Is Al Jazeera heart of the Qatari dispute?

Is Al Jazeera heart of the Qatari dispute?

The Saudi/UAE versus Qatar crisis has many elements to it. Press reports point to the allegation that Qatar supports terrorism. But what appears to be the strangest factor in this crisis appears to be Qatari funded media and especially Al Jazeera.
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The Saudi/UAE versus Qatar crisis has many elements to it. Press reports (and President Trump) point to the allegation that Qatar supports terrorism, and Qatar’s close relations to Iran. But what appears to be the strangest factor in this crisis appears to be Qatari funded media and especially Al Jazeera.

The Doha-based media giant which broadcasts in Arabic and English and has sister channels covering issues such as documentaries, children and sports is a major success in the Arab world and the globe.

It is hard to fathom that success alone doesn’t explain the deep antagonism to Al Jazzera and other Qatari funded media outlets.

Yet despite being singled out as one of the main sources of the crisis, the 24 hour news satellite network, especially the Saudi/UAE hated Arabic channel has not used its tremendous reach to score points with its funder’s opponents.

There is no doubt that Al Jazeera is handling the current crisis with a certain level of bias and this is understandable. But a regular observer of the station’s main news programs especially the 11pm Hassad (Arabic for harvest) doesn’t observe any discernable changes in tone or content due to the crisis except for a much bigger dose of coverage to it which is understandable.

On the other hand the media of Qatar’s opponents have been much more direct and angry sounding in their criticism of Qatar and their attempts to show that the rebellious tiny Gulf country is suffering greatly from the siege.

Established in November 1996, Al Jazeera quickly gained a major share of Arab audiences who were unhappy with the state run television stations that had monopolized the airwaves for decades. Run initially by mostly former BBC professionals, the station worked hard on presenting a balanced media outlet with high journalistic standards. Its moto the opinion and the opposite opinion was truly applied in its first years. Audiences responded positively and the satellite channel quickly became and continues to be the number one Arabic language news channel.

The Arab Spring caught the station off guard (although many say it was behind it) but it quickly became involved and certainly gave  a voice and wall to wall coverage to the demonstrations for democratic change in the Arab world.

Al Jazeera’s main competitor the Saudi (privately) funded Dubai-based channel has gained grounds on Al Jazeera especially with its prime time program Panorama  hosted by a Jordanian anchorwoman Muntaha Ramahi.

In the head to head competition, Al Jazeera audience is still bigger mostly due to the tremendous resources that are available which is translated to a huge network of journalists, editors, field reporters and plenty of live coverage from all over the world.

With the Qatari crisis, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have both shown biases to their respective funding country but after a week of observing both stations, this reporter noticed that Al Jazeera adds to its regular Qatari guests a variety of other guests often from the US whereas Al Arabiya’s guests are often Saudis or Emirates and few internationals.

Media is a major player in the world today and the Saudi/UAE crisis with Qatar is no exception. The crisis in fact began with a controversy over alleged statements made by the Qatari emir which Qatar insists (and most neutral observers agree) was fabricated statements that were hacked into the Qatari news agency. On the other hand international and Arab media also was privy to alleged emails of the UAE ambassador to the US that were not flattering to the Emirates.

Media is a conduit of news and commentary and should not become a part of any conflict between neighboring countries. The best way to respond to media content that is unfavorable is by producing countering content and not by punishing the media or the country that is financially facilitating this media.

The need to stop demonizing media is not limited to the crisis in the Gulf. In recent months countries have increased their blocking of news websites and the arrest of journalists continues in the Arab world which is slipping further and further in all press freedom rankings.

The information revolution has brought home to everyone the near impossibility of controlling information. The idea that by putting a land and air blockade or blocking websites can produce political change will unlikely produce the desired changes. Audiences in the Arab world are smart enough to be able to change channels and bypass web blockades to get the information they desire.  The sooner that we keep the media out of the current conflicts the better. Bad and biased media should be tackled through balanced and professional media and not by using a sledgehammer.

 

All rights reserved, Doha Centre for Media Freedom 2013

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