Cairo: Over 18 days early this year, the Al Jazeera network and its main arm in Egypt Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, alongside social media, played a crucial role in changing political life in Egypt.
Founded in 1996 and funded by Qatar, Al Jazeera was supported by many Egyptian revolutionaries. Demonstrators in Tahrir Squar chanted for it. Also, Al Jazeera staffers were feeling proud that they contributed to the Egyptian revolution with their work and coverage. They made the network the most popular channel in the country.
However, when the now ousted president Mohammad Mursi pushed through an unpopular consistution last November, many Egyptians found themselves flipping from Al Jazeera to other Egyptian networks. Distrust over its coverage reached unprecedented levels and took it from being the most popular to the most hated channel — its staff were now feeling embarrassed as their reputation was dragged through the mud.
A senior official at Al Jazeera who did not want to be named said that while the network appeared to be a neutral media network it was still a political tool in the hands of the Qatari emir. “He personally visited the studios during the Iraq war to make sure no footage of dead of abducted soldiers was aired. It was clear he was under US pressure,” the official said.
“In a special meeting in 2009 attended by some media seniors in Doha, the Emir said that Egypt’s regional role must be ended forever,” said another official. “When the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would field deputy chairman Khairat Al Shater as a candidate in the elections, the news team slotted it as the second story in the news bulletin, but then upon special request from the Emir’s palace, it was bumped up to the first news story.”
A producer claimed that when people started complaining and accusing Al Jazeera of favouring Islamists in Egypt, the station started to exclude any outspoken political analysts and opponents of the Brotherhood from appearing on its screen. On the other hand, he said, video reports that propped up Mursi and the Brotherhood’s image were welcomed by management in Doha. Anchors who used to interrupt the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents in live interviews were judged as excellent.
The perceived bias prompted many leading journalists and TV anchors to leave the network. Aktham Suliaman, the German-based correspondent who left the station recently, told the German magazine Der Spiegel: “Before the beginning of the Arab Spring, we were a voice for change — a platform for critics and political activists throughout the region. Now, Al Jazeera has become a propaganda broadcaster.”
Another Beirut-based correspondent said that “Al Jazeera takes a clear position in every country from which it reports — not based on journalistic priorities but rather on the interests of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar. In order to maintain my integrity as a reporter, I had to quit.”
Ghaffar Hussain, contributing editor to The Commentator wrote last February: “Since the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power in Egypt, Al Jazeera has done everything to portray the group in a positive image. Protests against the Brotherhood-dominated regime are presented as being led by violent thugs without political grievances, while Mursi’s poorly constructed and shallow speeches were covered positively.”
About one hour after the announcement by the Defense Minister Abdul Fatah Al Sisi that the constitution had been suspended and authority had been transferred to the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Al Jazeera’s Live Egypt service, Al Jazeera Mubasher, was taken off air on July 3.
Many Islamist channels were immediately closed, but Al Jazeera continued broadcasting. Two days later, a Cairo prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Al Jazeera News director Abdul Fattah Fayed. He was charged with “threatening public peace and national security through broadcasting incendiary news”.
Fayed was detained for two days and then released on bail.
More than 22 Al Jazeera employees in Egypt resigned on July 8, objecting to their employer’s editorial line. The resignations came on the same day that an estimated 51 Mursi supporters were killed outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. Egyptian security forces arrested about 27 employees of Al Jazeera Live Egypt. They were released two hours later. Ayman Gaballah, the channel’s managing director, was freed three days later.
Security sources said the arrests were based on failure to obtain necessary authorisation to work in the country.
An anchor at Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, said that the lack of professionalism in the media coverage of turmoil in Egypt was the reason behind his resignation. “I felt that there were errors in the way the coverage [of the Republican Guards headquarters clashes] was done, especially now in Egypt we are passing through a critical phase that requires a lot of auditing in terms of what is being broadcasted.”
He added that his colleagues resigned for the same reasons.
Another employee said: “Perhaps there is no specific direction in favour of the Brotherhood, but the affiliation of most workers to this group may confer the biased news coverage.”
The editorial staffers felt that their reputation as professionals was sullied. One of them said that “the coverage over the last few weeks was the tipping point — especially the airing of extreme speeches over the last few days, which have added to the crisis Egypt is seeing right now. There has been a strong insistence of airing unacceptable statements by some parties, as well as giving much more space and air time to one group than another”. Wesam Fadhel, a reporter, resigned and in a Facebook post wrote: “I resigned from Al Jazeera today. It’s lying openly. They are showing old footage from an empty Tahrir Square and saying it was live and they are airing the scenes for hours. When I asked a senior about the reason he said “this is none of your business”. Al Jazeera cameras were in Tahrir live then. Sadly I used to work in a place which I thought had credibility but [I now realise] its credibility is based on a despicable political stance.”
Hegag Salama, a 10-year veteran reporter, said that Al Jazeera had “become an enemy of Egypt”. He accused it of “airing lies and misleading viewers”. In the media world, Al Jazeera has long been perceived as being close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and whether the accusations of biases are true or not, it appears to be severely hurting the network’s ability to report on the crisis in Egypt. At a joint press conference by officials from the army and the police on July 9, Egyptian journalists expelled Al Jazeera’s Cairo Bureau Chief Abdul Fattah Fayed. Journalists chanted: “Al Jazeera get out!” prompting Fayed to leave the conference hall.
The channel confirmed that programme host Tarek Agglan and broadcasters Dina Moussa, Karem Mahmoud, Doha Al Zohairy, Fatma Nabil and Hassan Abdul Ghaffar, along with the channel’s editor-in-chiefs Manal Mahmoud and Ahmad Abdul Rauf, also submitted their resignations in protest against the channel’s policies. “Seventeen employees resigned en mass after the channel’s management insisted on editorial line that we considered as a clear bias for a particular party in the middle of a political conflict,” a senior employee of Al Jazeera Mubasher said.
“Five others offered their resignations individually. We didn’t have any choice but to resign after the management in Doha rejected the commitment to generally accepted professional standards, insisting on the continuation of the current editorial line,” another employee added.
— The writer is is a journalist based in Cairo