Al-Jazeera: how dark are the clouds?

By Harry Hagopian
August 11, 2017

My maternal grandfather was a news junkie. From the moment he would wake up in the morning, his ‘transistor’ radio never left his side. He constantly turned the dial and jumped from one station to another in quest of news and more news. And in the evening, it was the turn of the TV that leapt from one news channel to another.

My memory as a tiny toddler chasing his grandfather puppy-like in our big house was of wooden tones with turgid headlines coming out of those sound boxes that were meant to reflect regional realities. But as I grew up, I realised that those channels were truly no more and no less than mouthpieces for their governments and had nothing to do with real news and ordinary citizens’ concerns. An example was the Six Day War of 1967: if the news were to be believed, the Arab armies should have gobbled up the tiny state of Israel with hardly any sweat. But the bitter truth, the Naksa, tells a different story!

Then, in 1996, those staid realities changed dramatically. A news outlet, Al-Jazeera, was founded in Qatar that was no longer subserviently parroting  the official and prolix statements of the Arab leaders. It was provocative, probing, questioning, defiant, with a broad spectrum of programmes, and it was an irritant for those whose power was being challenged by this broadcasting novelty. Suddenly, ordinary men and women in the Arab World sensed that Al-Jazeera was reflecting their angst and their bitterness. It was echoing their frustrations and personifying their political impotence. Here was a satellite channel that was showing some fresh respect for their dignity as thinking Arab men and women.

Is it any wonder that it became so popular as it covered the length and breadth of the Arab World? Is it also any wonder that it infuriated those potentates and powers that thought they could not be challenged by the masses? Any wonder too that Arab passions were inflamed as they saw Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon or the bloody Arab uprisings on their screens? A process of decompression set in as the Arab masses acknowledged that Al-Jazeera was challenging their despotic rulers.

But Al-Jazeera was also accused of incitement. It was anti-Egyptian but pro-Muslim Brothers, anti-Palestinian Authority but pro-Hamas, anti-Assad in Syria but pro-the Islamists. The examples became more numerous, and its popularity see-sawed as events and interests fluctuated in the region. Other satellite news channels attempted to emulate Al-Jazeera, both in the Arab World and elsewhere, but many of them failed because they were identified - rightly or wrongly – by viewers as being sycophantic tools of the powerful, the rich and the institutional.

My grandfather was dead by now, but as I watched Al-Jazeera, I realised that it felt the pulse of the Arab streets. There were exaggerations, transgressions, inconclusive prejudices and political fixations, but its coverage was a notch or two above others because it simply connected with the ordinary peoples. It reached out to the many in both substance and style.

Then another crisis! The GCC crisis of 2017 suggested that some Arab countries had enough of the Al-Jazeera untameable coverage and wanted it banned – swatted out of the way. How  those countries made this demand (among 12 other demands) with a straight face is a mystery to me, but it epitomised the harrowing mentality of those who wanted to snuff out an imperfect, at times biased, but nonetheless vigorous channel that delivered to millions? Freedom of expression for them? Bah! Journalistic ethics? Pfft! Yet, with the tools of social media, the world had become wiser to such shenanigans.

Now, Israel too seems intent on banning Al-Jazeera too. Aided and abetted by the attitudes of some Arab countries, why should it not do so? If some Arab governments do not wish to see Al-Jazeera on their screens or in their countries, why should Israel? But this is dangerous, not merely because it rends the fundamental and lofty freedoms of any society that claims to be democratic. After all, we are living in a world where the nasty world ‘populism’ is not so nasty anymore! But more importantly, it is because what happens to Al-Jazeera today could – in fact does in many countries – happen to other news outlets let alone NGOs or individuals too. After all, did the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller not remind us rather alarmingly of what happens when we do not stand in solidarity with each other?

We are going through a dangerous phase when authoritarianism, repression and jingoism dressed up as nationalism or better still as patriotism are on the rise again. The counter-revolution that ensued the ‘Arab Spring’ is desperately trying to put the nascent genie back in its bottle. Yet, news outlets are not here to assuage our consciences or sate our desires; rather, they are food for thought that viewers and auditors watch or listen and then decide to accept or spurn at will.

Trying to ban Al-Jazeera does not in my opinion pinpoint the foibles of this broadcaster. Rather, it underlines much more the scared frailties of its protagonists. With spurious words such as terrorism, incitement or security being bandied around that are inexorably darkening the clouds of repression, might I remind my readers of the axiom attributed to Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall or other, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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