Civil Wars in the Arab Media

The Arab world’s most powerful news channel, Al-Jazeera was a driving force behind many of the Arab revolutions. The channel has wholeheartedly supported the rebels in the Syrian civil war, while remaining silent on dissent in the Gulf kingdoms where it is based. Simultaneously, the newsroom in Lebanon’s prominent Al Akhbar has been deeply fractured by the paper’s general stance in favor of the Syrian regime. Here, the paper’s editor attacks Al Jazeera.

It has become commonplace to hear comments such as these:

You cannot be serious asking me about a story whose source is Al Jazeera!’ ‘Is it reasonable to base your case on a news item from Al Jazeera?’ ‘Do you feel comfortable within yourself working for Al Jazeera?’ ‘Can you speak your mind or register your objections if you work for Al Jazeera?’ ‘Do you really waste hours of your time watching Al Jazeera?’

It has become routine to be sent dozens of Internet links about professional, political, or moral scandals associated with what Al Jazeera broadcasts. You would only be surprised and astonished if someone were to ask you: Did you see how that Al Jazeera anchor grilled his guest from the Syrian opposition?

What has changed is that you can now find many opponents of the Syrian regime – especially activists in the local coordination committees – who reject any attempt to implicate them in Al Jazeera’s broadcasts.

They do not attack the channel, or call for it to be boycotted, and they appreciate that it strongly supports the regime’s opponents. But they do not want to be blamed for what one activist describes as the “daily disasters” that feature in its output. This includes footage that has been fabricated, or stage-managed on behalf of the channel in return for financial rewards. It also includes appearances by supposed opposition figures whose backgrounds are not known, while it is also not known “who they speak for, and whose ideas they are promoting.” It even includes Al Jazeera’s attempts to exaggerate the scale of the state’s repression.

It is hard, nowadays, to encounter any professional journalist who is prepared to defend Al Jazeera’s behavior, not just in Syria, but in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain too. Some of the highest-profile Arab journalists, for whom appearances on Al Jazeera used to really matter, now turn down the channel’s invitations. They realize that they have been used as tools in a dirty game. Has anyone, for example, wondered why Al Jazeera has ceased working with [prominent Egyptian journalist]Mohamed Hassanein Heikal?

Also new is the wave of resignations that Al Jazeera has witnessed. This has not been confined to people who can afford the financial consequences, given that Al Jazeera pays its staff multiples of what they would earn at other channels. The scale of the resignations, actual and under consideration, has effectively left editorial control of the channel in the hands of a cabal whose professionalism and integrity have long been compromised. Day by day, it has become increasingly apparent that those who refuse to work without observing minimal standards of professionalism and credibility are being purged. Others have lost their enthusiasm for putting forward ideas, or getting involved in work projects. They have become mere employees, who pray to God day and night that they are spared being assigned to another disaster.

Al-Jazeera’s problem is not its political stance. It is entitled to that. Its problem is that it has dealt a blow to every genuine attempt to build strong and reasonably independent Arab media. The channel will allow no discussion of what has become of it, and has taken us back to the days of the “no voice rises above the sound of the battle” media. It casts aspersions on the motives of anyone one who criticizes it, defends fatal mistakes with feigned naivete, and at the same time refuses to concede that its “logical justification” for what is happening today is: “we are implementing the policy of our funder, period.”

If a few million viewers boycotted the Arab world’s most famous channel it would not, of course, give it a ratings crisis. But because of Al Jazeera’s policies, the Arab media scene is now in need of a shake up of sorts. This is a task for those who have the capability and the financial and human resources, to produce more professional media, that is more credible and debate-provoking to viewers. These need not be a group, state, or media organization. It is also a task for all those who suffer daily dilemmas, and agree to do battle with Al Jazeera via media outlets that are even less professional and credible.

To delay taking such a decision is to fail to understand that media will remain, until further notice, the first line of attack, or defense, in the battle of public opinion.

Ibrahim al-Amin , Editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar