Al-Jazeera: the Qatar broadcaster at centre of diplomatic crisis

24 Jun

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)
by Graham Ruddick, The Guardian
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based broadcaster that has found itself at the centre of the Gulf diplomatic crisis, was launched in 1996, and has since grown to become the most-watched TV channel in the Arab world.

It claims to broadcast to more than 310m households in more than 100 countries. The company employs more than 3,000 people and has a London studio in the Shard.

The broadcaster rose to global prominence after the 9/11 attacks in the US when it transmitted grainy video messages from Osama bin Laden. However, by this time it had already established millions of viewers in the Middle East by offering a dynamic rolling news service that audiences had not experienced before.

When al-Jazeera was launched, the then emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said journalists would “report the news as they see it”. Al-Jazeera still claims to have been the “first independent news channel in the Arab world”.

The launch of an English-language channel in 2006 was part of a dramatic global expansion that has led to the establishment of more than 70 bureaux around the world.

Al-Jazeera launched a US cable news channel in October 2013, but this proved to be the peak of its growth, for now at least.

Al-Jazeera America was closed last year amid dwindling viewing figures and a collection of lawsuits.

The company also announced it was cutting 500 jobs around the world, with most of the layoffs in Qatar. Like other media organisations, al-Jazeera has been forced to battle against falling advertising revenues. This downward trend in advertising has also coincided with a fall in the price of oil, which has lowered the value of natural gas in Qatar, and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani succeeding his father as the emir.

These factors appear to have made the ruling family more reluctant to continue pumping vast resources into al-Jazeera, with Sheikh Tamim preferring a different approach to diplomacy from his father’s.

Al-Jazeera was praised for its in-depth coverage of the Arab spring, which commenced in 2010, but since then has been criticised by other countries in the region for supporting pro-Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Three al-Jazeera journalists were jailed in Egypt in 2015 for reporting on events in Cairo.

The broadcaster has also been criticised for referring to Islamic State as “the state organisation”, rather than the Arabic acronym “Daesh”, and suicide bombers as “shaheed”, which translates as martyr in English. Al-Jazeera has denied this shows it supports extremism and said it is “not partisan to any ideology, group or government”.

Now Saudi Arabia has demanded Qatar close down the broadcaster as part of a threatening 13-point ultimatum as the price for lifting a two-week trade and diplomatic embargo.

Al-Jazeera has condemned the call for its closure as “nothing but an attempt to end freedom of expression in the region, and suppress the right to information”.

Journalist organisations around the world have expressed their outrage at the threats to al-Jazeera. In Britain, the National Union of Journalists said demands against the broadcaster were “shameful acts to clamp down on freedom of expression and the media” and pledged to raise the issue with “the relevant diplomatic representatives in London”.

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