How the voice of Arab freedom became a shill for Egypt’s Islamists.
Office raids, expulsions, popular anger, staff resignations, verbal abuse, and the loss of a friendly government in Cairo. It’s easy to see why this wasn’t Al Jazeera’s week.
On July 3, hours after the military putsch that ousted Mohamed Morsy’s government from power in Egypt following days of protests, attention turned to the Muslim Brotherhood’s media enablers. Egyptian security forces raided Al Jazeera’s office in Cairo — along with those of other Islamist-leaning channels — detained several staff members, and took the channels off the air. Three days later, another raid was reported by Al Jazeera.
A number of Egyptian expatriates have since petitioned the military-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, to cancel Al Jazeera’s license and block it from broadcasting on the Egyptian-owned satellite operator Nilesat. Cairo’s prosecutor general also issued an arrest warrant for Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief, Abdel Fattah Fayed, (the same reporter who was expelled by fellow journalists from an Interior Ministry news conference on July 6) over charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news. Fayed was released on bail the next day — not that you’d know any of this from reading the Egyptian press syndicate, which chose to remain silent over the assaults on Al Jazeera’s staff and offices.
But let’s back up to what prompted Egypt’s wholesale rebuke of the network that rose to global prominence covering the Arab revolts of 2011. As Arabs rose against their governments in those heady, hopeful days, Al Jazeera provided nonstop coverage — often against the will of dictators — of the unfolding revolutions. But once the dust settled, the network was accused of taking the side of Islamists. “Many of the editors and anchors in Al Jazeera Arabic are de facto Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers,” said Fadi Salem, a Dubai-based researcher specializing in Arab media. “This has been reflected in the channel’s pro-Islamist coverage over the past two years, relying heavily on a combination of incitement, bloody scenes, and Islamic preachers and media commentators.”
Al Jazeera’s slow descent began with the advent of the Syrian civil war, when it blatantly abandoned journalistic standards in favor of a specific narrative. Since then, I have recorded various instances of Al Jazeera’s biased coverage, some of which have veered into the comical — like when live reporters in man-on-the-street interviews hastily snatch their microphones back from Egyptians who dare to criticize Morsy or praise Mubarak on camera.
Qatar, Al Jazeera’s home country and financial patron, gave billions of dollars in aid to Morsy’s government in the past year and has been accused of supporting regional Islamist movements, much to the chagrin of neighboring Arab states. At the height of the Egyptian uprising against the Brotherhood on June 30, Al Jazeera disregarded the protests and instead aired an interview with a Syrian dissident — as well as soccer training updates. Al Jazeera’s live Egypt service, a 24/7 news affiliate of the Qatari media giant, did cover the protests, but it isn’t as widely available in the region. Al Jazeera’s live Egypt service, moreover, is equally biased in favor of the Brotherhood — so much so that Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad directed his followers on Twitter to tune in following the fatal shooting of 51 Morsy supporters by the army on Monday, July 8.
Al Jazeera’s bias is often subtle, as when its Cairo bureau chief announced on Morsy’s second day in office that the Rafah border crossing with Gaza has been turned “upside down” — a considerable overstatement. At other times it can be glaring, like in June 2012, when it aired a report claiming that Morsy deserved a military salute simply because his wife asked to be called “Um Ahmed” instead of the first lady. This week, it didn’t win any sympathy from non-Brotherhood Egyptians with a controversial report headlined “US bankrolled anti-Morsi activists,” which declined to mention that many of the civil society organizations it cited received funds even during Hosni Mubarak’s era.
To Al Jazeera’s twisted coverage of events, Egyptians reacted with rage. On July 8, leaflets featuring a hand dripping with blood were dropped outside the network’s Cairo office. They read: “The makers of the news” and “Sedition and the Other Sedition,” a play on Al Jazeera’s motto, “The Opinion and the Other Opinion.” Foreign Policy reported that another leaflet was distributed near Al Jazeera’s offices, reading “A bullet may kill a man, but a lying camera kills a nation.”
Even journalists showed their frustration. At a news conference held by spokesmen for Egypt’s Interior Ministry, also on July 8, Egyptian journalists were heard chanting “Barra! Barra!” or “Out! Out!” at Al Jazeera’s bureau chief. The journalists accused the network of broadcasting images from the Syrian civil war, alleging they had taken place in Egypt. Ironically, the Interior Ministry spokesman pleaded with everyone to calm down. “We are in Egypt, the land of freedom of democracy,” he said.
That same day, Dubai-based Gulf News reported that 22 staff members of Al Jazeera’s Egypt channel resigned “over what they alleged was coverage that was out of sync with real events in Egypt.”
That Al Jazeera is biased in favor of the Brotherhood is now widely accepted as fact. In a January 2013 article titled “Must Do Better,” the Economist excoriated the network for its “breathless boosting” of “the Qatar-aligned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.” In November 2012, political scientist Alain Gresh wrote that the channel had “lost much of its lustre — and some of its best journalists — as a result, and has become a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood.” Adel Iskandar, a Washington-based scholar of Arab studies whose research focuses on media, said that “by cheerleading for the Brotherhood, the station has effectively lost its market in the region’s most populous country and become a pariah in society.”
In Egypt, Al Jazeera’s lopsided coverage quickly alienated viewers, many of whom took to social media to voice their displeasure. So toxic was the Twittersphere during the latest round of protests that on July 1, two days before the coup, I predicted that “Egyptians will kick Al Jazeera Arabic out of the country” once Morsy was overthrown.
Al Jazeera’s news anchors haven’t always been against military intervention. In one telling tweet last December, Jamal Rayyan, one of the channel’s star news anchors, called on Morsy to dispatch the Army to put an end to what he called “the chaos” of anti-Morsy protesters who objected to the country’s new constitution, which was written almost exclusively by the Brotherhood and other Islamists. Likewise, a video that emerged after Morsy’s ouster shows Ahmed Mansour, another Al Jazeera anchor who is believed to be a member of the Brotherhood, giving advice to the audience on how to reinstate the president. “Raise the Egyptian flags like they [Morsy’s opposition] who stole the revolution did,” says Mansour, adding, “I beg you to listen to me. Egyptians won’t come out on the streets with us otherwise.”
Iskandar, the Washington-based media scholar, called the video of Mansour a “worrying development,” indicating that even veteran Al Jazeera journalists “have abandoned their role as practitioners and turned into political operatives.”
It must be a confusing time in the Al Jazeera newsroom. Qatar has abandoned its allies in the Brotherhood literally overnight. The Persian Gulf state issued a surreal press statement not only acknowledging the facts on the ground — the overthrow of its ally — but also praising the role of the Army, the perpetrator of the coup, in defending the country’s security. This may be a pragmatic move by Qatar’s new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who does not wish to start his reign allied to a Muslim Brotherhood in decline.
Al Jazeera has altered its coverage to suit its owners’ interests before. Prior to the Qatari-Saudi rapprochement over the past few years, Al Jazeera hosted critics of Saudi Arabia and even produced a documentary on the Al Yamama weapons deal between the Saudi and British governments that was mired in corruption allegations. Now that relations have improved between the two countries, Al Jazeera has changed its tune and was rewarded with the reopening of its bureau in Riyadh in January 2011.
A similar reversal took place with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group allied with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Qatar emerged as a major supporter of Hezbollah following the latter’s 2006 war with Israel. When Qatar’s former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, visited southern Lebanon after the war, Al Jazeera heaped praise on the group in one report, saying the “guest [the emir] is kind and those receiving him [Hezbollah] are kind as well.”
In August 2008, Al Jazeera’s Beirut bureau hosted a birthday party live on air for a Lebanese fighter who was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Israel. The festivities featured a large cake decorated with a photo of a smiling Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. But following Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, Al Jazeera’s change of heart was evident in its daily coverage and talk shows, on one of which a presenter recently alleged that “hundreds of women were raped by Hezbollah in [the Syrian town of] Qusayr; it’s all documented.”
Last month, Al Jazeera Arabic posted a controversial poll asking who was responsible for the descent of the Syrian war into a sectarian conflict: Sunnis or Shiites (read: Hezbollah). Qatar also recently expelled 18 Lebanese Shiites after the Gulf states collectively agreed to take measures against the group’s members. Salem, the Arab media researcher, said that “Al Jazeera in the past positioned itself as the ‘resistance’ channel in the region. In 2011, it became the ‘Arab spring’ channel. Today, unfortunately, Al Jazeera Arabic is the ‘state channel’ of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab region.”
That said, the Saudi-funded Al Arabiya television channel, Al Jazeera’s closest competitor — like most news media covering Egypt today — has been faring just as badly when it comes to selective reporting of recent events. The difference is that Al Jazeera’s dramatic fall comes from what many saw as a higher journalistic pedestal.
As it prepares for the launch of its U.S. channel later this year, Al Jazeera remains a network staffed largely by good journalists, but run by a shortsighted and biased administration. One of the first steps Qatar’s young new emir took upon succeeding his father was to replace Al Jazeera’s director-general, who was a member of the ruling family. Perhaps the new replacement will be able to save the channel at this critical time.
It’s also possible that Al Jazeera’s Brotherhood sympathies amount to a long-term play by the channel’s backers. “I don’t think Egyptians turned against Al Jazeera for good” says Salem. “The Muslim Brotherhood will always enjoy relatively large support in the country.” Perhaps, in time, Al Jazeera will too.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on July 12, 2013.