The New Face of Al Jazeera
The charge that Jazeera is biased against Arab regimes other than Qatar's has led nearly every Arab government to formally complain, withdraw its ambassador from Qatar or close the local Al Jazeera bureau at some point or another. The Jordanian official cited above claims that Qatar's purpose is clear: to use Al Jazeera "to undermine the stability of Arab regimes and reduce the stature of Arab leaders."
Khanfar dismisses the criticisms of Arab governments, which he says lack credibility "as legitimate democratic leaders." When those governments feel their hold on power loosening, they tighten it more than ever, he says. "They resort to intimidation and intelligence [services]."
Abu Hilala, one of the most respected correspondents at the network, described the two times he was arrested and held by the Jordanian authorities for his Jazeera reporting. "You can't imagine what it's like when they force themselves into your house," he says. "You can report 80 or 90 percent of what you want. But not 100 percent. If you approach certain topics, you might lose everything." Jordanian law, like that of most other Arab countries, says it is a crime to publish material that "disparages the King or Royal Family, relates in any way to the Armed Forces or Security Forces, unless permission has been obtained from those forces...and includes false information or rumors that harm the common good." Abu Hilala notes, "There's no security for Arab journalists, no law to protect them."
Meanwhile, the Jordanian media, especially the official outlets, offer the same stale, retrograde fare that's been used by Arab state networks for decades. Before its flagship program, the 8 o'clock evening news, Jordan Television usually broadcasts patriotic songs ("My country, my country, O! My country!"), accompanied by dizzyingly fast panoramic shots of Jordan's topography. The news leads with what the king did that day, which is generally to call for peace somewhere in the region or to conduct a meeting with foreign visitors. Silent footage of the king greeting said visitors is broken by the text of the report, which conveniently matches what the official press agency, Petra, puts out the same day. No wonder Jordanians, like Arabs all over the region, flocked to Al Jazeera when it opened.
Even so, preaching to other Arab governments for stifling political and media freedoms and doing otherwise in Qatar does undermine Jazeera's credibility. "That is probably the most vulnerable point," says Marc Lynch, an expert on the Arab media and a professor at George Washington University. "They don't touch Qatari politics because the Emir pays for [the station]."
When asked about Jazeera's infrequent coverage of Qatar, Khanfar invokes the tiny size of the country, arguing that this makes it less newsworthy than other states. If Qatar has acquired "a huge status in the region" through Jazeera, as Khanfar claims, it apparently is one not worth reporting on.
Khanfar would not answer specific questions about the station's financing other than to cite the Qatari government as its source. The channel submits expenses to the Ministry of Finance, which reimburses the deficits. Al Jazeera has expanded its brand in recent years; in addition to the positively reviewed English-language Al Jazeera International, the network has opened four sports channels, a children's channel and a documentary channel. These efforts will boost profitability, Khanfar says. For now, though, the network is almost totally dependent on the government. Al Jazeera maintains that this is because of a Saudi-imposed boycott, in which anyone who advertises on the Qatari network is denied access to the lucrative Saudi market. The Saudi-Qatari rivalry is certainly not imaginary; Al Jazeera's primary competitor remains Al Arabiya, the Saudi-funded news channel based in Dubai.
A Qatari royal, Sheikh Hamid bin Thamer (whom Yasser Abu Hilala calls the "backbone" of the network), sits at the head of Jazeera's board. He is a powerful figure, not only at Al Jazeera but in the Qatari official media as well. And while Khanfar says that "successful journalists question centers of power," it seems that local Qatari reporters are not given that opportunity, or are afraid to exercise it. Qatar's official media are full of the comings and goings of Emir Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani and other family members. And Jazeera, which competes with other international news channels such as the BBC and CNN in breaking news about the rest of the world, is as bad as the other Arab state networks when it comes to reporting on Qatar.