That passion for change pervades many Arab news organizations but it is epitomized by Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel. On stories like the Egypt revolution, Al Jazeera Arabic wears its “Arabness” on its sleeve. Think Fox News on steroids—but at another place altogether on the spectrum.
Some Arab journalists, such as Daoud Kuttab, the founder of Jordan’s Ammannet radio station and an influential commentator on Arab media, are dismissive of Al Jazeera’s approach. “There was a lot of ideological comment over pictures of Tahrir Square. There wasn’t a lot of solid reporting.”
The precise role of Arab media in this era of transition is at the heart of the bitter rivalry between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the other main pan-Arab news channel. Al Arabiya is owned by Saudi interests close to the royal family, and argues that its news culture is more objective. Journalism “is not about supporting the revolution,” says Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya’s executive editor. “It’s not about trying to act as a political party who’s trying to be activist rather than to offer information.” Al Jazeera, he says, is “trying to be part of the conflict.”
To some extent, this war of words reflects the political forces at work on the two channels, which are the public faces of the battle for regional influence between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Emir of Qatar, fifty-nine-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, launched Al Jazeera one year after he deposed his father in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Hamad didn’t start Al Jazeera to gain a membership at the National Press Club. He did it to make himself a player in the region, the same reason that he convinced Washington to shift the regional headquarters of the US military’s Central Command from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in 2002. It was from there, just up the road from Al Jazeera’s headquarters, that the invasion of Iraq was directed.
When he hired a group of out-of-work former BBC Arabic staffers, gave them $137 million to start a TV channel, and told them to go out and shake things up, the emir wanted to break the Saudi stranglehold on the region’s cross-border media and set himself up as a force to be reckoned with. “All that noise comes from this little matchbox?” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak commented when he toured the channel a decade ago. Little did he know.
And the emir’s strategy has worked. “It is the station that created the nation,” says Hussein Shobokshi, of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat. “Al Jazeera created Qatar. Nobody had ever heard of Qatar before Al Jazeera.” I asked Shobokshi what he thought the emir’s reaction might be to see his fellow Arab autocrats toppled like dominoes. “He has a huge smile on his face,” the Saudi columnist replied.
Depending on their politics, Arabs tend to line up behind Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya just as Americans follow Fox News or msnbc, though the complexities of the Arab world—Hamas/Palestinian Authority, Saudi/Qatar, fundamentalist/reformist Muslim, Sunni/Shia, republican/royalist, etc.—means defining their respective audiences is not as simple as the conservative/liberal dichotomy of Fox/MSNBC. Critics say the rivalry for influence between the patrons of the two Arabic channels plays out in news decisions. On topics such as Palestine, for example, Al Jazeera is said to favor Hamas over the Palestinian Authority, while Al Arabiya takes the opposite tack. In Egypt, pro-Mubarak forces claimed Al Jazeera was overtly fostering revolution, while anti-Mubarak demonstrators accused Al Arabiya of going soft on the regime.
Political influence can also be seen in stories on which the two networks adopt a similar approach. For example, critics claim both channels have played down the violent suppression of anti-government demonstrations on the tiny island emirate of Bahrain.
A possible explanation: in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims are the majority. In Bahrain, the uprising is led by the majority Shiites against the Sunni royal family—which immediately raised the specter of Iranian subterfuge. “They gave lip-service to representing the Shiites in Bahrain, but they really downplayed the whole issue of the protests,” says Daoud Kuttab. “On Bahrain we saw that they weren’t independent.”
But that begs a big question in Arab journalism: Is anyone truly independent? The short answer: every Arab news organization operates within “red lines,” boundaries of coverage they dare not cross. But lately, those lines have been moving.