Jan 19, 2018
In 1999, when the longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak visited its cramped studios, he was said to remark, “all that noise from this matchbox?” Founded in 1996, Al Jazeera quickly rose to prominence by offering a medium for freewheeling debate and criticism of the region’s aging, authoritarian rulers. The one exception, of course, was reporting on Qatar itself, where the network took a noticeably light touch
Al-Jazeera’s free-wheeling, emotional style of reporting has attracted criticism from all angles. Media intellectuals fear that Al-Jazeera is setting a bad example for Arab media by not adhering stringently to Western media practices. Arab leaders chafe under the bad press they get for denying their people a say in government—Al-Jazeera has single-handedly ruined relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And American government officials fear that the mix of pan-Arab nationalism, muted Islamism and outright anti-Western bias espoused by the station will only incite the Arab world to new heights of anti-Americanism.
Al Jazeera, the most popular news channel in the Arab world, summoned nervous journalists into a glass-paneled conference room in the network’s headquarters in Doha. A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia had just imposed an embargo on Qatar, closing its airspace and expelling thousands of Qatari citizens. One of the conditions for lifting the blockade, according to a list leaked , was reportedly the closure of Al Jazeera. The network’s leadership wanted to reassure its staff that their jobs were safe. “We’re not planning any changes right now,” journalists were told, according to two participants in the meeting. That left quite a bit unsaid. (I resigned from Al Jazeera English in mid-2013 after working there for nearly four years.)
Closing the station was an extreme demand, like the others on the 13-point list released. Taken as a whole, the list asks Doha to do nothing short of change its entire foreign policy. The crisis shows no signs of ending—because, as the Al Jazeera matter illustrates, it is a chance for Qatar’s neighbors to air grievances they have harbored for years, if not decades.
Along with reporting the news, though, Al Jazeera has also spent a good chunk of its 20-year history making it. The Saudis recalled their ambassador from Doha in 2002 after the network aired a panel discussion featuring dissidents from the kingdom. Other countries have periodically expelled Al Jazeera journalists and tried to block its satellite signal; Egypt arrested three staffers in 2013 on sham charges of reporting false news and terrorism and held them in custody for more than a year. But the current crisis—the demand for its complete closure—is unprecedented.
Despite the headaches it caused, Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel (AJA) was a useful instrument of soft power for a tiny state that once tried to stand apart from both its neighbors and the region’s internecine feuds. Doha used to be a sort of Geneva-on-the-Gulf, the place where everyone went to hash out their differences. It wasn’t uncommon to see camouflage-clad Sudanese rebels taking high tea in the lobby of the Four Seasons. Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian factions, signed a reconciliation deal in Qatar. Lebanese leaders did the same in 2008, ending an 18-month
There was, and still is, a vast gulf between AJA and Al Jazeera English, which was launched in 2006. They share a name, but little else, even operating out of separate buildings across the street from each other. Their editorial lines are also sharply different. In February 2011, days after Mubarak resigned, citizens of Bahrain started their own anti-government protests, led by the country’s Shia majority, which has long suffered under an official policy of discrimination. Saudi Arabia soon sent troops to help quash the uprising, which Gulf leaders viewed—without any credible proof—as an Iranian plot to undermine a fellow monarch. AJA largely stuck to the official line. The English-language channel was far more critical and even won a Peabody Award for a documentary on the brutal crackdown.
Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, said the list was the result of “serious mediation” led by Kuwait. The Qataris see it as a set of unreasonable, maximalist demands, asking them to abandon their foreign policy and align themselves completely with their neighbors and rivals. They are unlikely to accede. It is all a sad denouement to the Arab Spring: six years after a wave of pro-democracy revolutions, the latest crisis roiling the region is a spat over, among other things, which Arab autocracy will control or not the airwaves.
But actually what is there in a matchbox (Al Jazeera)? So gulf countries want to stop it.
Source: The Atlantic