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On Al-Jazeera's lopsided coverage of Egypt

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Al-Jazeera has not only lost much of its credibility, but the credibility of its main backer and benefactor, Qatar.

Ahmed Magdy Youssef
2 August 2013

Since its launch as a 24-hour Arabic satellite news channel in the late 1990s, Qatar's Al-Jazeera television network has been revolutionising Arab news coverage, according to regional and western commentators alike. The only channel to cover the war in Afghanistan, live, after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Al-Jazeera gained worldwide attention. The Doha-based television network became the only Arab media broadcaster that "dared" to regularly invite Israeli politicians onto its programmes, as well as being one of the very few Arab mediums to call former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein a "dictator". Such forthright independent stances earned Al-Jazeera a number of notable awards and a great deal of interest.

However, the 16-year-old pan-Arab broadcaster played its most significant role amid the Arab Spring, becoming the voice of resistance during Egypt's tectonic eruption in 2011 that ended up with the toppling Hosni Mubarak. Even the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded that the Al-Jazeera English channel was providing "real news" coverage of Egypt's events on the ground, unlike its American counterparts, which banked heavily on cheap punditry. In short, the Arab Spring brought Al-Jazeera to full bloom.

But, when the Qatar-based broadcaster chose to take the side of armed rebels in Syria and Libya, and then to shore up Egypt's Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood group, Al-Jazeera soon began to lose much of its lustre.

This was further aggravated when some 22 staff from Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the Egyptian arm of the Qatari-funded network, resigned over what they claimed as "coverage that was out of sync with real events in Egypt", according to a report by the Dubai-based Gulf News website. Al-Jazeera's lopsided coverage towards the Muslim Brotherhood and president Mohamed Morsi became all too clear in their neglect in covering the scheduled anti-Morsi  protests on June 30th which resulted in Morsi's ouster by Egypt's military generals. In a mid-July 2013 article entitled "Al-Jazeera's Awful Week", Foreign Policy castigated the network's attempt at overlooking these mass protests, and instead airing "an interview with a Syrian dissident - as well as soccer training updates." The Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr channel showed some limited coverage of those protests, but coverage that wasn’t  “as widely available in the region,” as the same report pointed out. Ayman Gaballah, the managing director of Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, claimed that Al-Jazeera "maintained a clear and consistent editorial line" while others "have been dancing from one pose to the next", in a recent report published by The Telegraph. Mr. Gaballah responded to his accusations of "bias" in favour of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group by relating how his staff were persecuted during the Mubarak era, and again after the June 30th events. However, he claimed that under Morsi's rule, the channel held his administration to account "without going overboard as many others did." 

Mr. Gaballah's remarks were hinting at the position of Egypt's mainstream media after the June 30th protests. The military-led authorities shut down Islamist-run TV stations, while the security forces raided Al-Jazeera's office in Cairo, and even Al-Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief, Abdel Fattah Fayed was arrested over charges of threatening national security! It's crystal clear that only one anti-Morsi tone dominates Egypt's mainstream media nowadays. But, as the Foreign Policy's writer, Sultan Al Qassemi. succinctly puts it: "the difference is that Al-Jazeera's dramatic fall comes from what many saw as a higher journalistic pedestal."   

A recent study conducted by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) - a regionally based private and independent think tank in Cairo - has discerned the dwindling popularity of Al-Jazeera among Arab viewers after the 30 June demonstrations. Al-Jazeera's bias towards one side in the political equation; namely, the Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood, by only focusing on inviting their representatives to its programmes and disregarding others affiliated with different political groups in Egypt, has had an injurious effect on the broadcaster's journalistic integrity and appeal. The Qatari-based channel focused, “on Mr. Morsi's supporters, in addition to trying to underestimate the numbers of anti-Morsi protesters that poured into the squares. They did this by airing old footage from specific angles on Tahrir Square and Al Etihadia presidential palace," to suggest that the anti-Morsi protests were pretty empty spaces!

The Al-Jazeera English channel adopted the same strategy a few days ago. On July 26, millions of anti-Morsi protesters poured out onto Egypt's streets after a call by the country's military chief to give him a mandate to deal with terrorism. The Al-Jazeera English channel wrongly labelled a picture of anti-Morsi protests as "pro-Morsi", in its coverage of the demonstrations. The switch of attribution on the two pictures displayed on the split screen was picked up and repeated by several foreign stations like France 24 and CNN, albeit the anterior apologized later for this inconvenient error! 

Al-Jazeera has not only lost much of its credibility, but the credibility of its main backer and benefactor, Qatar, in ceasing to be the voice of Arab resistance; instead, showing favouritism to the Islamist groups and applying Qatari foreign policy. Al-Jazeera America is due to launch on August 20th 2013, to compete with US news networks like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the like. Maybe Americans are already asking themselves: which perspective will Al-Jazeera adopt: Republican or the Democrat?

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