Monday, May 12, 2008

Al Jazeera International is losing the plot

The news of the release of Al Jazeera cameraman, Sudanese national Sami Al Haj, from Guantanamo after six years in American detention offset a negative coverage of Al Jazeera in Western media - especially highlighting tension in its English-language channel.

Release of Al Haj was good news to all journalists and rights groups that campaigned to free him and Al Jazeera opponents were reluctant to use the event to repeat American and Israeli allegations accusing the Qatar-based media outlet of being a mouthpiece for "terrorists".

Good news then, yet it coincided with a case in front of a London industrial tribunal in which a British ex-employee of Al Jazeera claimed unfair dismissal and sought hefty compensation for alleged discrimination.

The claimant's husband, Steve Clark, also resigned recently from his position as head of news at Al Jazeera International. He was not the only senior journalist at the channel to leave recently in a sign of a growing tension there, and that prompted negative coverage in American and British media about Al Jazeera.

Press reports and comments meant to say that the launch of an English satellite channel in November 2006 exposed latent problems; as if employing British and American journalists caused a conflict of cultures and interests.

That does not look to be the true story at all, though the English channel really did not have the impact anticipated based on the experience of the main Arabic channel launched 12 years ago.

After long delays, postponements and over-budget the English channel from Al Jazeera was expected to be the main media outlet providing news service in English from an Arab perspective and satisfying non-Arabic speaking customers in different parts of the world who used to watch only pictures on the main Arabic channel during Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Unfortunately, this did not happen quite as expected and in some instances the new outlet is not much different from the BBC World satellite channel and even less than CNN and similar international news stations.

Editorial line

The idea behind Al Jazeera International is a great one, but it seems that putting it into practice was not that right. Watching it, you cannot see why you tune to it except for it is called Al Jazeera while content and editorial line is not the Al Jazeera we know.

It seems now that internal tensions are a bye-product of a blame-game between the Qatari owners and the expatriate management of the channel.

Whether the owners and the board of Al Jazeera network failed to put a concrete mission statement and clear goals to the foreign executives they hired, or those executive were not up to the job and did everything their way - which led to current situation - is an internal issue for Al Jazeera.

What concerns the audience is the output and getting what they expect from the renowned Arab media organisation.

Problems with Al Jazeera International should not mean that the idea of having an Arab media outlet in English to tell the world how we see it is not workable.

And these problems should be put into context, as it is consistent with the main Arabic channel of Al Jazeera losing some of its esteem already. In the last couple of years, Al Jazeera faced many challenges with its reaction to them reflected in its output.

First, it is no longer alone as the news only channel in the Arab world. Second, regional and international political shifts affected its editorial line - worth noting that Arab media is heavily politicised, with editorial and political intermingling a lot.

More than a decade ago, when first launched as the only free and much independent news channel in the region, Al Jazeera attracted tens of millions viewers.

Criticism from the Americans, the Israelis and Arab governments bestowed more credibility on the channel. Few years ago, senior officials in Washington, London, and Cairo or elsewhere were keen to appear on Al Jazeera to express their views and positions.

It is no longer the case now. In a drive to adapt to pressures and political shifts in the region, the channel seems to be diluting its line and bowing to accusations of populism and less professionalism.

Regrettably, its response is costing it the interest of viewers and not making up for the loss by getting those dedicated viewers of LBC or Dubai TV.

Dr Ahmad Mustafa is a London-based Arab writer.

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