Sunday, October 14, 2012

Hitched to Qatar's rising star, Al Jazeera takes a bumpy ride skyward

    Sunday, October 14, 2012   No comments


By Elizabeth Dickinson

It’s mid-afternoon as Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, takes a brief respite from the news to recall a whirlwind year.

As a wave of Arab uprisings swept the region, Egyptian revolutionaries broadcast the channel live on giant screens in Tahrir Square. Rebels in Benghazi gave reporters a hero’s welcome in Libya. And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly credited the channel for helping her to stay abreast of the upheaval.

In short, Al Jazeera televised the revolutions, and the world tuned in.

Yet three fallen leaders and more than a year later, it’s not just Al Jazeera’s audience that has grown. So, too, have its critics. Founded by the Qatari emir in 1996, the channel's main detractors early on came from the West, where its penchant for broadcasting Al Qaeda messages and portraying graphic images of the US-led war in Iraq irked many, including former President George W. Bush.

But since the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s previous success has been amplified and the Qatari government has started playing a bigger part in regional policy. Suddenly, the cozy relationship between patron and broadcaster carries a bit more baggage.

“It’s important to take seriously where the funding of this network comes from,” says Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center. “You’re basically talking about a journalistic organization that by definition has a conflict built in.”

Such criticisms have indisputably grown – that Al Jazeera downplayed uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and overemphasized certain Islamist groups’ perspectives in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, all seemingly in line with Doha’s foreign policy interests. Concerns about Al Jazeera’s independence were amplified when the station’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, resigned in September and was replaced by a member of the royal family.

Serious as they are, however, such accusations are also a sort of backhanded compliment – an acknowledgment of the impact that the network now has. Viewership is higher than ever, reaching 260 million households in 130 countries.



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