Where now for Al Jazeera?

With the clo­sure of Al Jazeera Amer­ica, the prob­lems fac­ing the Qatar-based net­work seem starker than ever

Campaign Middle East - - FRONT PAGE -

With the clo­sure of Al Jazeera Amer­ica, the prob­lems fac­ing the Qatar-based net­work seem starker than ever as it faces ac­cu­sa­tions of bias and de­creased fi­nanc­ing.

At the tail end of last year Al Jazeera launched a cam­paign de­signed to drive un­der­stand­ing, re­spect and tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ent opin­ions and be­liefs. ‘We Are Al Jazeera’ marked the be­gin­ning of the net­work’s 20th year of op­er­a­tion and in­cluded a re­gional ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign, new pro­gram­ming and a call for so­cial me­dia en­gage­ment. It of­fered a promis­ing start to a land­mark year fol­low­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of par­ti­san re­port­ing and a de­crease in the brand’s over­all al­lure.

How­ever, fast for­ward two months and the net­work has once again found it­self in the spot­light for all the wrong rea­sons. Al Jazeera Amer­ica, the satel­lite tele­vi­sion news out­let owned by Qatar-based Al Jazeera Me­dia Net­work, is to shut down less than three years af­ter its high-pro­file launch. The chan­nel will cease op­er­a­tions by April 30, cit­ing eco­nomic chal­lenges in the Amer­i­can me­dia mar­ket.

In a memo to staff, the chan­nel’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Al Anstey said: “[The] de­ci­sion by Al Jazeera Amer­ica’s board is driven by the fact that our busi­ness model is sim­ply not sus­tain­able in light of the eco­nomic chal­lenges in the US me­dia mar­ket­place.

“I know the clo­sure of AJAM will be a mas­sive dis­ap­point­ment for ev­ery­one here who has worked tire­lessly for our long-term fu­ture,” he con­tin­ued, us­ing the com­pany acro­nym. “The de­ci­sion that has been made is in no way be­cause AJAM has done any­thing but a great job. Our com­mit­ment to great jour­nal­ism is un­ri­valled.”

Anstey added that Al Jazeera would ex­pand its dig­i­tal pres­ence in the United States and that the ex­pan­sion “would bring new global con­tent into Amer­ica”.

The de­ci­sion to close fol­lowed in­ter­nal con­flicts within the US of­fice and the oust­ing of chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Ehab Al Shi­habi in May last year. Al Shi­habi’s fir­ing was pre­ceded by months of job cuts and staff ag­i­ta­tion that cul­mi­nated in a $15 mil­lion dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit and the loss of three fe­male ex­ec­u­tives. The broad­caster also stood ac­cused of bias against non-Arabs and women.

While this may be con­sid­ered merely a side show, the fail­ure of Al Jazeera Amer­ica high­lights deeper prob­lems at the broad­cast­ing net­work. In­deed, there are many ques­tions sur­round­ing Al Jazeera, not least how a net­work funded by the oil wealth of the Qatari royal fam­ily can thrive – or even sur­vive – when the price of oil now sits below $30 a bar­rel.

Where does it stand in com­par­i­son with its hey­day of the early 2000s, and how has its brand im­age di­min­ished? Has a par­ti­san, pro- Mus­lim Broth­er­hood stance de­stroyed its rep­u­ta­tion? Has the fail­ure of Al Jazeera Amer­ica added salt to the wound and ce­mented Qatar’s rep­u­ta­tion as a gi­ant in­cin­er­a­tor for turn­ing petrodol­lars into ash? Where, in short, does it go from here?

“Qatar has not just failed to cap­i­talise on the good­will it earned with Al Jazeera, it ac­tu­ally seems hell­bent on de­stroy­ing it,” says Alis­tair Crighton, a Gulf- based me­dia con­sul­tant and for­mer editor. “What was once ar­guably the strong­est brand in the Middle East is now a by­word for mis­man­age­ment with the Ara­bic chan­nel in par­tic­u­lar dis­trusted in the Middle East for its ridicu­lously skewed agenda on Egypt, Libya and Syria.

“Given that, the de­ci­sion to roll out Al Jazeera Amer­ica – to a coun­try whose pop­u­la­tion fa­mously con­fuses Al Jazeera with Al-Qaeda, and into a bru­tally c om­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place – was doomed from the start, re­gard­less of the qual­ity of the news out­put.

“Where Al Jazeera goes from here is any­one’s guess. What­ever good­will re­mains lies with the sur­viv­ing English chan­nel. But amid con­stant ru­mours of job cuts – and in­creas­ing edi­to­rial tam­per­ing and self-cen­sor­ship – staff morale in the chan­nel’s Doha head­quar­ter is pretty much at rock bot­tom. Given Qatar’s cur­rent econ­omy drive, it’s hard to see that sit­u­a­tion im­prov­ing any time soon.”

How­ever, Rami Khouri, a found­ing mem­ber and se­nior pol­icy fel­low of the Is­sam Fares In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy and In­ter­na­tional Affairs at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut, and a colum­nist at the Beirut-based

news­pa­per, be­lieves Al Jazeera still has a ma­jor role to play.

“Al Jazeera has cer­tainly lost a bit of its lus­tre in re­cent years be­cause of its par­ti­san at­ti­tudes in both news re­ports and its pre­sen­ters’ ques­tions and at­ti­tudes on air,” he says. “Its over-the-top cheer­lead­ing sup­port for the rev­o­lu­tions in Egypt and Syria es­pe­cially lost it some view­ers who pre­ferred a more neu­tral ser­vice. But it re­mains in my view a very se­ri­ous and use­ful broad­caster that is a must see for any­one in­ter­ested in Arab affairs, with an un­ri­valled net­work of cor­re­spon­dents.

“Its English global net­work is ex­cel­lent and less par­ti­san, and presents a much more com­plete and use­ful view of the en­tire world than any of the other global broad­cast­ers whose per­spec­tives tend to re­flect their own na­tional val­ues and in­ter­ests. Al Jazeera Amer­ica failed be­cause it was an am­a­teur­ish strate­gic de­ci­sion to try and en­ter a ca­ble news mar­ket in the US that was over-sat­u­rated and also los­ing cred­i­bil­ity with many view­ers. Its con­tent was fine, and of­ten in­no­va­tive in a good way but the mar­ket sim­ply was not there for it to grab. Its on­line ser­vice was ex­cel­lent and gen­er­ated a large au­di­ence and it will prob­a­bly play a ma­jor role in the re­launch of the ex­ist­ing English Al Jazeera in the US.”

What was once ar­guably the strong­est brand in the Middle East is now a by­word for mis­man­age­ment with the Ara­bic chan­nel in par­tic­u­lar dis­trusted in the Middle East for its ridicu­lously skewed agenda on Egypt, Libya and Syria.

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