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Hitched to Qatar’s rising star, Al Jazeera takes a bumpy ride skyward

Since the Arab Spring, the Qatari government has started playing a bigger part in regional policy and the relationship between patron and broadcaster carries a bit more baggage.

It’s mid-afternoon as Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, takes a brief respite from the news to recall a whirlwind year.

As a wave of Arab uprisings swept the region, Egyptian revolutionaries broadcast the channel live on giant screens in Tahrir Square. Rebels in Benghazi gave reporters a hero’s welcome in Libya. And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly credited the channel for helping her to stay abreast of the upheaval.

In short, Al Jazeera televised the revolutions, and the world tuned in.

Yet three fallen leaders and more than a year later, it’s not just Al Jazeera’s audience that has grown. So, too, have its critics. Founded by the Qatari emir in 1996, the channel’s main detractors early on came from the West, where its penchant for broadcasting Al Qaeda messages and portraying graphic images of the US-led war in Iraq irked many, including former President George W. Bush.

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But since the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s previous success has been amplified and the Qatari government has started playing a bigger part in regional policy. Suddenly, the cozy relationship between patron and broadcaster carries a bit more baggage.

“It’s important to take seriously where the funding of this network comes from,” says Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center. “You’re basically talking about a journalistic organization that by definition has a conflict built in.”

Such criticisms have indisputably grown — that Al Jazeera downplayed uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and overemphasized certain Islamist groups’ perspectives in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, all seemingly in line with Doha’s foreign policy interests. Concerns about Al Jazeera’s independence were amplified when the station’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, resigned in September and was replaced by a member of the royal family.

Serious as they are, however, such accusations are also a sort of backhanded compliment — an acknowledgment of the impact that the network now has. Viewership is higher than ever, reaching 260 million households in 130 countries.

“If you’re doing your job right as a journalist, people are going to criticize you,” argues Anstey.

There has also been praise, however, as Al Jazeera has grown into a full-fledged network. The Boston Globe ran an editorial last week commending Al Jazeera’s “maturity” for not broadcasting a video Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah made of his murders of three children, a rabbi, and three soldiers. “The decision is not only humane, it marks an important milestone in depriving terrorists of a propaganda tool,” the Globe wrote.

‘Without Al Jazeera, [the Arab Spring] couldn’t have happened’

When Al Jazeera was launched just over 15 years ago, it transformed the Arabic press.

Back then, Qatar played a bit part in regional politics, so its funding rarely raised eyebrows. Mr. Khanfar, who spoke to an audience at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb. 24, described “a convenient relationship between an institution [Al Jazeera] that needed funding and needed at the same time freedom, and a government that thought that by hosting and supporting this organization, they can also gain good branding and good reputation.”

But as Al Jazeera grew, the channel — and its relationship with the Qatari emir — became more controversial.

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Not long into the Arab uprising, the government of  Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak kicked Al Jazeera’s reporters out. Struggling to keep up with events, Al Jazeera journalists back in Doha turned to social media, analyzing, scrutinizing, and rebroadcasting reams of videos and Twitter feeds.

The resulting coverage — the most comprehensive and up-to-the-minute of any station — made Al Jazeera the undisputed leader covering the uprisings. Some say it was also responsible for transforming the protests into full-fledged uprisings. The more who saw the protests on Al Jazeera, the more they felt emboldened to join — and to broadcast their own images on social media.

“Without Al Jazeera this [the Arab Spring] couldn’t have happened,” argues Wanda Krause, head of the Gulf Studies program at Qatar University.

Coincidence? Al Jazeera coverage parallels Qatari interests.

At the same time that Al Jazeera was proving its chops, Qatar also dove head first into regional affairs. As rotating head of the Arab League during the revolution in Libya, Doha leveraged its natural gas wealth and its negotiating skills to arm rebels and secure a United Nations Security Council resolution to protect civilians. Today, Qatar is spearheading efforts to win similar international support for the opposition in Syria.

To some viewers, the coincidence of Qatari policy and Al Jazeera’s aggressive reporting on Libya and Syria seemed too close for comfort, particularly when other revolutions — those that hit closer to home for Qatar and its Gulf allies — got less attention.

As daily reports streamed in from the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the Syrian border, Al Jazeera “forgot there was a country called Bahrain for three or four months,” recalls Mehran Kamrava, director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Others are more measured in their criticism. Ahmed Souaiaia, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Iowa who has written extensively about Al Jazeera in the Arab Spring, says he believes the Qatari-friendly glaze was evident mostly on the Arabic channel, which is geared toward a regional audience.

Anstey and Khanfar have defended their Bahrain coverage, noting that the station was trying to cover five revolutions in a limited amount of time. “We did not give the same weight to the Bahrain story,” Khanfar admitted in the forum at MIT, explaining that he believed Bahrain was not a revolution but a sectarian conflict. “[Bahrain] did not end with a majority — and overwhelming majority of people — who could revolt against the regime.”

That explanation will hardly allay criticism, however, since the government’s campaign of sectarian repression also played a key role in tamping down protests, which were predominately Shiite — reflecting the country’s large Shiite majority, who have long felt sidelined by the country’s Sunni leaders.

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Arabs ‘very adept in flipping channels to find truth’

For the moment, Al Jazeera appears to be going nowhere but up. It plans to open a Balkan channel and a Swahili channel soon, the first language channels since English was introduced in 2006. Other languages, such as Spanish, may follow.

Anstey knows it’s the audience who will ultimately decide the broadcaster’s fate. “Yes we are headquartered here, [but] we are wholly independent from the state of Qatar,” he maintains. “Our coverage absolutely demonstrates to our viewers that we are impartial.”

Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online at Al Jazeera English, told the February panel at MIT that the channel has already proven itself able to ask hard questions of Doha; the channel broadcast several reports questioning Qatar’s readiness to host the 2022 World Cup.

If viewers perceive a bias, real or imagined, Al Jazeera and its critics alike know the stakes.

“The Arab peoples are used to state-controlled media and it will not be a shock for them to see Al Jazeera sliding back into that category,” says Prof. Souaiaia. “They are very adept in flipping through the channels to find the truth.”