Al Jazeera TV, located in and financed by Qatar and owned by Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family, has just bought the struggling US left leaning channel Current TV, founded by Al Gore in 2005. This will allow al-Jazeera to have access to millions more US homes. Currently al-Jazeera is offered only by a handful of American cable and satellite distributors.
In Australia, of course, al-Jazeera has been available on cable since 2006. Moreover, its news stories are often recycled by free to air channels in their news – with SBS-TV “World News” notable for extensive use of al-Jazeera English material. SBS also broadcasts an al-Jazeera news bulletin in English daily.
According to the New York Times, al-Jazeera plans to create a new channel, “Aljazeera America,” instead of using its existing English-language channel al-Jazeera English, to capitalise on Current TV’s audience reach and build an American audience. Gore will reportedly received $US100 million as his share of the US$500 million sale, and along with his co-founder, Joel Hyatt will serve on the advisory board of “Aljazeera America”.
However, this announcement has called attention to growing claims that al-Jazeera is being used a propaganda tool for Qatari foreign policy interests. Many in the US are not happy about the deal, and fear Mr. Gore is providing al-Jazeera with unwarranted legitimacy (for example, see Barry Rubin’s piece here, and the Weekly Standard here).
Following news of the sale, Time Warner Cable, the second-largest cable operator in the US said it would drop Current TV but reserved the right to pick up the new al-Jazeera channel if it represents “a good value to our customers.” Time Warner claim the decision was not political but because al-Jazeera is already live streaming on the Internet.
However, there are significant reasons for political concern, especially in light of recent scandals highlighting al-Jazeera’s lack of editorial independence. As the Guardian reported in September last year:
“Al-Jazeera English was set up in 2006 by the Arabic broadcaster of the same name and both are owned by the Qatari state. The network, founded in 1996, gained credibility with audiences in the region for its seemingly independent coverage in the post 9/11 period. Its English channel was launched to offer an alternative, non-western-centric worldview. However, in recent years, Qatar has taken steps to consolidate its control over the channel as the country seeks greater political influence in the Gulf. In September 2011, Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian widely seen as independent, suddenly left as director-general after eight years in the post and was replaced by a member of the royal family, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, a man with no background in journalism.”
Another long-time journalist for al-Jazeera, Aktham Suliman, has also recently resigned from his position as a Berlin correspondent, claiming that the Qatari Government is exercising undue influence on al- Jazeera’s reporting to further its political interests. Suliman told Deutsche Welle in an interview:
“You notice with these cases that it involves governments who have fallen out of favor with Qatar’s rulers. Libya, Syria and Yemen, for example. Other countries like Jordan and Bahrain are experiencing similar phenomena – rebellion and protest against their ruling classes. But there’s far less reporting on them. You’ll notice how that corresponds to the state of Qatar’s foreign policy. This is a very serious issue, because we at Al Jazeera were always proud to say: We’re financed by Qatar, but the state never interferes with our reporting. Now we suddenly find ourselves in a situation in which our reporting is precisely aligned with Qatari foreign policy.”
What is Qatar’s foreign policy agenda?
According to many commentators Qatar has a strong interest in seeing the rise of Sunni Islamism particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab Spring, while deflecting criticism from Qatar’s lack of democracy (see previous Australia/Israel Review article by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi). Middle East journalist Amin Farkouk also explores this issue writing in Gatestone Institute:
“Al-Jazeera is not, however, a communications medium in the Western sense; it is a psychological warfare medium. Its cameras are always turned outward; they never criticize Qatar’s tyrannical, dictatorial, corrupt, plutocratic leaders or their exploitation of foreign workers, who have neither the status nor rights of Qatari nationals. Al-Jazeera’s ongoing propaganda campaign against the Arab states in the Middle East is a move chosen by the rulers of Qatar to deflect Arab, Western and effervescent local attention from what is happening in the corrupt Al-Thani family’s dark, closed emirate of wealth…
Although Al-Jazeera incites Muslim masses around the world to revolt against ‘repressive regimes,’ while calling for ‘democracy,’ ‘pluralism,’ and the ousting of totalitarian rulers, Qatar itself does not hold elections, has no political parties, has no democratic institutions, and its citizens have no political or social rights. What Qatar does have, with the help of Sharia [Islamic religious law], is a strong, family-run system of enforcing internal security and suppressing opposition. Al-Jazeera is the well-oiled and well-funded machine of a family employing armed mercenaries who call themselves ‘media personnel’: Propaganda warriors who use cameras and microphones as weapons. Qatar therefore has every reason to hide what happens within its borders and look for defects in other places.
Al-Jazeera takes two editorial routes: its English-language programs present a moderate, cultured version of its propaganda, different from what is broadcast by its Arabic-language programs. Nonetheless, its purpose seems to be to spread Islam and undermine secularism.
Al-Jazeera’s reporting is unbalanced in that it gives favorable coverage to Islamic regimes and movements it wants to strengthen, and slanders those it wants to weaken. Its sights are set on changing regimes. Al-Jazeera effectively created the Arab Spring by endlessly rebroadcasting footage of the fruit-seller in Tunisia who set himself on fire to protest his government. Every time there was a small demonstration, Al-Jazeera would cover it and air it time and again until the people of Tunisia were sufficiently whipped up.
Al-Jazeera’s reporting is also unbalanced when it is turns to the religiously-motivated activities of Islamist groups in other countries, where the Arab Spring was turned into an Islamist Winter, and where the good intentions of democratically-minded young Muslims were exploited and perverted as, after the revolutions, Islamists seized power. Al-Jazeera’s bias is also evident in its support for the dictatorship of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt at the expense of the country’s moderate, secular, democracy-seeking opposition, on whose back the Islamization of the country is taking place.
Al-Jazeera, perhaps as part of a program to replace secular dictators with Islamic ones, and perhaps partly to replace Shiite dictators with Sunni ones, has also fully supported the destruction wrought by the radical anti-Assad Islamists who have poured into Syria to turn it into a killing field under the banner of the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army.’
Recently Al-Jazeera seems to have decided to topple the Palestinian Authority [PA], and transfer to Hamas — Al-Qaeda’s ideological and practical brother-in-arms — the international recognition that the PA received from the UN in September, and to make Hamas sovereign in the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. To that end, it airs biased programs that are disproportionately favorable toward Hamas, and covers Hamas’s ‘achievements,’ such as its ‘heroism’ in firing rockets at Israeli civilians. The PA at least claims it wants to reach an agreement with Israel. Hamas, which uses its citizens, schools and hospitals as human shields during warfare it provokes, publicly proclaims day and night its intention to wipe Israel off the map.
Al-Jazeera is now embarked on a campaign glorifying Hamas at the expense of the PA, having sentenced it to death by lying about its mistakes. It recently cast suspicion on the PA as having collaborated with Israel in ‘poisoning Arafat,’ and broadcast a biased and exaggerated report of the alleged ‘tortures’ inflicted on Hamas prisoners in PA jails, including claims of rape, threats toward female members of Hamas under interrogation and other horrors – all of which are meant to represent the ‘crimes’ committed by the PA in collaboration with, and at the behest of, Israeli intelligence.
Other Al-Jazeera initiatives aimed at toppling the PA include spreading rumors of a third intifada, and encouraging Hamas in the West Bank to hold marches and carry cardboard models of Qassam rockets…
As a TV channel, Al-Jazeera does not operate under accepted Western norms. It is a fundamentalist terrorist communications base operating under Qatari political cover, with a pretense of pluralism. While in the other Arab countries, to reach the Islamic paradise, people need to kill Jews and be killed in wars, dying as shaheeds [martyrs] in the battles of Islam, according to Al-Jazeera only Qatar is already a genuine paradise on earth. Everything there is perfect, so there is no need to report the news.”
Noted Middle East commentator Elliott Abrams argues that the issue is not so much that al-Jazeera promotes Qatar’s foreign policy interests, but rather its lack of disclosure. Abrams writes:
“Every government has the right to present a news channel, and has the right to decide whether that channel will be fully independent of government policy-like the BBC-or will reflect government policy-like al Jazeera. The answer is not censorship, but candor; if al-Jazeera were called Voice of Qatar, and clearly labeled as that nation’s international broadcaster, the situation would be clear to its viewers.
For example, the France 24 web site says ‘FRANCE 24 is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the public-funded holding company Audiovisuel Exterieur de la France.’ The Deutsche Welle web site says ‘Deutsche Welle is regulated by public law and financed by federal tax revenue.’ The al-Jazeera web site says ‘Al Jazeera English is an international news channel with over sixty bureaus around the world that span six different continents….Al Jazeera English is part of the Al Jazeera Network – one of the world’s leading media corporations, encompassing news, documentary and sport channels. Al Jazeera started out more than fifteen years ago as the first independent news channel in the Arab world dedicated to covering and uncovering stories in the region.’ Nowhere is there any notice that al-Jazeera is in fact controlled by the government-and that’s the problem.”
He might have added that, since al-Jazeera frequently seems to operate as the propaganda arm of an absolutist state, it makes sense for genuinely independent broadcasters in democracies to treat its output appropriately – that is, in the same sceptical way they approach the official propaganda coming out of states like China, Syria, Iran, North Korea, or Zimbabwe.
While many Western leaders have sung the praises of Al Jazeera English, particularly during the Arab Spring uprisings, (ignoring the antisemitism present in its Arabic channel), in light of questions over its editorial independence, particularly its agenda to promote Qatari foreign interests, more scrutiny must be applied to its ‘news’ channels, and its new US channel “Al Jazeera America” should come with a warning label – ‘made by Qatar for Qatar’.