Al Jazeera: The most-feared news network

Al Jazeera is well-funded and doesn't need to make money. But its prospects, here and in Middle East, are uncertain

Published June 15, 2013 10:00AM (EDT)

Announcer Abdul Samad Nasser, in the studio of the Arabic Al Jazeera satellite news channel.   (Reuters/Fadi Al-assaad)
Announcer Abdul Samad Nasser, in the studio of the Arabic Al Jazeera satellite news channel. (Reuters/Fadi Al-assaad)

Reprinted from "The World Through Arab Eyes" 

The Arab media explosion that recently has culminated in uprisings across the region springs from two interrelated sources: the growth of satellite television and the affordability of the receivers to the Arab masses, and the common language that Arabs share across state boundaries. Arabic unified a media market of some 350 million people in twenty-two countries and beyond.

Even before television, in the 1950s and 1960s there had been a dramatic increase in radio usage across the Arab world, especially after the rise of transistor and short-wave radios and their availability to the masses. The most striking and influential example was Sawt al-Arab Radio (“Voice of the Arabs”), sponsored by Egypt to spread Nasser’s Pan-Arabist message in the 1950s and 1960s. This station was so popular across the region that it presented real challenges to Nasser’s political opponents among the conservative Arab rulers in places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who attempted to jam the broadcasts.

Even Israel exploited the medium, especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when its Arabic radio began broadcasting programs specifically aimed at Egyptians. Knowing that Nasser had prohibited popular songs and even soccer games following the war in favor of martial music and a more somber focus on preparation for a new war, the Israelis made sure to air the Egyptians’ favorite songs as a way of luring listeners to their political perspective. Radio, of course, was relatively easy to jam and governments worked to block threatening broadcasts, but its ultimate undoing as a primary source of news came with television’s power

By the early 1990s television had become king of the media, and each state had made sure it had its own TV stations as a way of building local identity and loyalty and as a means of controlling the flow of information to the public. In those days, average Arabs in most countries received their news from national nightly news broadcasts entirely controlled by the government. Viewers had to endure lengthy coverage of routine events, such as visits of rulers to a hospital or a village, before they got to serious news, which was filtered to protect the rulers and advance their immediate interests.

This would all begin to change before the twentieth century was out, but although Al Jazeera has become synonymous with a new world of Arab media change, it was not the pioneer. In the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi Arabia and wealthy members of the Saudi royal family took the lead by purchasing popular Arabic newspapers and distributing them across the region, and hiring some of the region’s most prominent journalists. They understood that their broader Arab consumer needed more news and more diversity, and they allowed greater coverage of Arab and international issues—although critical coverage of Saudi Arabia and its royal family remained taboo. They also pioneered new satellite stations, beginning with one called MBC, in the early 1990s; these reached mostly the elites, as satellite technology was expensive at that time. The overall effect of this Saudi-sponsored media was to show the potential for a larger media market and also the potential threats other governments could face from transnational media. This simultaneous sense of inspiration and threat is likely what inspired the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, to start Al Jazeera (“Peninsula” in Arabic, referring to the Arabian Peninsula, of which both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are parts) in 1996.

Coming to power only a year earlier after a palace coup that replaced his father as emir, Al Thani and Qatar were often criticized by the media, including the Saudi-controlled transnational newspapers. The criticism was directed not only at the circumstances of his takeover but also at independent policies he pursued that were not fully in harmony with Saudi policy, including warming up to Israel and taking the lead in helping to normalize relations between Israel and Arab countries. The emir didn’t appear to have an especially progressive or a Pan-Arab agenda; still, by creating a station that reached not just the 250,000 Qatari citizens but as many as possible of the region’s 350 million Arabs, he hoped to take away viewership from stations critical of him and of Qatar. There was another service that Al Jazeera provided to Qatari rulers: As a welcome voice viewed by Arabs as reflecting their own aspirations, Al Jazeera helped protect the Qataris from intense criticism for being a pro-American emirate that hosted a base for American airplanes attacking Iraq in the unpopular 2003 Iraq war. And given the competition, Al Jazeera’s mission wasn’t that difficult.

Now, instead of having to view lengthy footage of the royal family meeting foreign guests, viewers were exposed to programming that most Arabs hungered for, from opposing opinions to more information on issues they cared deeply about as Arabs and Muslims. This included live footage of bloodshed in Israeli confrontations with the Palestinians—footage that Arab national television broadcasts limited so as not to awaken their public’s passion. Al Jazeera further broke taboos in the 1990s by reporting from the Israeli Knesset (parliament), showing open debates, including sharp criticism of the Israeli government by Arab members of the Knesset. One Arab nationalist member of the Knesset heavily covered by Al Jazeera, Azmy Bishara, later settled in Qatar and became a regular Al Jazeera commentator.

The result was a remarkable ascent: In just five years, by 2001, Al Jazeera had succeeded in becoming the most watched Arab television station for news, and within ten years more than three-quarters of Arabs identified Al Jazeera as being either their first or second choice for news. The station’s success also spawned competitors, from a transformed Abu Dhabi TV, to Al Arabiya, BBC Arabic, Iran’s Alalam, French and Russian Arabic stations, and many other country-based stations available on satellite.

With great success, though, came great criticism, at first from outside the Arab world and later from within it.

Mirroring, Not Leading, an Audience

In the years after 9/11, particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq war, many American commentators and politicians blamed the Arab media, especially Al Jazeera, for stoking Arab anger against American foreign policy. One of the ideas presented to address this perceived bias of the Arab media was to back an alternative American TV station, called Al Hurra, that would compete in the marketplace and offer a more “objective” view of events. Like other American attempts to win hearts and minds in the Arab world, this was an idea doomed to failure from the outset.

To be sure, there is room for outside views, whether from East or West, in the crowded Arabic media market. And there are plenty of models—from BBC to Russian and Iranian Arabic TV. But while one can make a strong case for having an American Arabic TV station such as Al Hurra TV, there never was a significant possibility that it would supplant or even seriously challenge Al Jazeera or other popular Arabic stations. It seems clear that the popular Arabic outlets succeeded because they reflected the hearts and minds of the region on core issues, not because they shaped them.

To test this thesis, I set out to study two somewhat unique cases that have small but diverse populations: Lebanon, and the Palestinian/Arab citizens of Israel.

In the case of Lebanon, the politically consequential diversity of the population—multiple Christian sects, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Druze, with no single sect constituting a majority—provides some guidance to the self-selection involved in media viewership. Given that Lebanon had a competitive media market even in the days of government monopoly in other parts of the Arab world, the viewing habits of the various segments of its population are telling.

Polls I have conducted over the past decade make it clear that sectarian identity is a significant predictor of television news selection. In the 2011 poll, 52 percent of Shia Lebanese, for example, identified Al Manar TV of the Shiite group Hezbollah as their first choice for news, compared with only 4 percent of Sunnis and Druze and 1 percent of Christians. Similarly, 58 percent of Druze, 49 percent of Christians, and 46 percent of Sunnis identified the liberal Lebanese TV station LBC as their first choice, compared with only 15 percent of Shiites.

Al Jazeera’s viewership in Lebanon varied more than in other parts of the Arab world, particularly among Sunnis and Shiites as Lebanon became entangled in divisive internal politics after the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. Before that war, viewership of Lebanese TV stations still broke down along sectarian lines, but Al Jazeera was identified by a good number of Lebanese as their first choice for news—in part because its reporting focused more on regional issues, particularly the Iraq war and its consequences. In 2006, for example, just prior to the Lebanon-Israel war, 43 percent of Lebanese Shiites, 33 percent of Sunnis, 25 percent of Druze, and 16 percent of Christians identified Al Jazeera as their first choice. By 2011, with Al Jazeera seen to be taking sides in favor of Sunnis, only 7 percent of Shiites identified it as their first choice for news.

The point is that while there are multiple reasons audiences view a particular station for news, the most critical factor is the extent to which a station reflects their views on issues that matter most to them and to their identity. When a station fails to do this, viewers look for alternatives.

In a more nuanced case, I conducted polls among Palestinian/Arab citizens of Israel. This segment of the Arab population exists in a democratic state with a relatively free media environment. Among this population the first language is Arabic, but most are also fluent in Hebrew. Arabs in Israel are thus able to watch media from both Arab and Israeli sources.

In the first two decades of Israel’s existence, Palestinian Israelis primarily listened to Arab radio stations for news, especially Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian stations. When they wanted to hear outside views, they typically listened to the BBC in Arabic, the French Radio Monte Carlo, or the Voice of America. Most of them were not yet fluent in Hebrew and thus did not closely follow Israeli TV and radio in significant numbers. The Israeli government had its own Arabic radio programming, which was listened to by some, but always with suspicion, given the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. More than any station, however, Arabs in Israel, like Arabs elsewhere, listened to Sawt al-Arab Radio, which reflected the views of Egypt and Gamal Abd Al-Nasser. So high was their trust in Nasser’s narrative that even when it became abundantly clear by the end of the 1967 war that Arab armies, including Egypt’s, had been badly defeated and that Israel was now occupying what had been Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian territories, some Arabs in Israel continued to believe that this was merely a trap set by Nasser.

It didn’t take long, though, for the narrative to begin shifting, and soon the credibility of Sawt al-Arab and other Arab media collapsed in response to ongoing and mounting evidence that the balance of power in the region rested overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor. By then more Arabs had become fluent in Hebrew, and while they saw Israel’s Arabic media as propagandistic, they saw the Hebrew media as more credible. I do not have polling data on the trends and viewership in the 1970s and 1980s, but anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more Arabs in Israel were getting their news from Hebrew sources and viewing Arab sources with suspicion.

But with the rise of the Pan-Arab media in the 1990s, viewership trends shifted yet again. As happened in much of the region, these stations, especially Al Jazeera, came to dominate the news media market in ways not witnessed before. Like Nasser’s Sawt al-Arab, Al Jazeera first and foremost catered to Arab hearts, but unlike Sawt al-Arab it provided more timely information and far more diversity of views.

In polling I conducted from 2009 to 2011, I sought to understand the trend in viewership among Israeli Arabs. Overall, roughly the same portion of Arab-Israelis as Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East—roughly half— identified Al Jazeera as their first choice for news. This finding has been relatively robust for the three years studied. At the same time, roughly one-quarter to one-third say Israeli TV is their first choice for news, but what is more interesting is the sectarian habits among Muslims who constitute more than 70 percent of Arabs in Israel. Only 17 percent of them identified Israeli TV as their first choice, while 53 percent identified Al Jazeera. In contrast, among the Druze—who, unlike other Arabs, are required to serve in the Israeli military—68 percent identified Israeli TV, while 15 percent identified Al Jazeera. Among Christians, 46 percent identified Israeli TV, while 31 percent identified Al Jazeera.

That identification is critical, for the selection of news media can also be seen in evidence from beyond the sectarian divide. In the 2010 poll, I broke down the Arab-Israeli population into two groups: those who had relatives who became refugees in 1948, and those who didn’t. Roughly 53 percent of those polled said they had relatives who were refugees. Of those, 60 percent identified Al Jazeera as their first choice for news, whereas 60 percent of those who didn’t have refugee relatives identified Israeli television as their first choice. This trend seemed to apply to all sects, again suggesting that preexisting and identity-defining attributes provide a good predictor of media selection.

The Power Behind the Media

Why does Al Jazeera continue to thrive despite increasing competition? And what fuels the expanding Arab media without realistic prospects of profit?

It is impossible to answer these questions without reference to the political aims of the sponsors and the aspirations of the consumers.

Al Jazeera has been successful largely because it understands the media market and its consumers. But it’s unlikely Al Jazeera would have succeeded without the billions of dollars in resources committed to it by the Qatari rulers over the past decade and a half. Viewers want a station that reflects their core identity and positions on central issues, but they also want timely and extensive information, which is expensive to provide.

Because Al Jazeera is well funded and doesn’t need to make a profit, it can provide extensive coverage where others have failed. In the 2008–2009 Gaza war, for example, no station anywhere in the world could match Al Jazeera’s coverage, with multiple reporters in Gaza itself, in Israel, in the West Bank, and in Egypt. In fact, no other television station had live coverage from Gaza or Israel during the war—an advantage that many stations, including American, tried to overcome in the November 2012 Gaza fighting by sending reporters to Gaza. And even though Al Jazeera is often accused of bias or of an ideological bent, it has been bold in ensuring presentation of multiple views, including presenting Israeli views dating back to the 1990s, when few other Arab stations dared do so, as well as airing Bin Laden tapes, Iranian views, and hosting or covering speeches and news conferences of American officials—including then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, American military commanders and spokesmen, and White House and State Department officials—during the Iraq war. So while Al Jazeera officials understood and catered to their audience, they also made sure they always aired views that challenged, sometimes even offended their audience.

There was also a price to be paid for Al Jazeera’s extensive coverage. Almost every government in the region was offended by Al Jazeera at some point, which resulted in significant pressures on the Qatar government. The United States accused Al Jazeera of incitement, and even China in 2012 was angered by Al Jazeera coverage, taking action against Al Jazeera English.

The question is, for what purpose does Qatar support Al Jazeera? What does Qatar gain?

One cannot completely rule out an ideological position of the emir. Al Thani once described himself to me as a “Nasserist,” or an admirer of the Pan-Arabist Gamal Abd al-Nasser, and Al Jazeera has indeed hosted Arab nationalists as regular commentators, including Egypt’s most prominent analyst, Muhammad Hassanein Heikal. But the network also hosts prominent Islamists, such as Sheikh Yousuf Al Qaradawi. Beyond any progressive or pan-Arab aspiration of the leadership, the strategy is simply seen to be in the long-term survival of the Qatari leadership and of the emirate itself.

To begin with, Qatar is a small, ultrawealthy state across the Gulf from Iran and neighboring a larger and more powerful fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia, with which it has not always had an easy relationship. Qatar considers the United States its primary strategic ally and hosts a major American base on its soil—not something popular in the Arab world. After the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Qatar was among the most forthcoming of Arab states to reach out to Israel. For that reason, and for its propensity to pursue a policy independent from Saudi Arabia, the dominant Saudi-owned media, as well as the Egyptian media, made Qatar their favorite target of criticism.

Al Jazeera became an instant counterweapon. First, by merely overtaking the Saudi and Egyptian media, it deflected criticism against the emirate and its leaders. Second, by providing a credible fresh news outlet that focused on Pan-Arab issues, it gained accolades that balanced the perception that it was a key American ally and friendly to Israel. Third, the success of Al Jazeera provided Qatar an instrument of leverage in dealing generally with its detractors. Better to be close to one’s rival when the rival is funding the primary media source in the Arab world.

But the Arab uprisings created both new opportunities and new challenges for Al Jazeera. On the one hand, Al Jazeera seemed on the right side of history: It was a central part of the information revolution that enabled the uprisings, and the uprisings themselves created new opportunities for coverage as Arabs everywhere tuned in to the story. On the other hand, the Arab uprisings seemed nearly unstoppable. Could they sweep the Arab world all the way to the doorsteps of the Gulf monarchies, including the Qatari rulers themselves?

Potentially facing common threats, Qatar found itself increasingly closer politically to its GCC partners, especially its senior partner Saudi Arabia, despite their sometimes uneasy, even competitive relations. In the coverage of the uprisings in Libya and Syria, Al Jazeera and the Saudi-funded Al Arabiya took closer positions than ever. On GCC partner Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy ruled over a revolting Shiite majority, Al Jazeera covered the story but only to a limited degree. Al Jazeera’s explanation focused on the lack of access allowed by Bahraini authorities, but it was hard to miss the Qatari dilemma, and hard to convince critical commentators that politics were not an important consideration. But Al Jazeera’s biggest challenge in pleasing its audiences was in the Syrian uprisings, to which Al Jazeera dedicated significant resources and made them its priority story for months. While Arabs were overwhelmingly sympathetic with the Syrian people against the Assad regime, they were heavily divided on the wisdom of external intervention, which Al Jazeera seemed to favor, increasingly reflecting the foreign policy position of the Qatari government on this issue.

In stark contrast to 1996 when Qatar’s role in regional politics was relatively modest, by the time of the Arab uprisings, Qatar itself had become a significant player in the geopolitics of the region: from leading the arming and funding of Syrian rebels, mediating among Palestinian factions, funding the reconstruction in Lebanon after the 2006 war, and providing more aid to Egypt than anyone else after the revolution, to sending military support for the campaign against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. To the extent that Arabs were divided on many of the issues in which Qatar was involved, both Al Jazeera and Qatar were bound to come under greater scrutiny.

This opened Al Jazeera up to some criticism from some former admirers on the left. In an article for the Lebanese newspaper Al Ahkbar titled “Al Jazeera’s Autumn: The Fall of an Empire,”2 columnist Pierre Abi Saab conveyed a feeling shared by a sizable minority who had previously admired Al Jazeera:

After the spread of satellites in the 1990s, Arabs came to know two types of liberation. The first is social . . . and the second was political, with Al Jazeera, which imposed itself in a short time, regionally and internationally. It is the story of Alice in Wonderland. In a small rich state [Qatar], an exciting new information experiment was started, and bet on difference, courage, and professionalism. From covering the story to carrying the flag of the opinion of the other, an alternative media took shape that viewers of official television could never imagine, from the [Atlantic] ocean to the Gulf.

This surprising innovation became a source for the Arab individual who hungered to uncover what was unsaid, and to follow the political debate, even if in passing. How is it possible for a political regime that differed little from those around it to create this progressive opening, which made many ignore the strange mix of political constituents for the TV station: from the Iraqi Baath to the liberalism that legitimized Israel during one period, to an Islamist current that swallowed those who opposed it? Who cares? Arabs now had their equivalent of CNN that looks from another angle at events, from the British-American war on Iraq to the Israeli assaults on Lebanon and Gaza, ending up in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions—history was taking shape live on Al Jazeera. Then the Qatari regime discovered a new hobby, and decided to become a sponsor of the Arab revolution. The station rolled over the Manama [Bahrain] spring like the Saudi tanks in order to “lead” the movement for change in Syria. Quickly professionalism began to slip, turning into intended deviations, then systematic lies, as is proven by documents and statements that have leaked out in recent weeks. Not that the Syrian regime is beyond tyranny and repression, but the media conversation took the revolt away from the people. On the rock of the Syrian tragedy, the kingdom of delusion was shattered. The station returned to its natural size. Suddenly viewers noticed that they are watching an official medium akin to those we see in all the authoritarian systems. It even surpasses the latter by virtue of its experience and reputation and claims of independence and objectivity. Today, scandals and resignations continue, leaving in the memory of the contemporary Arab media a deep wound named Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera Faces the Future

Despite such blistering criticism from within the Arab world, there is no evidence yet that Al Jazeera has lost significant viewership. On the one hand, its predilection (reflecting its funders) against the Syrian regime and its reserved coverage of Bahrain play well among the mostly Sunni Muslim population of the region. About 90 percent of Arabs also share Al Jazeera’s support for the rebels in Syria. But the push for international intervention in Syria is a source of deep division among Arabs, and this has opened Al Jazeera to criticism as the number of its media competitors has increased. Two other factors could play a role in determining Al Jazeera’s dominance: the emergence of alternative free media in newly democratizing countries, especially Egypt, and the increasing number of Arabs, especially among the young, who now get their news not from TV but from the Internet.

It is already clear that the open environments in Egypt and Tunisia have generated media that are far more attractive both to local audiences and to Arab audiences outside. In Egypt, whose population constitutes nearly one-quarter of the entire Arab world, there are many people with considerable journalistic talent and skill who have been stymied by the political control of state-supported media—indeed, so stymied that many of the most talented journalists left the country to work for the likes of Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and the BBC. The overthrow of Mubarak has brought far more diversity to the pages of newspapers and on television, both private and public networks, and a clear display of previously hidden talent. Popular television host Hafiz Mirazi, who had become a star first on Al Jazeera and later on Al Arabiya, has now returned to Egypt to host his own show on Egypt’s Dream TV. Muhammad Hassanein Heikal left Al Jazeera and joined Egypt’s private television station, CBC. Others will follow.

Egyptian media has the potential to eventually put pressure on other Pan-Arab TV stations. But the problem for any aspiring media competitor is not simply putting forth a credible product but also having the significant resources required to provide the kind of timely coverage of international and regional issues that Arab viewers now expect.

This alone is a potential barrier to objectivity. As yet there is simply not enough advertising revenue in the Arab world to sustain a competitive station, and the most substantial funds available for advertising come from governments and the elites around them, or from parties that do not want to alienate ruling elites, particularly in the Gulf region. Egypt’s new government, like its old, may want to invest heavily in state-sponsored media, but that will inevitably infringe on its freedom of expression, even in a more democratic Egypt. Local private stations that have proliferated may do well locally, but they will not have the resources to cover regional and international news competitively. And government regulators may try to limit the influence of private media, as they did in November 2012 by requiring Dream TV (a privately owned Egyptian station launched in 2001) to relocate its headquarters.

This resource dilemma for the Arab media means that even as the market grows more frustrated with existing stations like Al Jazeera, the scale of the enterprise dictates that there will be limited numbers of possible competitors and that those competitors will likely come with their own political baggage.

The same resource dilemma will ultimately affect Internet news as well, although to a lesser extent. Even now, as TV is losing news-market share to the Internet, all the successful TV stations have Internet sites, some of which are among the most popular sites in the Arab world, including Inevitably, those sites that have the resources to provide the freshest information and to constantly update the news will likely do best in the marketplace. These emerging sites have to compete with websites with no geographic tie to the region, including popular news sites in the West and elsewhere— newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post; news websites such as Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post; TV sites such as CNN, the BBC, and Fox; and even comedy news icons like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—but as my polls show, the majority of Arabs who use the Internet go principally to Arabic-language websites. And those with resources—and agendas—will strive to use their resources to influence the new market of information and ideas.

Reprinted from "The World Through Arab Eyes" by Shibley Telhami. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

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