19 August, 2013

The Rise and Decline of Al Jazeera

One day in 1997, I was watching the 7.30 evening news on Al Shariqah TV when a Tunisian friend of mine came, and without explaining why - he flipped the news channels on to Al Jazeera Arabic news; he said: 'now you can watch real, advanced, honest, unbiased news in Arabic'. Until then, I had never known or heard of Al Jazeera. He was right: Al Jazeera was refreshing, aggressive, fearless and very focused and objective in its reporting; and above all - it was in Arabic and very unique and revolutionary in the way it presented news. From that day onwards, I was hooked to the news channel. Later, when its many other channels started airing, I got very used and comfortable with them too; this included their sports, documentary and live (Mubashar) channels; and then came the similarly exceptionally unique Aljazeera English News Channel.

It wasn't only me who was hooked on to Aljazeera, wherever I went in the Arab world - Aljazeera was the news. It was very common and normal for people in Hadhramout to say, Aljazeera when they meant the news. Aljazeera was synonymous with the news. Arabs trusted and relied on the channel completely. Several other competitors sprang up, but they were no match for the Qatar based channel. It was too powerful, too aggressive, fearless, very objective, very down to earth and too advanced and above all - too trusted by Arab viewers, for any other news channel to compete with it. As for me, I came to rely on it wholly for news in Arabic; in January, 2009, I wrote on this site .......Al Jazeera - or Al Jazira - has always been fearless, at times - reckless, and has never backed from presenting dissenting or controversial news or views; Al Jazeera has always been innovative and has always lead. And when in late 2006 its sister channel - Al Jazeera English was launched, I came to like it and rely on its just as much; so much that since its launch, whenever I wanted to reference for news on this blog, Al Jazeera English has always been my first and foremost choice.

Al Jazeera's greatest moments were when it presented the 2010 World Cup on its sports channels, live and free for Arab viewers and then a few months after that, in early 2011 - Hosni Mubarak was toppled and Aljazeera was at the center of that and very much assisted in having that happen. Add to these two events, the other revolutions that were taking place across the Arab world and the channel was playing pivotal roles in all of them - Al Jazeera was at its greatest height and had the most Arab viewers during this period.

At the same time, for the last two years or so, I began hearing dissenting voices against Al Jazeera; first, from my Egyptian and then Syrian friends and colleagues. My Egyptian friends didn't like the way the channels were very openly and aggressively supporting the ouster of Hosni Mubark (most, liked and preferred the man) and believed that if he left, Egypt would have trouble; while I very much believed that it was time Mubarak left. As for the Syrians, events in Syria had deteriorated so much that they had fled their homeland; they thought that Al Jazeera was not helping matters there.

For some times now - for reasons that I have failed to understand, against itself and against what it meant to so many of its viewers - Al Jazeera has lost direction and is no longer that very reliable, very trustworthy channel it once was. For some unexplained reasons, the news channels (both in English and in particular in Arabic), have become as biased, as mainstream as the many news channels out there. I know that all news presented have to present certain views; have to be biased in a way. But, after Al Jazeera having been what it was and being trusted as it was - it has lost many if not most of its viewers (Arabic in particular) in the last one year due to its now manifest subjectivity.

Al Jazeera, be it its main news services or live news 'Mubashar', has lost direction and no longer presents objective opinions from both sides of the story and lets you viewer decide and judge; they have become so narrowly focused and opinionated that it is hard to trust it. It chooses who to side with and whose views to advance more, irrespective of who its dedicated viewers are and what they expect. Both on its news and live channels, particularly in Arabic, it openly, aggressively sides with one side. On its live 'Mubashar' channel, it would focus and present certain live events and completely ignore others as if they never took place however important the live events were; or however large the attendees were. This kind of presenting news has made it rapidly loose many viewers - especially in Egypt, in Syria and in Yemen.

Then - in the last two or so years, several locally owned channels have been launched in Egypt, Yemen, Sudan and around the Arab world; with local issues and opinions very much as their main focus. This has very much taken many viewers away from Aljazeera. Several International news channels, in Arabic, have also been launched or have become more active: Al Mayadeen (which is even more biased and subjective), BBC Arabic, CCTV Arabic, Russia Today Arabic, France24 Arabic, Sky News Arabic - all these are now competing with Al Jazeera and have taken away a very large percentage of Aljazeera's viewers; the BBC Arabic, Sky News Arabic and Al Mayadeen seem to have been the main beneficiaries. I now find many people who were very dedicated to Aljazeera, watching these news channels.

I still watch the many Al Jazeera channels some times, but can't help wondering: with its enormous resources, where is Al Jazeera heading to? Why has Al Jazeera become so unprofessional and so narrowly focused to the detriment of many of its viewers? And why would it take a course that would make it loose so many of its viewers? Isn't having as many viewers as possible essential for any news channel, however powerful or wealthy that channel is?