Right wing at home, liberal abroad: Al-Jazeera and the totalitarian media

Totalitarian regimes will continue to thrive and win the information war, if democracies won’t invest in countering this phenomenon.

A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
For the first time in weeks, the top story on Al-Jazeera’s home page has stopped featuring articles about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On November 4, it turned to reporting life sentences for Bahrain opposition figures, and on November 6 it shifted to US midterm elections. One thing that is constantly absent are critical reports about Qatar. That is because Al-Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, only critiques foreign countries. This is an example of a new format of state-supported media that is right wing and nationalist at home, while liberal and critical abroad.
The challenges facing major media have increased in recent years as traditional print and legacy media had to compete online, and find a way to make their product relevant on increasingly powerful social media platforms. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 43% of people get their news from Facebook, while 67% were exposed to some news via the site. Overall the trend is clear, not only are people getting news online, but it is filtered through only a few platforms, granting them unprecedented influence that is verging on monopoly.
Private media in more democratic countries tend to have found themselves at a disadvantage in recent decades. In the past, media was a big business, competition was thriving, and there were large numbers of newspapers and magazines in democratic countries. The freedom these media had enabled them to cater to every flavor. It was dictatorships in the 20th century that tended to be at a disadvantage in the information war, since citizens of regimes such as the Soviet Union knew they were provided with little choice of what to read. Hungering for more information, they smuggled it in from the West.
Today the situation has reversed itself. As western media suffers budget cuts, massive staff layoffs and consolidation, there are less newspapers, less journalists and in general, less coverage of important issues. We can see this when we look at the most important media websites. We see a trend towards increasingly insular coverage of just a few issues, with spotty or non-existent coverage of whole swaths of the world and even of the local environment.
As media in democratic countries trends toward consolidation, the vacuum is being filled by pro-government or state media from countries that are less democratic. Al-Jazeera is only one example. In the Middle East, Arabic news sites compete against other media companies that are connected to various undemocratic states.
However, the English sites are designed primarily to reach a western audience. Therefore, the model chosen was well crafted in order to serve its purpose – being critical outside of Qatar while toeing the government line inside of Qatar. This is not the same model as state-supported media in democratic countries, where BBC, NPR or other large organizations tend to have critical coverage at home and abroad.
On November 6, Al-Jazeera’a headlines included a story about “immigrant voters” in the US, articles critiquing China’s human rights record, hate speech in Myanmar, and an article about corruption in Nigeria and dropping support for Israel in the US. It also has two articles about how Iran can get around US sanctions and a hagiographic interview with the Emir of Qatar. The agenda is clear. Write about immigrants, corruption, and human rights abroad, but don’t discuss it at home. There are no stories about migrants in Qatar, or refugees desperate to reach Qatar. No articles on human rights abuses. Liberal abroad, right wing at home, is the Al-Jazeera method.
But it’s not only state-connected media who are doing this. RT in Russia adopted this model, oddly under the banner of “question more.” The headlines on November 6 dealt with immigrant caravans, a piece opposing a “trade war,” and an article claiming the EU lost money due to anti-Russia sanctions. Other articles focus on how the US has bombed Syria with “banned white phosphorus” and another looks at an “iconic Palestinian protester.” Still another piece looks at rising antisemitism among “Muslim immigrants” to Germany. The message is generally clear. America is bad. There are few stories about Russia, but there are no critical stories about Russia. Unlike Al-Jazeera, RT tends to combine some right-leaning ideas in its coverage, generally when it sees an opportunity to critique a government which Moscow opposes.
IN TURKEY, TRT has a similar “left wing abroad, nationalist at home” method which includes pro-government narratives at home and critical articles about other countries. For instance, the November 6 headlines included a piece on the Jamal Khashoggi killing, claiming the “highest levels” of Saudi Arabia’s government were responsible. There is an article about Israel and Egypt backing the Saudis, a glowing piece praising Turkey as an “energy hub,” another about Turkey warning neighbors about “sea violations” and a report on Syrians returning to areas in the northern part of the country where Turkey operates.
This is state media at its best. Praise, praise, praise for government policy and nationalist issues. Critique, critique, critique for regional and global adversaries. And it’s not the only pro-government media in Turkey that has this method of disseminating positive coverage of government in English, while dishing out criticism abroad. TRT is not particularly powerful abroad, but it wants to be.
Iranian pro-government media has a plethora of sites, several of which are in English. On November 6, Press TV headlines looked at how Iran would “break” US sanctions. It also discussed Bahrain arresting “dissidents” and highlighted a Taliban attack and a US “spy” plane flying over the Black Sea. Clearly it didn’t mention Iran’s own crackdown on dissidents.
Major state or pro-government media organizations who only highlight abuses abroad while supporting nationalism at home are not in the top fifteen most popular news websites being read in democracies. But they are increasing their monthly hits every day. In the West, many countries have only recently begun to understand the spread of “fake news” – designed to undermine elections or stoke fears. But when it comes to some of the media types mentioned above, the overall problem is not well understood. There are disinformation campaigns that foreign governments may orchestrate, or even in favor of powerful interests. But another problem exists – what happens when there is a tipping point over the kinds of information being produced? What happens when state and dictatorship media have more finances, viewers and are making a greater impact?
A MORE challenging issue facing media in free societies is when agenda-driven nationalist media reports a story, such as the recent murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was clearly in Al-Jazeera’s interest to make this an important story since Saudi Arabia is leading a blockade of Qatar. Turkish media also sought to push this story. Many foreign media who reported the story didn’t bother to find their own sources, rather relying on locals who in turn relied on government leaks to pro-government media. This created a laundering affect in which a pro-government narrative was moved to western media. Later it was re-reported locally as it appeared in more prestigious foreign papers. But the information was often based on contradictory government sources seeking to “drip feed” the story. In a democracy with multiple perspectives there would be more pushback against a government narrative. But in a country where most of the media is either controlled by the government or hyper-nationalist, no such critique exists.
Dictatorships and nationalists, once on the defensive against more critical media in democracies, are now benefiting from their ability to dominate local media, shut down critical voices, and then export their narrative abroad. The Iranian regime benefits from having its narrative repackaged in Turkey, Russia, Qatar and other places, and then laundered into western press without a single source able to query an Iranian regime figure. Even worse, regime figures are often invited to write op-eds of more democratic countries, while the local regime media offers no such space. So Qatar’s emir or his surrogates might have op-ed space in America, US officials who support US policy have no such space at Al-Jazeera. Turkish officials appear in The Washington Post, US government officials don’t appear at Daily Sabah. That’s convenient. It allows one country to never read or hear a critical opinion.
This isn’t by happenstance, but is a coordinated effort by these regimes to create state-media in English in order to push a narrative abroad. It’s about messages and influence. In the old days regimes like the Soviet Union never had the ability to spread their message globally at the click of a button. They had to work harder. Now such regimes exploit the internet and the declining influence of pro-Western media in democracies.
If democracies won’t invest in countering this phenomenon, for example by spending money to have democratic media translated into foreign languages or compete with online news sites, the erosion of democracies will continue. Totalitarian regimes will continue to thrive and win the information war.