Is There a 'Foxification' Underway at Al Jazeera Television?
Sources inside Al Jazeera who are in a position to know what is going on now confirm to MediaChannel.org that there is an internal struggle underway that may dilute Al Jazeera's independence and steer it in a more pro-western, pro-US direction.
"There is already a change of tone and focus in the news," a veteran insider reveals. He blames the shift on a reorganization of the network's governing structure a month ago that has put a former Ambassador from Qatar to the USA in a commanding position.
Al Jazeera broadcasts from a state of the art facility in Doha, the capital of Qatar, a wealthy independent state run by an Emir who has, until this point, remained close friends with the US while allowing Al Jazeera its independence.
"Nobody is talking about it publicly and nothing is quite clear yet but it looks like there is new pressure from the government of Qatar [the oil and natural gas rich Gulf state that bankrolled Al Jazeera], as well as a political battle over how to manage the channel inside its government with the US and its supporters, including the editor of the Arabic edition of Newsweek, lobbying in the shadows."
The United States is a major trading partner with Qatar and maintains a vast military facility there. The high profile Coalition Media (ie. propaganda) Center was based in the country, and the Pentagon has used the base airfield to supply the war effort in Iraq. Lebanese sources report that US planes airlifted cluster bombs from that base to Israel for use in its recent war against Hezbollah. Israel's relations with Qatar are said to be close.
Washington and London were never happy with Al Jazeera's political independence. Its offices in Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed in the early days of the war, and more recently there have been reports that President Bush considered bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, but was only stopped by a strong dissent by Britain's Tony Blair. Al Jazeera has been denied access by the British government to documents that would confirm this widely reported (and believed) story that has also been officially dismissed.
"You don't need to bomb Al Jazeera to change its direction," said my source. "There is a softer way to influence its direction by taking it over from within and it can happen quietly almost as if in slow motion. You 'broaden' some programs, announce new 'guidelines,' issue new edicts reinforcing top-down control, purge some professionals you don't like, and then give more positive unchallenged airtime to backers of US foreign policy. Washington would not be open about any behind the scenes role it is playing in all this for fear of triggering a very negative public reaction."
The irony here is that for many years Al Jazeera made a point of giving substantial airtime to US officials and their surrogates to show fairness. This even led some hardliners in the Arab World years ago to accuse of the station of being CIA-backed and even pro-Israel. But whatever exposure they got was never enough for a Pentagon that practices "Information Dominance" and seeks to exclude all contrary views. They expect the kind of uncritical coverage they received on American TV.
Ironically, a former US military briefer became so disgusted with US media manipulation that he joined Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera reporters have been killed by US soldiers, prosecuted in Spain, and imprisoned. One remains in Guantanamo with no charges against him. These external actions have only strengthened Al Jazeera's resolve and won audience sympathy for the station. That may be why a new internal intervention is underway.
The Friends of Al Jazeera website carries a post suggesting that this is exactly what is happening.
"It is rumored that the new pro-US Board of Directors (which include the former Qatari Ambassador to the United States, Hamad Al Kuwari and Mahmood Shamam who are both are clearly sympathetic to the US Agenda in the region) and their representative at station, the new Qatari Managing Director, Mr. Ahmad Kholeifi is a result of pressure placed on the Emir of Qatar by the US Administration.
Rumours of a 'soft editorial shift' towards a more pro-Qatari and pro-US agenda are already floating around media circles in the region.
Sources inside AlJazeera have confirmed that the Board has already instituted radical changes that threaten the stations editorial integrity and independence. In less than a month since the pro-American Board of Directors was appointed, sweeping edicts affecting the whole of AlJazeera have been passed down by the newly appointed Qatari Managing Director, Ahmad Al Kholeifi."
My source believes the rumors of an imposed top-down change are true.
Al Jazeera's journalists are diverse and committed to the channel's mission. They would not likely be silent if they felt their work was under attack or being unduly pressured. On the other hand, for all their independence, they know they are highly dependent on subsidies from the Emir. If he is being pressured, they know that that will eventually have an impact on the channel's managers.
Media owners have a tendency to meddle in news presentation, with politics, ego and power tripping often motivating factors. Sometimes, darker forces are involved.
In this case, why is a pro-US diplomat being given managerial authority while a respected and experienced journalist/general manager is apparently being ousted?
Until now, by and large, the internal politics of Qatar has not been given a high profile on the air but that may be changing, I am told, with more Qataris visible as pundits and interview subjects in recent weeks.
Perhaps the Emir who is putting up the cash also wants more visibility and is engineering compliance. Perhaps Qatar now wants to use the channel to build a higher profile for itself. In the Middle East, media and politics are often intertwined. If Al Jazeera is politicized, it could lose the credibility it has earned.
Too much tampering could easily backfire and undermine Al Jazeera's support.
Now ten years old, Al Jazeera has grown from an offshoot of BBC's Arabic Service into a feisty and independent multi-channel media company with a global satellite footprint that makes almost as much news as it reports.
Brandishing the slogan "The opinion and the other opinion," Al Jazeera is known for strong reporting and carrying diverse and outspoken views including videos by Osama bin Laden and opposition voices to many governments backed by the US.
Al Jazeera says its coverage is balanced but critics, especially on the right in America, have targeted it as "terrorist TV," a slogan designed to discredit its news and programming, which was first only seen in Arabic but now has a separate English channel.
In some ways, the network's operations mirror and reflect the volatile politics of the Middle East in which it is based, a region which is itself torn by external interventions, conflicts with and among wealthy and traditional elites, not to mention insurgency, war, political conspiracies, and competing nationalistic interests and internationalist aspirations.
Hailed as the fifth best-known brand in the world, the nature of that brand is now being contested. Is an implosion on the horizon, or will the Channel sort out its tensions and emerge even stronger as a worldwide competitor against conventional look-alike, think-alike corporatized media?
What is disturbing is that Al Jazeera had the potential of bringing real diversity to the global news agenda with more reporting from the Third World and even about the news world itself.
In an increasingly monopolized media marketplace with concentration of ownership on the rise, with Rupert Murdoch bidding for Dow Jones and Thompson taking over Reuters, there are fewer and fewer highly visible independent outlets. A recent scandal at the ineffective US created Al Hurra station may have led the Bush Administration to stop competing with a more popular brand and try to take it over instead.
US cable outlets have kept Al Jazeera English off the air-one way of marginalizing it with American viewers-but that also impacts on its ability to make money-something, I am told many Qataris expect. Maybe they are willing to trade the channel's integrity for a shot at the quest for profitability that drives most of the media industry. But being greedy could backfire if the channel's reputation suffers. We still don't know who is leaning on whom?
As an innovator and an exception to the unbrave world of media, Al Jazeera has been exceptional. It would be shame to see its core values compromised just as it becomes a bigger player in a world that desperately needs media outlets that care about the conditions of the world's people.
It may be time for its viewers and friends to demand that Al Jazeera be allowed to remain the respected and crusading force it has become in broadcasting and world journalism. Let's hope some combination of insiders and backers will be able to insure that outsiders with parochial or imperial agendas cannot "fix" what isn't broken.
Journalists and media activists worldwide may need to get engaged to send a message of concern to the Emir and the media hitmen (ie. consultants) who are apparently now sneaking around in Washington and Doha with the hopes of turning Jazeera into Foxeera.
Let Al Jazeera Be Al Jazeera!
- Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. He has attended three conferences at Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha and interviewed key journalists there. Comments to dissector@mediachannel,org