An offstream news network from a tiny Gulf nation irked the superpowers and landed at the heart of the gulf crisis
|Al-Jazeera office, Kualalampur (Creative Commons)|
When Saudi led coalition imposed a sudden blockade in its tiny neighbor Qatar on 5 June, equally shocking was the revelation that one of its demands included shutting down Al-Jazeera television. However, Saudi Arabia's hostility towards the offstream global news network dates back to its founding. Al-Jazeera Arabic was born out of a failure of BBC and Saudi Arabia joint initiative - an Arabic version of BBC - in 1996. This venture failed in just over eighteen months after Saudis were irked by its programs on Saudi dissidents and human rights condition in the country. This left over 250 Arabic speaking journalists and managers trained by the BBC jobless. This is when the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani stepped in and set up Al-Jazeera Arabic with a seed fund of QAR 500 million (USD 137 million). When the channel went on air on 1 November 1996, it soon attracted the attention of millions of Arab viewers in the Middle East with its unique style of broadcasting as well as distinctive approach to the regional as well as global issues.
This was immediately after the former Emir Sheikh Hamad dethroned his father Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani while he was on a vacation in Switzerland in June 1995. Despite his father's attempts to return to power, son Sheikh Hamad could consolidate his power and would rule the country for another eighteen years. The son wanted to project himself as a more open and democratic ruler in the international arena. To contain the domestic discord, he also had to elevate the country's standing in the regional and international standing. Since then, Qatar has pursued this goal – be it Qatar's successful bid for hosting 2022 FIFA World Cup; or providing airbase for American forces; or support to opposition forces in Egypt or Saudi Arabia; or strengthening ties with Shia-majority Iran. Ongoing Saudi-led blockade is a result of this long-brewing anxiety; and it is not surprising, though shocking and a pity, that Al-Jazeera be shut is in the list of the conditions to end the blockade.
While Qatar still remains a closed society and a tiny country, how was it possible to have an independent media network like Al-Jazeera? Many who have written about or worked with Al-Jazeera would agree with its unique perspective in the pertinent global issues and a level of impartiality from its funders. It has even pursued many stories contrary to the official position of the Qatari state. However, it has also been concluded that there was a tacit understanding between the Al-Jazeera and the then Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad – that the former won't challenge the latter's rule within the country. In return, the Emir would continue to fund the channel and give a level of autonomy in its operations.
Circumventing bans: Online presence
In the wake of the 9/11, Al-Jazeera Arabic became 'notorious' for broadcasting Taliban and Al-Qaeda propaganda and was blamed for being a mouthpiece of the terrorist groups. As the channel saw the prominence and global acclaim as well as rebuke, it launched the English language version in November 2006– now with clear ambitions to challenge if not upset the global news order. This added fuel to the fire to the already existing anxiety among the global powers. Amidst US fighting two deadly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Taliban and Al-Qaeda 'propaganda' being broadcast by an English language channel had the potential to reverse the course of the war. Challenging official rhetoric of the pro-war western governments, Al-Jazeera could also change the popular support in their countries.
Thus, almost all global powers agreed that Al-Jazeera won't find route or space in the airwaves or cables within their boundaries and was blacked out by almost all cable providers in the USA and Canada; many other countries followed the suit. Al-Jazeera soon found a way to circumvent the ban – it enriched its online version and started a youtube channel. It also availed its television programs free of cost to the global audience – in a sharp contrast to money-mongering US and European TV networks. This not only forced too-commercial US and European TV channels to start availing their contents freely to the global audience but also moved the competition from conventional television journalism to online. Since then, Al-Jazeera has become pioneering to tap into the potential of any technological advancement – be it livestreaming; promoting citizen journalism to produce contents from remote parts; availing video footages under creative commons; adopting twitter and facebook for disseminating breaking news and promoting contents, etc. Thus, Al-Jazeera not only infuriated the political leadership but also challenged the western media hegemony.
Challenging the global news order
Its strategic location gives an enviable access to sources and events in ever hotbed of international politics and diplomacy – the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Middle East crisis. When the global channels including BBC and CNN shied away from criticizing enough the Israeli regime for its inhuman acts in the Palestinian populace, Al-Jazeera filled in the vacuum with a harsh criticism and showing the perspective never seen in so-called global news channels. This has reached a level that Israel has recently announced not only to close the network office but also to revoke media credentials of Al-Jazeera journalists. Also, this strategic advantage helped Al-Jazeera to report from the conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and the centre of protests during Arab Spring – from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; and elevated its standing as a truly global news network.
It has also maintained this counter perspective in reporting marginal countries like Nepal. When I did Masters' Thesis in 2010, I compared the coverage of Nepal's peace process by CNN and Al-Jazeera. I was shocked to find that CNN had not even fifteen percent of the coverage that Al-Jazeera gave, the latter's coverage far more in-depth and grounded by dedicating more than one episode of many of its flagship programs for Nepal coverage. The channel continues this till today and surfing through the channel, you will find not only each major political development in Nepal are reported but also gives perspectives to subtle issues like inclusion, women’s struggles, earthquake, and floods. However, one stance where it failed to give justice to Nepal coverage is during the blockade by India in 2015. When most western media were calling a spade a spade i.e. stressing India’s role in imposing the blockade, Al-Jazeera also shied away from putting the blame. As Qatar finds now in a similar situation, self-evaluation of their coverage of Indian blockade in Nepal would provide the channel a better moral standing.
Will it survive the crisis?
As mentioned above, the initial QAR 500 million was given to the channel from the private coffer of the then Emir Sheikh Hamad. It was expected that, by the turn of the century, the channel would earn enough at least to make the recurring costs. However, that didn't happen and the Emir doled out another QAR 500 million to the channel in 2001. Details of its funding since then are not publicly available but it is assumed that Qatar Emir continues to fund the network's English as well as Arabic versions.
Meanwhile, its patron Sheikh Hamad has abdicated the crown in favor of his son Sheikh Tamam. It has been reported that the son is less generous in doling out more resources towards Al-Jazeera. The dwindling of oil prices has already strained country's oil-dependent economy. And the call from regional powers to shut it down and tacit support of the global powers to this demand has raised questions on the future of the channel. However, the acclaim it has received and the role it played to take a small Arab nation into prominence will make Qatar difficult to make such a decision - the international clout it gives is too dear to give up. As long as it survives, current executives have made it clear that it won't change its editorial course.