According to several sources, during his 13 October visit to Doha, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked the Qatari Prime Minister to “tone down Al Jazeera‘s coverage”. Blinken justified this by calling the channel’s programs “full of anti-Israeli incitements”.
On the same day, the world learned live — at the same time as the main person involved — about the death of the wife, son and daughter of Wael Al-Dahdouh, Al Jazeera‘s bureau chief in Gaza, killed in an Israeli strike. On October 26, after burying his loved ones, the famous reporter immediately returned to work. “It was my duty to get back to work as quickly as possible, despite everything,” he said.
The ‘CNN of the Arab world’, the most watched satellite news channel in the region, has always relied on star journalists like Wael Al-Dahdouh. Before him, reporting from Jerusalem and Ramallah, were Walid Al-Omari, Jivara Al-Badri and Shireen Abu Akleh, shot in the head while covering a military operation in the occupied West Bank in May 2021. Familiar faces and voices doing many live reports to deliver accounts from the ground.
The channel is a new product, much more valuable than its gas and oil combined
With this exclusive coverage thanks to its 80 worldwide bureaus and an English version since 2016, the channel claimed 45 million viewers in 2013. Created in 1995 by the Emir of Qatar who came to power after a coup against his own father, Al Jazeera (which means ‘peninsula’ in Arabic) is now a leading news source, overshadowing Western channels.
Its strong comeback since 7 October and the start of the ongoing Israel-Palestine war is reminiscent of other major historical events that have marked the channel’s development. Since covering the 1998 US strikes on Iraq, Al Jazeera has always been able to take advantage of crises hitting the Arab world to expand its influence.
‘Opinion… and the other opinion’
Claiming free speech and pluralism, its slogan ‘opinion… and the other opinion’ makes no secret of the channel’s interest in highlighting both the discourse of official representatives and that of political opponents — including the most extreme. Especially during the Arab Spring uprisings — although the channel’s coverage of these events was seen as ambiguous depending on the country.
This opening of the antenna to personalities with sometimes very radical discourse earned the channel — one of the few to broadcast Osama Bin Laden’s recordings after the 9/11 attacks — the nickname ‘Jihad TV’. At the time, Al Jazeera, unlike its competitors, had correspondents in Afghanistan and Iraq when war broke out there two years later, broadcasting essential images and interviews.
Uniting Arabs behind the Palestinian cause
“The US Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell, complained to the Emir of Qatar, as Al Jazeera‘s chief patron, to intervene with the channel’s management to change its coverage of events deemed too anti-American,” says Kamal Kajja, Doctor of Geopolitics in his article Al Jazeera, Phenomenon or Lure? The parallel between this 20-year-old intervention and Blinken’s request is striking.
Especially since the channel’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back to the second Intifada (2000-2005), when “the channel took on a major role in mobilising for the Palestinians”. It gave a platform to Hamas and Islamic Jihad Islamist leaders, as well as Palestinian Authority representatives, who had become more respectable in the eyes of the international community.
On this subject, while a new informational narrative is being built, several specialists believe that Al Jazeera then succeeded in uniting Arabs behind a common cause. It is a first, some say, “since the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum gave concerts on the radio”. The channel thus gained a reputation for providing “fair” treatment of the conflict and its image as a pan-Arab channel was strengthened. On this issue as on so many others, it undoubtedly plays a major role today in shaping Arab public opinion.
Stifled by the blockade
In recent years, however, the channel seemed to be losing momentum, facing competition from newcomers like Russia Today Arabic, which until recently broadcast from its Beirut studio a long, almost obsequious interview with a senior Hamas official, Ali Baraka. There is also the Saudi channel Al Arabiya, whose journalist Rasha Nabil recently conducted a very different interview with Khaled Mechaal, another Hamas representative behind the ‘Al-Aqsa Deluge’ operation.
The economic blockade imposed on Qatar in 2017 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not help either. Lifting it was contingent on satisfying 13 conditions, one of which was closing down the channel. Over time, access to Al Jazeera has also been blocked in many countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and Israel in 2017.
The channel’s independence from Qatar’s political constraints is regularly criticised
This last ban — which came as the channel regularly gave airtime to Israeli state officials — was condemned by Amnesty International as “a brazen attack on freedom of information in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories”. But for the channel the problem is recurring: it is constantly accused of bias by all sides. Whether towards a particular regime, Islamists, or most often in favour of Qatar.
One thing is certain: for the small emirate, the channel is, as Nourredine Miladi says, “a new product, much more valuable than its gas and oil combined”. It has “suddenly transformed it into a regional leader”. The researcher emphasises that “the channel’s independence from Qatar’s political constraints is regularly criticised”.
If, as the former Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin-Jasem al-Thani asserts, Al Jazeera is editorially independent, it is “in perfect accord with Qatar’s ambition to become a key mediator in regional debates”, Miladi says.
Jerusalem bureau soon closed
Since the 7 October attack on Israel, and Tsahal’s ongoing retaliation on Gaza, the Gulf state has indeed played a major mediating role between the various parties. In particular regarding the release of American hostages, for which Blinken says he is “deeply grateful”, but this position perhaps gives it too much power in some people’s eyes.
In Israel, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said on 15 October that he wanted to close the channel’s Jerusalem bureau, accusing it of pro-Hamas incitement and exposing Israeli soldiers to a potential attack from Gaza. Five days later, the government gave the green light to the proposal, which should include “confiscating equipment”.
This measure must be presented at the next security cabinet meeting, which must also approve it. “Israel is at war on land, air, sea and on the front of public diplomacy. We will not allow broadcasts that harm state security in any way,” Karhi said.
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