AL JAZEERA, the Qatari satellite television network that revolutionised Arab news coverage a decade ago, has long defied its critics. No other network has seen its bureaus both bombed by the American air force and torched by Egyptian revolutionaries. None has been damned by so diverse a range of governments and politicians. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi blasted it for fomenting revolution. Syria’s embattled regime accused it of building Potemkin sets of Syrian cities to stage fake anti-government protests. And Al Jazeera was recently described on Fox, a rival American news network, as an “anti-American terror mouthpiece”.
Since launching a 24-hour Arabic satellite news channel in 1996, Al Jazeera has added others devoted to sports, documentaries, local news and children’s programmes, as well as a widely admired English-language current-events channel. Although Al Jazeera English is popular in the State Department cafeteria in Washington, the network’s unfair notoriety as a supposed promoter of jihadism has largely shut its channels out of the broader American market. But its recent purchase of Current TV, a cable network partly owned by Al Gore, a former vice-president, for a reported $500m may extend its footprint to 40m American households, paving the way to launch another dedicated local service, Al Jazeera America.
Yet amid this expansion, boosted by controversy and a seemingly bottomless well of royal Qatari cash, Al Jazeera has been steadily losing ground nearer home. Numerous pan-Arab rivals sprouted to grab a viewing share with a copycat mix of flashy graphics, daring reportage and sizzling debate. And global media firms such as Bloomberg, News Corporation and CNN have pushed into the Arab market.
Ironically, the Arab revolutions that Al Jazeera gleefully promoted have produced a challenge to its dominance. Audiences in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia are now gripped by fast-moving local events more ably covered by independent national channels that have proliferated rapidly in a freer political climate, along with internet-borne social media.
Moreover, Al Jazeera Arabic’s vaunted reputation for even-handedness has withered in recent years. The repressed voices it once daringly aired, particularly of Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, speak now from positions of power. Qatar, once a weakling in the Gulf, has grown hugely in wealth and clout, partly thanks to the soft power of its satellite arm. But Al Jazeera’s breathless boosting of Qatari-backed rebel fighters in Libya and Syria, and of the Qatar-aligned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have made many Arab viewers question its veracity. So has its tendency to ignore human-rights abuses by those same rebels, and its failure to accord the uprising by the Shia majority in Qatar’s neighbour, Bahrain, the same heroic acclaim it bestows on Sunni revolutionaries.
It is not just viewers who notice. When Sultan Qassemi, a pundit in the United Arab Emirates, wrote an article last year noting the channel’s pro-Brotherhood bias, he said dozens of Al Jazeera staff sent confirming e-mails. Not a few such people, including star correspondents in Beirut, Berlin, Cairo, Moscow and Paris, have quit in recent years. Even Al Jazeera English, with a solid reputation built since its birth in 2006, is not immune. In September its staff protested after being told to promote a speech by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, at the United Nations in New York as its lead item. Al Jazeera America will not win hearts and minds like that.