Al Jazeera, the TV news station broadcasting round the clock in Arabic and English, is owned by the government of Qatar. From the moment the station went on the air, back in 1996, its officials and spokespersons have maintained that it has complete editorial independence. And indeed, the professionalism of its news coverage, and the comparatively wide range of political opinion it permits during its discussion programs, make it an unprecedented phenomenon in the Arab world, and account for its undoubted success. Any TV station that has managed, in its 18 years of life, to have ruffled the feathers of countries as diverse as China and Egypt, and raised the ire of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, must have something going for it.
Yet Al Jazeera’s assertion of editorial independence has been challenged more than once. The leak of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks in 2010 included a number of internal US Department of State communications claiming that the Qatar government intervenes from time to time to manipulate Al Jazeera coverage.
In July 2009, the US embassy said the channel "has proved itself a useful tool for the station's political masters". In another dispatch, then US ambassador Joseph LeBaron to Qatar wrote: "Al Jazeera's ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish. Al Jazeera remains one of Qatar's most valuable political and diplomatic tools."
These assessments seemed justified in September 2012, when Al Jazeera's director of news stepped in to ensure that a speech made by Qatar's emir to the UN led its English channel's coverage of the debate on Intervening in the Syrian civil conflict. As Dan Sabbagh of The Guardian reported at the time: “Journalists had produced a package of the UN debate, topped with excerpts of [US] President [Barack] Obama's speech, when a last-minute instruction came from Salah Negm, the Qatar-based news director, who ordered the video to be re-edited to lead with the comments from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.”
Despite protests from staff, the two-minute video was re-edited and Obama's speech was relegated to the end of the package. The episode was described by some staff as the most heavy-handed editorial intervention at Al Jazeera, which continued to maintain that it operates independent of its Qatari ownership.
Suspicions about the extent to which Al Jazeera is, in the final resort, subject to instruction from the government or directly from Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s youthful new ruler, might be less troubling to the world in general, and Qatar’s neighboring Gulf states in particular, if Qatar were not something of a maverick state in the region.
When the Sheik succeeded his father, who abdicated in June 2013, he declared that he would continue to pursue Qatar’s assertive, independent-minded foreign policy. Most of the Gulf states have long opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, and regarded with suspicion, and even fear, its aim of subverting existing governments and substituting its version of Sharia law. Qatar is the exception, and has long been a pro-active supporter of the Brotherhood, to the intense annoyance of other Gulf states.
On March 6, 2014 the long-simmering row exploded into the open. In a joint statement, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain declared that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar, citing that country’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a major threat to their internal security and political stability. Moreover. they accused Al Jazeera of following the Qatari government line on the Muslim Brotherhood, and claimed that the TV station has a record of actively supporting pro-Brotherhood individuals and movements during the Arab Spring.
The same accusation has been levelled by Egypt’s interim government, not only against Al Jazeera journalists, but those from other media. On December 29, 2013, Egyptian security forces arrested four Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo – correspondent Peter Greste, producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and cameraman Mohamed Fawzy. They, together with four others, were held in custody. Another 12, who were charged in their absence, managed to leave the country before being arrested.
The interim government of Egypt, led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and has jailed hundreds of its leading figures. It has also clamped down on the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, the de facto rulers in Gaza, and destroyed or closed the tunnels through which they were importing goods and weapons from Egypt. On March 8, Saudi Arabia, following Egypt’s lead, and in justification of their action against Qatar and their condemnation of Al Jazeera, formally denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
According to the Qatari Arabic daily, Al Sharq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are pressuring their citizens to resign from positions in Qatari media following the breakdown in their relations with Qatar. And indeed, on March 8 two UAE journalists, Fares Awad and Ali Al Kaabi, resigned from Al Jazeera.
As for the four Al Jazeera journalists arrested in Egypt, their trial is currently under way. They are charged with supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore deposed president Mohamed Morsi, and accused inter alia of broadcasting inaccurate reports. Prosecutors say the defendants falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war,” a possible reference to the broadcaster’s coverage of a government crackdown in which more than 1,400 people, mostly Morsi supporters, were killed in street clashes.
Al Jazeera has denied the charges in respect of the nine defendants on its staff.
The case has given rise to a worldwide outcry about press freedom. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it “deplores the government’s continuing violations of the fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed and protected in the new constitution.” And Human Rights Watch asserts that the authorities “have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent.”
The principle of press freedom must be cherished. However it is perhaps unsurprising, even if deplorable, that the Egyptian interim government, still struggling to assert itself against its overthrown opponents, is clamping down on those whom it believes are supporting its enemies. A problem for Al Jazeera is that, despite what it claims for itself in terms of editorial independence, there are some grounds for believing that the pro-Muslim Brotherhood political views of the Qatari government may have influenced the broadcaster.
One positive aspect of a complex situation is that the trial is taking place within Egypt’s judicial structure, which is notably independent of government although, regrettably, trial by jury is not part of the system. Nevertheless, we can hope for a fair trial and a true verdict.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)