Eight years after Al Jazeera English launched as the Arab world’s counterweight to CNN Intl. and BBC World, the Doha-based 24-hour news network, now airing in 130 countries, is still in expansion mode despite a few setbacks — perhaps most notably having three of its journalists jailed in Egypt — and the perception by some that its reporting is biased.
Furthermore, its sister channel, Al Jazeera America, is finding that the U.S. market, after a little more than a year, is proving a tough nut to crack. But difficulties do not seem to be dissuading the deep-pocketed TV news service, funded in part by the Qatari government, from forging ahead.
“As an 8-year-old in a very mature market, there is still clearly always room to evolve,” said Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey recently at the network’s stark state-of-the-art headquarters in Doha. “You want to continuously finesse and challenge your own journalism, and make sure you have integrity that underpins everything you do.”
That integrity, however, has come into question. Since its outstanding coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 that, at the time, earned AJE praise from Western media circles and the U.S. State Dept., there’s been quite a swing in perception.
While AJE reported the attacks on French magazine Charlie Hebdo with balanced professionalism, leaked internal memos revealed that staff members had conflicting viewpoints on the attack. “Was this really an attack on ‘Free Speech’? Who is attacking free speech here exactly?” asked executive producer Salah-Aldeen. To which Paris senior correspondent Jacky Rowland answered: “We are Aljazeera. So, a polite reminder:#journalismisnotacrime.” The emails revealed what AJE must weight every day: the balance between its Arab roots and the Western correspondents it employs.
“There is more internal debate in Al Jazeera English than at any other company I’ve worked for,” wrote Anstey in his blog, commenting on the heated Charlie Hebdo exchanges. “That is a good thing and a foundation for our journalism.”
More important, no outside criticism was leveled at the network’s coverage.
However, AJE’S reporting surrounding the ouster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and of the civil war in Syria did not meet with universal approval, with some observers claiming it exhibited pro-Islamist sympathies, and leaned toward Qatar’s sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs.
Although most of the negative comments are aimed mainly at the separately run Al Jazeera Arabic, which has lost some standing in the region, the negative perception has rubbed off on AJE.
“On the Arab channel, the philosophical ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are much more clear,” said Arab media scholar William Youmans of George Washington U. “With Al Jazeera English, it’s much more complicated.”
Unveiling Al Jazeera’s new studios in London’s iconic Shard building in November, Anstey delivered a passionate speech maintaining the channel is “wholeheartedly independent of the Gulf State.”
The tiny, oil-rich emirate has recently made moves to distance itself regionally from its previous championing of Islamist movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. In November, the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, visited the U.K., and refuted allegations that Qatar was funding the Islamic State. And in an effort to thaw relations with Egypt in late December, Qatar shut Al Jazeera affiliate Mubasher Misr (Egypt Direct), considered an outlet for the Brotherhood and other opponents of Egypt’s military leadership.
On Jan. 1 Egypt’s highest appeals court ordered a retrial for Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste, the three AJE journalists who have been behind bars for more than a year on charges of conspiring against the Egyptian state and reporting “false news.”
USC professor Philip Seib, author of a study on Al Jazeera and its effect on world politics, noted that the trio’s imprisonment is directed less at the network than the nation that supports it. “It’s a slap by the Egyptian government at the Qatari government, not so much at Al Jazeera,” Seib explained. “But this is one of the problems of being so closely identified with the government.”
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s global footprint is growing. Along with Al Jazeera America, new units Al Jazeera Balkans and online operation Al Jazeera Turkey have sprouted in recent years. In Nigeria, 3 million people switch on Al Jazeera English every day, Anstey boasted.
In the U.S., recent reports of cutbacks at Al Jazeera America, launched in August 2013 and reportedly averaging less than 20,000 viewers, have been countered by announced plans for new New York digs in 2016 and more office space in Washington, D.C., which the American offshoot would share with AJE, likely to play a bigger part in the U.S. channel’s programming schedule.
One thing about Al Jazeera America that makes Anstey proud is that the network has reporters spread all over the country, he claims, reflecting the rich cultural diversity within the U.S. Most contributors to the main American networks are instead based “within a cab ride of New York,” he maintains.
“The climb is steady,” he added, but it takes time.”