With a recent reshuffle of its board of directors, the internationally renowned Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera may be facing some profound changes in the months ahead -- with the station's troubles also shedding light on some of the major issues facing the region's media.
Earlier this year, a decree from the Emir HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani removed from office Mohammed Jassem Al Ali, the former director general of Al Jazeera, who had headed the station since its inception in November 1996.
Al Ali was then relegated to the board of directors after US allegations that he was on the payroll of Iraqi intelligence, and as such, was skewing the news channel's reporting in favour of Saddam Hussein's regime. While Al Jazeera vociferously denied the allegations, it has been widely reported outside Qatar that documents found in the Iraqi intelligence archives allegedly prove that Al Ali was indeed in cahoots with Iraqi intelligence, as were a number of other Arab journalists.
The controversy surrounding Al Ali was but the latest in a series of imbroglios that have strained Qatar's relations with the US, Israel, and its Arab neighbours alike. The channel was founded by Arab journalists who were part of a failed BBC experiment to establish an Arab news channel in Saudi Arabia. With a USD150m grant from the Qatari government, the daring channel, under the blessing of the Emir, set out to revolutionize media in the Arab world -- and revolutionize it, it did.
Whereas most Arab stations presented viewers with frivolous entertainment and news that was dictated verbatim by the government, Al Jazeera dedicated its airwaves to hard-hitting political commentary with frank exchanges of views on the problems plaguing Arab countries -- and the apparent ineptitude of Arab regimes. One important caveat, however, was that discussions specifically on the Qatari government were strictly off limits. Nevertheless, the region was taken by storm with the unprecedentedly pointed discussions the channel beamed around the Arab world. Al Jazeera has since sparked a number of similar satellite channels in the Middle East.
The bold decision to allow such a station to exist in Qatar was part of the Emir's commitment to creating a free (or at least freer) press, as was demonstrated by his abolition of the government's censoring mechanism, the Ministry of Information, shortly after he seized power in 1995. The station's candid coverage, however, almost immediately added further strain to Qatar's diplomatic relations with its neighbours, which were already under duress thanks to the support surrounding countries had given to the Emir's ousted father in his bid to reclaim the throne. Many came to believe that Al Jazeera was deliberately singling out Saudi Arabia in the many diatribes on the channel because of this. Also, given the new Emir's pro-Western orientation, a flood of accusations were levied against Al Jazeera - such as that it was merely a tool in the hands of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world.
Regardless of the veracity of these allegations, the Saudi government was quick to make its displeasure with the station known to the Qatari government. Failure to persuade Sheikh Hamad, however, led the Saudis to institute an informal, but comprehensive, ban on any Saudi company from advertising on the channel. The move has led to a cautious approach on the part of other Gulf countries and multinational companies, which do not wish to jeopardize important business and political ties with Saudi Arabia.
However, perhaps the best public relations rehabilitation for Al Jazeera, at least from the Arab point of view, came after US and Israeli allegations that the news channel was inciting hatred and violence with its coverage of Israel's military operations against the Palestinians and by its broadcast of Osama bin Laden's messages in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Since its coverage of a 1998 US operation against Iraq, Al Jazeera has built a reputation for itself within the Arab world as the only station fully covering the region's hotspots. The fact that Al Jazeera was the only satellite news channel with a bureau in Kabul also helped win the station international recognition during the US invasion of Afghanistan. Unable to get the scoop in the country, Western media channels were dependent on Al Jazeera for key reports and the ever so important images of war. Despite criticism from the US government, Western media were also quick to tap into Al Jazeera's bin Laden tapes.
The US-led invasion of Iraq earlier this year presented the Arab news channel with yet another opportunity to elevate its profile on the international stage. Unlike other foreign media, Al Jazeera was allowed to operate independently from Saddam Hussein's Ministry of Information - something which detractors point to as further evidence of the station's close ties to the former dictator.
Al Jazeera's reporting in both Afghanistan and Iraq deeply angered the US military, which coincidently bombed each of the station's bureaus in both countries, killing an Al Jazeera reporter. Joining the likes of restrictive regimes in the Arab world, US officials were also on the phone to Qatar to pressure the country to take the troublesome channel off the air. It was reported that the response was a rhetorical, "How can an American administration priding itself on free speech even make such a request?" Indeed, Al Jazeera officials quipped that the US had preached so much about a free press in the Arab world, yet once one emerged, the US was first to try and shut it down.
However, some observers point out that economics may intervene. Despite its millions of viewers throughout the world, and its largely desirable 20 to 30 something demographic, Al Jazeera is yet to be financially self-sufficient, evidence of the effectiveness of the advertising boycott. Although officials of the news channel will not directly state it, the station's USD30m annual operating costs are believed to be covered by a government stipend. The station claims that it has diversified its revenue base through subscription fees to those outside the Arab world, the sale of footage to other international media companies and the sale of videos and books based on the channel's documentaries.
Whether or not economics will be allowed to run its course is doubtful, especially given the reshuffle of the board of directors and the ouster of Al Ali. The announcement came amid mounting tensions between the news channel and Washington, which most recently alleged that Al Jazeera has ties to Iraqi insurgents. Senior US defence officials have accused Al Jazeera reporters of having prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. The charges have been rebuffed, and Al Jazeera has demanded that the US give proof of its claims, something that Washington has not yet done -- despite already having slapped a brief ban in September on the channel's reporting in Iraq.
Furthermore, with a US that appears to be increasingly struggling to put a positive spin on its war on Iraq, Al Jazeera's reporting, especially on civilian casualties and attacks on coalition forces, has been a nuisance. The channel's increasing reach into the US, as well as its reported plans to launch an English channel in 2004, have also raised concerns, particularly among Jewish groups, which claim the channel is rife with Anti-Semitism.
Thus, while not openly stated, it is widely insinuated that the tension between Qatar and its security guarantor, the US, over the channel finally led to the November reshuffle. Observers are also wondering over the fact that if Al Ali's interview with Saddam Hussein just before the Iraq war was proof of his anti-American bias, then what is to be made of the fact that his replacement, Wadah Khanfar, was the first Arab journalist to be granted an interview with L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq? While Al Jazeera maintains that the changes will not affect its editorial policy, it will be interesting to see whether or not the desert sands have shifted against the news channel's edgy style.