How did Al-Jazeera, once dubbed the 'terror network' by some and whose staff were martyred by US bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, end up becoming the media war propagandist for yet another Western war against a small state of the Global South, Libya? We will not know the full details for some time; perhaps some wikileaks will help us understand later. But this much is already certain: the station is betraying gross political bias against its pan-Arab and pan-Islamic anti-imperialist constituency, reflected by its discriminatory reporting on the region based on Qatar's interests and its relations and service to the West.
Al-Jazeera's Smashing of Western Hegemony in Media
In the late 1990s, Al-Jazeera delivered a historic blow to Western hegemony in the media thitherto wielded through Sky, CNN, and the BBC. The emergence of Al-Jazeera was a part of the world process of growing multi-polarity -- the beginning of the end of the 'New World Order' phase of US hegemony. In the Arab world the Gulf region started to see great political upheaval in the 1990s when the people of the region realized that their main national resource -- oil -- was not going to last for ever and that, if they don't use this oil to develop their countries, then they will be left with nothing but sand dunes. It was these factors which led to the emergence of a vibrant pro-democracy movement in the Gulf, especially in 'Saudi' Arabia.
The glorious past
All media try to appear independent, but no large media ever is, including Al-Jazeera. It played a crucial agit-prop role in the early 2000s during the intense battles between the Empire and the oppressed peoples' struggles in Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Having myself undertaken international solidarity work with medical staff during the height of the siege of Ramallah in April 2002, I can attest that, for those under the Zionist state's military curfew and occupation in Palestine, Al-Jazeera was almost the eyes and ears of the people in Ramallah, keeping us informed about the solidarity protests across the region and internationally and also keeping us buoyed up in reporting the resistance in Afghanistan, the Tora Bora battle at the time to be precise.
There were always political contradictions within the station, the patron of the station being the Gulf monarchy of Qatar, who hosts the US Army's regional Central Command -- Centcom. Despite the contradictions in the station, it seems clear that Western powers were not going to allow Al-Jazeera Arabic to launch an English-language station with the same assertive, nay militant position towards Western foreign policy. Al-Jazeera English (AJE), launched in November 2006, had to tread carefully, not crossing the invisible ideological lines drawn by the United States too, not just by Qatar's ruling class. The programming of AJE since 2006 has kept the reporting on the region within the bounds of liberal opposition to the West (any flirtation with radicalism being restricted to what's tolerated by Qatar's warm relations with Hizbullah and Hamas), never encouraging African unity (no pan-Africanism in its editorial line), and being consistently negative in relation to China. (In contrast, AJE reporting on Latin America has been more varied, though clearly more positive toward the 'Good Left' of Brazil than the 'Bad Left' of Venezuela.)
Recently, AJE was instrumental in the publication of the Palestine Papers, which taught no one anything new about the failure of the peace process, but whose effect was a deepening of the schism between Fatah and Hamas. A very short while later, Tunisia and then Egypt erupted into the people's uprisings, and the subsequent turmoil in the region began.
Al-Jazeera Reporting on the Region and Western Hegemony
AJE started to lose its pretence of "every angle, every side" during the reporting from Tahrir Square. Millions watched with pride, inspiration, and nervousness the battle of the masses at Tahrir with AJE playing the agit-prop role in the struggle. However, there were two interrelated areas in which AJE's reporting became suspect. Firstly, few of its guests, analysts and opinion-makers, went beyond a liberal agenda. Many of the guests were from Western NGOs and think tanks, neither of which have ever made any significant contribution to the liberation of any country of the Global South. AJE made sure there was no radical anti-imperialist analysis on its station. Is it that there are hardly any Nasserites, anti-imperialist Islamists, or revolutionary leftists left in Egypt? Of course not, Egypt is rich in revolutionary experience and thinking, as is the general Arab world, leading one to the conclusion that there is a clear decision to censor these voices from the station.
Perhaps looking at the last successful revolution in Egypt is illustrative of this point. The Egyptian Revolution led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser openly stated that the central aim of the struggle was to fight imperialism and Zionism and to develop a non-aligned foreign policy, for socialist-oriented wealth distribution and land reform at home. All of these issues were stripped from AJE's reporting from Egypt, handed over to liberals.
Secondly, the reporting from Tahrir was even more interesting as we had the opportunity to compare AJE's reporting with Iran's English-language Press TV, who were both in the same place, at the same time, and amongst the same people. Whereas AJE censored out just about all the anti-imperialist and pro-Palestinian/anti-Zionist slogans and sentiments of the masses at Tahrir, Press TV accentuated these voices from Tahrir, voices which were very loud and massive in their numbers. One thing is for certain, despite a changing situation in the region, the West, especially the USA, wants to make sure that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt will never turn anti-imperialist, and AJE has been an integral part of keeping these struggles within the boundaries set by the West.
It has been, however, on the reporting of Libya and the Gulf where AJE has completely exposed its agenda, which is very much a reactionary Gulf and pro-West agenda. Still riding on the good will from the reporting in Tunisia and Egypt, in the first few days of the Libyan uprising, AJE turned all its attention and agit-prop to the Libyan rebellion and said nothing negative about the concurrent visit of British Prime Minister Cameron's arm-selling trip to the Gulf -- far from it, AJE actually handed over airtime to Cameron to conduct war propaganda against Libya. It was clear from that point on that AJE would do anything to protect the Gulf area from uprisings, and focus on those regimes that the West have had in their sights for regime change: Libya and Syria (and to a lesser extent, for the time being at least, Algeria). And protecting the Gulf regimes has been exactly what AJE has been doing. AJE has downplayed any disturbances in Arabia, whereas similar levels of protests in Libya were reported to be mass uprisings of all the Libyan people, when now it is clearer and clearer that the uprising in Libya has little mass support outside of Benghazi, and even there it's not exactly universal. AJE has hardly reported from large protests in Morocco or in Bahrain, often dismissing the Bahraini protests as some Shia sectarian issue with links to Iran. Perhaps AJE's reporting is understandable when we consider that Bahrain hosts the USA's largest naval fleet in the region; AJE doesn't want to jeopardize its friends in the US and Bahraini governments. AJE even cut short Nasrallah's speech a few days ago probably due to the fact that Nasrallah talked too much about the just struggle of the Bahraini people.
It has become quite clear that the Libyan rebels are hook line and sinker beholden to Western interests in Libya, but they have been portrayed as patriotic and heroic revolutionaries by AJE. From once supporting resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, to then supporting a movement which literally dances on the skulls of Libyans who have been incinerated by French, British, and US bombs, is quite a turnaround.
The Financial Times in Britain is the newspaper which represents the intelligent voice of the British elite more than any other, and on March 20 they ran a story on page three under the heading "Al-Jazeera's Backing Is key for Coalition":
Desperate to distinguish between Libya and other western interventions in the Muslim world, which have sharpened anti-western sentiment, the three leading powers in the Libya campaign are drawing legitimacy for their actions by stressing that they are born out of Arab requests. While some people ask where are the Arab jets, the international coalition -- for now at least -- has a more powerful weapon on its side: the al-Jazeera television channel. . . . Al-Jazeera's owners, the Qatari royal family, are among those backing the international effort. . . . Indeed the Libya crisis represents a rare moment of unity between the people and their leaders in the Arab world, with al-Arabiya, the Saudi-backed channel also on the side of the rebels.
A rare moment of unity between the Arab masses and the most reactionary pro-West rulers in the region? AJE was fundamental in the conduct of a war by the West for regime change against an old enemy? These developments in AJE may eventually make the channel the focus of sharp and extensive Arab criticism, perhaps even vocal and visible protest. Already a growing number of analysts and commentators are starting to question AJE's agenda. After all, Qatar's and AJE's moves are far from subtle, to say the least:
Although Doha has often used al-Jazeera to deflect criticism of previous partnerships with the US, its rulers have been more open about their support for the Libyan rebels, though Qatar's specific role is still uncertain. "Qatar will participate in military action because we believe there must be Arab states undertaking this action, because the situation there is intolerable," Sheikh Hamid bin Jassem, the prime minister, told al-Jazeera on Saturday. (Financial Times, March 20, 2010)
Qatari military involvement in Bahrain and Libya is hardly a friendly act of Pan-Arab unity and struggle; rather it is a brazen counter-revolutionary one, playing a junior role to Western aggression. Unfortunately things get from abysmal to even worse.
Al-Jazeera's Shameful Reporting on Palestine
While the West is ensuring as best it can that the current turmoil in the region does not orient itself towards anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, any aggressive acts by the Zionist state may still become the catalyst that radicalizes people's movements in the region in exactly those directions. Therefore, the West has to very carefully manage the perceptions of the Zionist state, its attack-dog in the region. To its shame, AJE has begun to line with the West on this image management, too: it grossly underplayed the reporting of the recent Zionist airstrike on Palestinians in Gaza resulting in the death of eight people including several children, while giving comparatively extensive coverage of the possible Palestinian resistance attack in Jerusalem which has resulted in the death of one person. Respected commentator on Arab politics As'ad AbuKhalil takes up this issue:
The sinister role of Aljazeera (Arabic) has gotten worse -- much worse. Yesterday, I was seething all day because it could not break from its annoying, obsessive non-stop coverage of the Libya story to report extensively about the Israeli murder of Palestinian children. Aljazeera and Al-Arabiyyah (station of King Fahd's brother-in-law) barely covered the story and both were covering extensively the Libya story and the "successes" of Western bombing of Libya. Worse, today, as news of the explosion in Jerusalem came, Aljazeera did end its Libya coverage (albeit temporarily) and provided non-stop live coverage of the news of the explosion. It seems that Aljazeera now operates according to the Western standards by which Israeli victims are more precious than Palestinian victims.
The fact that AJE, having contributed to a deepening split within the Palestinian political family through the publication of the Palestine Papers, has descended to this level in reporting on Palestine leaves one with the feeling that AJE no longer has the Palestinians' interests in its editorial line.
The Arab region is seeing the development of people's movements, incorporating many political influences, albeit saddled with the inevitable counter-revolutionary meddling of Western intelligence and Western intelligence-influenced forces. The potential for justice, development, and independence might now become a little greater if a fledgling anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist movement could develop. But here we are up against AJE and Al-Jazeera Arabic (both promoting the exact same narratives), making themselves useful to the successful conduct of a Western war of aggression against Libya, a small Islamic, Arab, African, and Third Worldist nation. They are both giving cover to Western powers' arms sales to the region, belittling the people's movements in the Gulf (even using the sectarian card through the 'I' and 'S' words: Iran and Shia), i.e. in the most important strategic area for the West, and now even playing along with the West in its reporting of the Palestinian Revolution. AJE and Al-Jazeera Arabic have in the past few months, and more so in the past several weeks, shown themselves as being little more than a slightly more liberal version of Western neo-colonialist hegemony in the region, a valuable tool for a Gulf state loyal to the West; and they are getting away with it for the most part as they are still basking in the reflected glory of the sacrifices of other people's struggles in the region.
Multi-polar Media Crucial
Before the arrival of Al-Jazeera, and especially AJE, English-language satellite media was dominated by a West hostile in its reporting to our people's rights. Western media, reflecting Western foreign policy, has always been and generally remains hostile to the Global South's struggle for independence, the right to successfully exercise power to use our natural wealth and environment, developing a world of mutual cooperation and friendship, i.e., a multi-polar world which is the most important democratizing development in international relations ever seen in the history of humanity.
With this trend of growing multi-polarity we are seeing the emergence of greater numbers of satellite stations of the emerging powers: AJE representing the Arab and Islamic world (notwithstanding the critical analysis of it here), Press TV of Iran; Russia Today of Russia; NDTV of India; CCTV-9 of China; and so on. In the Libyan crisis Russia Today was the sole critical voice from the start of the pro-West rebellion there. China's position against aggression against Libya has been probably the most crucial of any emerging world power in the BRIC nations (all of whom have been against the aggression against Libya), and CCTV-9 of course conveyed the Chinese position. Just as we need to develop a multi-polar world, we also need more multi-polar media. One looks forward to the African Union or ASEAN having its own channel. There have been murmurings between the Venezuelan state and the Non-Aligned Movement to start an English-language channel also. Perhaps Venezuela, with the progressive Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), could promote much-needed internationalist, pro-working peoples, pro-Global South creative and professional English-language programming to the world. This is something that is increasingly important, as we are still not winning the media battle in line with the deep anti-imperialist changes occurring in the world. Meanwhile, the power of Sky, Hollywood, deeply misogynistic, violent, and racist gaming, videos, film, and music is shaping the mind of every adult, youth, and child who has a laptop or smart mobile anywhere in the world.
In other words, it is still the West which is using media to its benefit through interfering maliciously in others people's affairs, with AJE now joining in this agenda too.
Vigilance is important in understanding the real agenda behind stations, but especially so in the case of AJE of late, whose obvious politicking is surprising in its audacity. Every nation in the Global South has its agenda, and Qatar, the state behind AJE, has its own. Qatar has not always supported the regional resistance; in the past decade it has had friendly relations with Hizbullah and Hamas, but it still supported the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. One must remain cognizant of the great danger posed by Qatar's close proximity to Western hegemony and also its relations with the most reactionary, undemocratic, and brutal states in the Arabian peninsula. That is an inescapable fact. The real challenge lies in the ability of the viewers to critically reflect on AJE, despite its reputation of having introduced a more in-depth and intelligent discourse to the mainstream.
AJE has crossed several red lines of anti-imperialism, and anti-imperialism is absolutely central to every successful Arab struggle, from the battles led by Saladin centuries ago, to more recently Nasser and to our contemporary Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. It remains to be seen how much the staff at different levels of AJE, as well as the different senior sections of the Qatari monarchy, deal with the inevitable backlash against them. Can AJE disentangle itself from the neo-colonial and despotic pro-Western and pro-Zionist Gulf and Arab regimes? How will people respond when they are told by AJE that, despite all the people's movements rising against the firmly pro-Western regimes of Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and generally in the Arabian peninsula, actually the real 'revolutions' are happening only in the West's official enemies, against the regimes of Libya and Syria? In the last decade, history has begun to move faster, so we will know the answers to these and many other questions sooner than we might think.