calling the network’s editorial news policy biased. Former reporter Hegag Salama labelled al-Jazeera an “enemy of Egypt” that has been “airing lies and misleading viewers,” and Karem Mahmoud said, “The management [in Doha] used to instruct each staff member to favour the Muslim Brotherhood… Unfortunately I was working in a place which I thought had credibility, but its credibility is based on a despicable political position.” According to former correspondent Aktham Sulliman, who resigned last year, “It quickly became clear to employees: this is about politics, not about journalism. More precisely: about Qatari foreign policy, which [has] subtly started to employ al-Jazeera as a tool to praise friends and attack enemies.”

Many of al-Jazeera’s recent feature stories and news reports have been framed in terms largely supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, focusing on publicising positive pro-Muslim Brotherhood statements made by its members, such as:

“‘We will continue our peaceful resistance to the bloody military coup against constitutional legitimacy,’ the Brotherhood said. ‘We trust that the peaceful and popular will of the people shall triumph over force and oppression.'”

The reports have also focused on deadly violence carried out by the opposition against Muslim Brotherhood supporters, including this item which covers a reputed attack on “unarmed, praying” members of the Muslim Brotherhood that killed 51 people.

Pointedly, al-Jazeera made a statement by insisting on terming the change in government in Egypt a “military coup,” as opposed to a “revolution”, “political transition” or simply, a “change of government”. The language chosen in this instance is politically significant and can materially affect the success of the new Egyptian government, as many international bodies, including the African Union and the United States, are prohibited by law to support a previously democratic state that has been taken over in a military coup. As this political transition is occurring during a time when the Egyptian economy is in such dire need of assistance, financial and political support of foreign governments will be essential to its survival and the welfare of its people.

For example, in an item subtitled, “The African Union (AU) is the first international body to punish Egypt following Morsi’s overthrow,” al-Jazeerarepetitively asks the director of the AU Peace and Security Council to call the overthrow a coup (which the director avoids doing) and asks what Egypt will lose from being suspended by the AU as a result of that coup. However, the AU director deflects this question by asserting that he is sure Egypt “will make every effort to ensure that [new] elections are held so they regain their membership in the AU.”

In another item subtitled, “As Washington fails to condemn the military coup, we ask if it can defend democracy in Egypt,” al-Jazeera claims that the United States is now torn between supporting democracy (of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was elected last year) and maintaining its strategic interests through “politics, rather than process.”

Though US President Barack Obama has denied supporting any specific group, al-Jazeera has published many articles claiming or implying that the US’s failure to condemn the military, should be seen as support for the opposition. This includes an investigative piece that directly accuses Washington of quietly funding the opposition. As reported in the Daily Caller, Anand Gopal, a fellow at the New America Foundation, responded to these accusations on Washington by noting: “US money ends up in the hands of all sides (especially the military), so to depict the protests and overthrow of Morsi as some sort of US-funded plot is inaccurate and irresponsible.”

In the Opinion section of its online news website, al-Jazeera English has included pieces that are especially shrill in condemning the overthrow of the Morsi government. For instance, one by Richard Falk called the overthrow “a chilling and wooden reminder that Egypt’s prospects for a democratic future have been put on an indefinite hold.” Another by Khaled Abou El Fadi claimed Egyptian human rights have “been dealt a deathblow,” and “become a stale joke,” while “the so-called liberal secularists of Egypt exploit the language of democracy and human rights.”

In order for a democracy to be successful, the access of all people to transparent, accessible, and factual information is essential, regardless of whether they support General Sisi’s call for new elections, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed government, or even Mubarak. Publishing articles in support of specific foreign policy positions is a necessary component of democracy too, but not when they are disguised under the cover of being neutral and unbiased “news reporting” while being paid for and apparently, directly influenced, by a foreign policy actor serving its own interests – in this case, the Qatari government – and especially when these facts are being presented to such a large, international audience as al-Jazeera’s.

Elliott Abrams recently noted that the Qatari government has the right to present its own news channel reflecting its own political opinions, but must be transparent about what it is doing, meaning “the answer is not censorship, but candour” (See Abrams’ full statement on his blog here, and more about al-Jazeera from AIJAC here and here.)

Today, al-Jazeera English alone broadcasts to 220 million households in more than 100 countries, and its coverage is seen regularly on Australian television networks including ABC and SBS. Reports of al-Jazeera’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood reporting is just more evidence of the news network’s increasing tendency to report according to Qatari political interests.

Recent events in Egypt – and especially the numerous testimonies coming from al-Jazeera’s own former journalists – provides overwhelming proof to both viewers and to network executives in the West who are making use of the reports coming out of al-Jazeera that this is not the neutral and independent news-gathering organisation it claims to be. Instead it appears to be a tool of Qatari soft-power projection, and should be treated as such. 

Jeni Willenzik

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