What's the Problem With Al Jazeera?

The most popular news channel in the Arab world sits uneasily at the center of the Qatar crisis.

Staff work inside the headquarters of Al Jazeera Media Network in Doha, Qatar, on June 8, 2017.
Staff work inside the headquarters of Al Jazeera Media Network in Doha, Qatar, on June 8, 2017. (Naseem Zeitoon / Reuters)

Earlier this month, managers at Al Jazeera, the most popular news channel in the Arab world, summoned nervous journalists into a glass-paneled conference room in the network’s headquarters in Doha. A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia had just imposed an embargo on Qatar, closing its airspace and expelling thousands of Qatari citizens. One of the conditions for lifting the blockade, according to a list leaked on Thursday, was reportedly the closure of Al Jazeera. The network’s leadership wanted to reassure its staff that their jobs were safe. “We’re not planning any changes right now,” journalists were told, according to two participants in the meeting. That left quite a bit unsaid. (I resigned from Al Jazeera English in mid-2013 after working there for nearly four years.)

Closing the station was an extreme demand, like the others on the 13-point list released late this week. Taken as a whole, the list asks Doha to do nothing short of change its entire foreign policy. The crisis shows no signs of ending—because, as the Al Jazeera matter illustrates, it is a chance for Qatar’s neighbors to air grievances they have harbored for years, if not decades.

Founded in 1996, Al Jazeera quickly rose to prominence by offering a medium for freewheeling debate and criticism of the region’s aging, authoritarian rulers. The one exception, of course, was reporting on Qatar itself, where the network took a noticeably light touch. In 1999, when the longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak visited its cramped studios, he was said to remark, “all that noise from this matchbox?”

Along with reporting the news, though, Al Jazeera has also spent a good chunk of its 20-year history making it. The Saudis recalled their ambassador from Doha in 2002 after the network aired a panel discussion featuring dissidents from the kingdom. Other countries have periodically expelled Al Jazeera journalists and tried to block its satellite signal; Egypt arrested three staffers in 2013 on sham charges of reporting false news and terrorism, and held them in custody for more than a year. But the current crisis—the demand for its complete closure—is unprecedented.

Despite the headaches it caused, Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel (AJA) was a useful instrument of soft power for a tiny state that once tried to stand apart from both its neighbors and the region’s internecine feuds. Doha used to be a sort of Geneva-on-the-Gulf, the place where everyone went to hash out their differences. It wasn't uncommon to see camouflage-clad Sudanese rebels taking high tea in the lobby of the Four Seasons. Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian factions, signed a reconciliation deal in Qatar. Lebanese leaders did the same in 2008, ending an 18-month standoff in Beirut.

At the start of the Arab Spring, both the emirate and the network shifted gears. They initially backed the uprisings, then narrowed their focus, throwing their support behind the Islamist groups that tried to fill the vacuum. It was a risky bet for Qatar, one that quickly backfired. Within two years, the Islamists had either provoked a backlash in Tunisia and Egypt or found themselves embroiled in ruinous civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

There was, and still is, a vast gulf between AJA and Al Jazeera English, which was launched in 2006. They share a name, but little else, even operating out of separate buildings across the street from each other. Their editorial lines are also sharply different. In February 2011, days after Mubarak resigned, citizens of Bahrain started their own anti-government protests, led by the country’s Shia majority, which has long suffered under an official policy of discrimination. Saudi Arabia soon sent troops to help quash the uprising, which Gulf leaders viewed—without any credible proof—as an Iranian plot to undermine a fellow monarch. AJA largely stuck to the official line. The English-language channel was far more critical, and even won a Peabody Award for a documentary on the brutal crackdown. I made several trips to Bahrain myself, and never felt any pressure to change my reporting.

The climate changed in the summer of 2013, after the Egyptian army overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the elected Muslim Brotherhood president. On August 14, as security forces were brutally clearing a pro-Morsi sit-in, an Al Jazeera English presenter asked a Brotherhood spokesperson a valid question: why were women and children still present at a protest that would inevitably be targeted by the authorities? The anchor was almost immediately pulled off the air and reprimanded for being insufficiently sympathetic to the group. For months, she was barred from presenting the news and relegated to a pre-recorded chat show. There was also an internal struggle over how to cover that summer’s protests against Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Still, much of the English programming remains fair and objective—adjectives that no longer apply to its Arabic sister channel. Shortly after the coup against Morsi, Ahmed Mansour, a prominent anchor, was quoted on the Brotherhood’s website as saying that the interim Egyptian president was a Jew carrying out an Israeli plot. Faisal al-Qassim, another presenter, once hosted a segment on whether Syria’s Alawite population deserved genocide. In 2014, the channel’s Iraqi affairs editor tweeted approvingly about the Camp Speicher massacre, in which the Islamic State killed more than 1,500 air-force cadets in Tikrit after singling out the Shia and non-Muslims. Some journalists quit in protest; the ones who remained continue to push a sectarian, pro-Sunni Islamist line. Though Al Jazeera is still widely watched, its reputation has been tarnished as its ratings have dropped.

Much of this does not bother Saudi Arabia, which is, after all, the wellspring of the ultraconservative Sunni ideology that has become so prevalent on AJA. The kingdom’s own satellite channel, Al Arabiya, has hosted some of the same sectarian voices, like Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian cleric who once promised to “chop you [Alawites] up and feed you to the dogs.” It also has a reputation for simply making things up, like this unbylined June 7 piece about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard protecting the Qatari emir’s palace.

The list of 13 demands presented to Qatar this week is revealing. The first item, which asks Qatar to cut ties with Iran, is a red herring: While they maintain cordial relations—a necessity, because the two countries share a massive natural gas field—they are hardly close. Doha also trades far less with Tehran than Dubai does, a fact that has gone strangely unmentioned on Al Arabiya in recent weeks.

The rest of the list says nothing about Iran, however. Instead, it directs Qatar to sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis and their allies view as a domestic political threat, to end joint military cooperation with Turkey, and to halt contacts with the “political opposition” in other GCC countries and Egypt. The Saudi-led coalition also wants Qatar to halt funding for media outlets like Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood network that has published embarrassing audio leaks about Egypt’s President Sisi, and Middle East Eye, a London-based website that often writes sympathetically about the Brotherhood. (The latter denies that it receives any Qatari money.)

Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, said the list was the result of “serious mediation” led by Kuwait. The Qataris see it as a set of unreasonable, maximalist demands, asking them to abandon their foreign policy and align themselves completely with their neighbors and rivals. They are unlikely to accede. It is all a sad denouement to the Arab Spring: six years after a wave of pro-democracy revolutions, the latest crisis roiling the region is a spat over, among other things, which Arab autocracy will control the airwaves.