If you’ve ever watched Al Jazeera in English, then you were probably surprised by how progressive and liberal the programming was, especially if you had been led to believe by U.S. media that the propaganda that they push a pro-Islamist or anti-West agenda. At least in English, Al Jazeera often focuses on human rights, including women’s rights, especially in the Middle East and is often very critical of Arab governments. A few years ago, friends of mine who work in the media sector in Spain told me that Al Jazeera had a fantastic reputation among journalists for giving reporters editorial freedom.
With regards to what or how Al Jazeera reports in Arabic, I can’t say. I don’t speak the language, except for maybe two year old level Moroccan dialect.
But if you know anything about the Arab World and media, then you know that Arabs love TV and they get their favorite programs from their satellite dishes. Although each country speaks its own dialect – some very distinct – they can all follow Egyptian, Lebanese/Syrian, and Gulf TV shows. In fact, most of them watch Egyptian TV shows instead of their local programming. In a country like Morocco, for example, if a person wants European content, they will watch French television, but if they want content in Arabic, they’ll watch Egyptian TV.
As we all know, there is not a single democracy in the Arab World, and all of the programming is heavily censored by the state, essentially making all television de facto state media. Then comes Al Jazeera:
- Arabic content
- easily and universally accessible by satellite
- immune from local control and censorship (except with regard to Qatar); and
- progressive stories and uninhibited political analysis.
During the second Iraq War, this drove the Bush administration nuts. The CIA went so far as to send an Al Jazeera journalist to Guantanamo for years, fully knowing he had no ties to terrorism. Add that to the fact that Al Jazeera does not have the same constraints as the U.S. media does with respect to the narrative about Israel and Palestine, and the uncontrollable Al Jazeera becomes a threat to the status quo.
During the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera drove many Arab regimes crazy. As Egypt has long been the center of popular Arabic culture, people throughout the region were glued to their televisions witnessing the popular and secular protests to oust the 30 year old Mubarak clepto-military regime. Guess which channel was giving protesters twenty-four coverage and putting them in a positive light? Similar, though smaller scale, protests started springing up in almost every country in the region from Morocco to Iran, and yet the local regimes couldn’t shut off Al Jazeera. So what several countries did was immediately force the local Al Jazeera offices to close down, including those in Morocco and Egypt.
All of this brings me to the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, based on the claim that Qatar gives material support to Iran and terrorist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. I am definitely no expert, so I can’t say whether these allegations are true, or whether Qatar is any more permissive with terrorists than say the Saudis. What I do know is that Egypt was quick to label Al Jazeera’s Arab Spring reporting as pro-Muslim Brotherhood, even though the Muslim Brotherhood was not the foremost player in the Egyptian Arab Spring. But this has long been the tactic in the Middle East. If you don’t push the totalitarian government’s official line, then you are a terrorist supporter.
So if you are Saudi Arabia you may both finance and support extremist, jihadist and non-progressive ideologies, but at the same time you are at odds with any political movement or player– be it ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran or even ones that advocate for something as basic as greater civil participation – as long as they put your absolute control over society at risk.
But now Saudi Arabia and it coalition of despots have given Qatar an ultimatum with a list of 13 demands, one of which is to immediately shut down Al Jazeera. If Al Jazeera is closed, then essentially the only media left in the Middle East will be state-controlled media. Again, I am no expert on the region, but I have my suspicions about why Qatar is under attack. The only thing more threatening for a totalitarian regime than democracy is a free press.