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The Evolution of Al-Jazeera in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings

May 12, 2011

Is Al-Jazeera having its own "Arab Spring"?

The so-called “Arab Spring” is not only transforming the relations between people and their government, but it is also transforming regional media in all kinds of interesting ways.  The uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have transformed not only the Egyptian media, but also global Arab news giant Al-Jazeera.

In January, Al-Jazeera began 24-hour news coverage of events in Egypt, followed by round-the-clock on-site coverage of events in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. These efforts brought millions of new viewers to Al-Jazeera.

But they came at a cost. The network jettisoned several of the controversial talk shows that had been among its top rated shows in the Arab-speaking world. These include:

  • From Washington, hosted by Abdul Rahim Fakara
  • In Depth hosted by Ali al-Zhafiri.
  • The Opposite Direction, hosted by Faisal al-Qassem
  • The Shari’a and Life, hosted by Sheikh Al-Qardawi
  • Without Borders, hosted by Ahmad Mansour

The decision to cover the Arab popular revolutions round-the-clock made these programs superfluous, the channel’s general director, Mr. Waddah Khanfar, stated at the time. Al-Jazeera made a decision that its future lay in the offering live news coverage rather than commentary.

It was a decision with major ramifications. These talk shows had sparked controversy and galvanized audiences by covering taboo topics, hosting call-in shows allowing people from regimes with strict censorship an opportunity to speak, broadcasting dissenting views, and putting controversial figures on the air.

But the decision was not made in a vaccum. Al-Jazeera’s success had spawned competitors like Al-Arabiyya (2003), Al-Hurra (2004), and BBC Arabic (2008), which modeled their formats to a large extent on Al-Jazeera’s. But Al-Jazeera had always also cultivated a reputation for gutsy news coverage. The station first gained worldwide attention for this when it was the only channel to cover the US invasion of Afghanistan live from within the country. Its coverage of the Iraq War gave viewers images of the war not available on US television. The Arab uprisings gave Al-Jazeera an opportunity to transform itself by focusing on what it could do better than its competitors.

Moreover, many critics within and without the network claim that the transition to an emphasis on live news coverage is coming at the cost of the channels professionalism and commitment to objectivity.

The last two months have seen in rapid succession the resignations of Hafez al-Mirazi, director of the Washington office, Yosri Fouda, host of Highly Confidential show, Abdul-Aziz Abdul Ghani, director of the Cairo office, Youssef al-Sharif, director of the Istanbul office, Akram Khazam, director of the Moscow office, and anchorwomen Joumana Nammour, Louna al-Shebl and Lina Zahreddin…

The most publicized has been the resignation of Tunisian journalist Ghassan Bin Jiddu, high-profile host of the “Open Dialogue” show and manager of the Beirut office, who came to prominence during coverage of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

All these resignations are signs of perceived changes Al-Jazeera’s positions, but they will also have interesting effects on the world of Arab broadcasting, as the best professionals from Al-Jazeera join the ranks of its rivals–I heard Khazam joined Al-Hurra and Al-Sharif joined Al-Arabiya–or even become the opposition: Bin Jiddu is said to be in negotiations with a number of wealthy Arab businessmen about starting a new Arab channel to rival Al-Jazeera.

Al-Jazeera seems to be having its own “Arab Spring.”

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