Why Al Jazeera's enemies fear its revolution

Al Jazeera marked the Arabs' entry to the global media race, ending the unipolar monopoly of the flow of information, and overturning the region's media norms, vexing autocratic regimes.

By: Maryam Al-Khater*

Will Al Jazeera reshape global politics? 

The question is not addressed to the countries blockading Qatar, which have attacked the media network for "incitement" and made its shuttering one of their 13 ex-demands. 

The question, which may be above the intellectual capacity of these countries' planners, was raised by Professor Philip Seib in his book The Al Jazeera Effect.

The effect of the media in political mobilisation is an important subject in interdisciplinary media studies, political sciences and sociology. Here, mobilisation is not synonymous with revolution, as much as it means political-democratic awareness and enlightenment.

The media is the other side of that coin, in the theories discussed by experts before the age of Al Jazeera, and perhaps this explains Seib's book's subtitle: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics.

To the author, Al Jazeera marks the Arabs' entry to the global media race, ending the unipolar monopoly of the flow of information. Previously, Western media controlled what Arab viewers saw about their own region and issues.

Seib said networks such as Al-Jazeera were a new breed of players influencing global politics, even before the uprisings of the Arab Spring. This must have vexed those in the blockading countries who seem to have a primitive understanding of the culture of media.

Seeking to rival Al Jazeera, they have established several copycats since the turn of the millennium. But when their bids failed, and their creations became little more than mouthpeices and lie-machines, they switched tactics and decided to wage war on Al Jazeera.

The effect of the media is corroborated by writers from the countries that saw revolutions. Safwat al-Alam, an Egyptian writer, wrote on The Role of Media in Democratic Transition - Egypt As A Model (2013): "Media reflect the nature of the relationship between state and society, in accordance with a regime's philosophy and the degrees of freedom made available" - especially in relation to new media and its democratisation effect.

" At the peak of the Arab Spring, Jewish leaders meeting at Tel Aviv University in April 2011 called for the launch of 'a Jewish Al Jazeera' "

A global phenomenon

For his part, Seib focused on the power of the media in shaping the world. He wrote about the new media, which then included satellite channels, in the first edition of his book in 2008.

He studied the influence of Al Jazeera in areas far from the Middle East, predicting that it would precipitate certain events that deserved special attention. 

At the peak of the Arab Spring, Jewish leaders meeting at Tel Aviv University in April 2011 called for the launch of "a Jewish Al Jazeera". International Studies professors Raanan Rein and Yossi Shain spoke of the power of Al Jazeera, not only because it shaped to a large extent the coverage of Middle East protests, but also for playing a central role in opposing US and Isreali policies, as they argued.

Al Jazeera was a challenge to all sides. It rivalled Western media by breaking its monopoly on information, and was boogeyman for Middle Eastern regimes, a proof of its professionalism, by raising bold issues that Arab governments had not seen questioned before. Some regimes called this "incitement". 

Today, the countries blockading Qatar say "enough is enough", in reference to Al Jazeera, which was established in 1996. But the 20 years of Al Jazeera - that these countries see as having lasted "too long" - are seen by others as "not enough", that the network is still in its prime.

Some Arab self-styled experts and so-called politicians have forgotten how the late leader of Venezuela established teleSUR in the image of Al Jazeera, "to counter the dictatorship of global media networks". As the network's director said, its purpose was to "see ourselves with our own eyes, and find our own solutions to our problems".

In many ways, this is a rebuttal to the accusation that Al Jazeera represents a "conspiracy", in the era of the digital revolution that constituted the second wave of the new media revolution. That give every citizen dozens of channels, not just one state outlet, at the push of a button.

" The Al Jazeera that angers them was also part of the digital revolution. It was one of the first to exploit the overlap among the platforms of new media in its coverage of the Arab uprisings, beating even Western media "

Revolutionary platform

The Al Jazeera that angers them was also part of the digital revolution. It was one of the first to exploit the overlap among the platforms of new media in its coverage of the Arab uprisings, beating even Western media. 

After the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera even launched a direct interactive platform to erase Arab digital illiteracy, as Janko Roettgers wrote in March 2012. 

The platform aimed to teach viewers from Turkey to Bosnia and elsewhere how to use Twitter and Facebook, "to raise a new generation of citizen journalists".

Experts characterise the media as the Fourth Estate, alongside the three branches of traditional power. But some, in their campaign against Al Jazeera, want their peoples to be little more than slaves to their regimes.

In his article Media and the Arab Uprisings of 2011, Simon Cottle wrote that mainstream media, which to him includes Al Jazeera, can adopt a more independent and critically informed news stance even when political elites exhibit a relatively united front in terms of their expressed views.

This defies the subservience some in the counter-revolutionary camp want their peoples to remain forever in, with news that is either fake, obscure, or controlled, simply praising the country's rulers and covering their meetings.

Alan Fisher, a veteran broadcast journalist, in his book Mirage in the Desert? Reporting the 'Arab Spring', noted something else, namely, the threat that Arab governments could turn their weapons against their peoples. 

In this context, he stressed the role of the new media and Al Jazeera in discrediting conspiratorial thinking, proving how "the days have gone of governments believing that by closing off transmitters or taking over radio and TV stations, of blocking mobile phone signals or satellite TV signals, or shutting down the internet they will somehow win the propaganda battle".

" The engineered outrage has been designed to subjugate the peoples of the blockading countries themselves by distracting them with external crises "

Wag the dog

Some Arabs have failed to understand Al Jazeera's revolutionary experience, the reflection of the vision of a Gulf leader, the then emir of Qatar, who was ahead of his time. The countries of the blockade are in fact not ready to understand the significance of Al Jazeera, not out of jealousy but out of fear.

The relationship between their citizens and states is fragile, unlike the relatively solid social and political relationship between the rulers and the ruled in Qatar. 

Having had 20 years to complain, however, the timing of their attack on Al Jazeera is intriguing. To be sure, the engineered false outrage has been designed to subjugate the peoples of the blockading countries themselves by distracting them with external crises. 

In one kingdom to the north of Qatar, this was exploited to stage a major political reshuffle with dubious constitutional grounds. In another neighbouring country, an organised crackdown on media and activists was already taking place.

They fear Al Jazeera because they fear the soft power it represents, but they forgot the contraptions of the digital age in the hands of their citizens. They fear their citizens and their voices. For this reason, they have blocked the media network from their subjects, even banning tourists from watching the channel in their hotels.
 
Meanwhile, these countries have turned social media from a tool in the hands of their citizens, to a rope wrapped around their necks, banning sympathy with Qatar and its people. But despite all their attempts to close off this sphere, the violations and abuses in their countries remain global trending topics that they will never be able to suppress.

In the end, Al Jazeera's triumphs will enter history as an Arab victory. It is the right of Arab millennials to be proud to have been born in the age of Al Jazeera's revolution. Those who are vexed by Qatar and proceeded to lay siege to it and Al Jazeera, must instead address their fears, the injustices they have visited on their peoples and strengthen the relationship between their states and their societies. 

Source: The New Arab

*Maryam Al-Khater is a Qatari writer and media personality. 

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