I think people have become generally bored with the Arab Spring. It has taken much longer than initially expected, mutated into different movements and uprisings across the globe, launched a major counter-revolution, caused 2 wars and unending bloodshed, gave rise to political Islamists, pushed many government and news outlets to show their true colors (which aren’t necessarily pretty), and divided friends and family over their positions regarding “revolution” or change in general. Even the way in which its image was initially created out of necessity – mobile and youtube videos – is now somehow seen as being not reliable enough as a credible source of news for events taking place on the ground.
People want a fresh take on things. A new fix. Clearer images and better reporting. On the ground activists who have a background in international journalism. News corporations without government backers. Unbiased non-sectarian political analysts. A totally free press. No sneaky agendas whatsoever.
However – and it is unfortunate to say so – we don’t live in such an ideal world today, and for that matter I don’t recall we ever have done so before, especially in the Arab world.
Sultan Al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati social media commentator / now turned political analyst, has written this scathing article on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya’s biased coverage of events in Syria.
He states that both networks are consistently only reporting one side of the conflict, that they are pushing their own governments agendas (Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s respectively) through this biased coverage, and that their use of activists youtube videos on the news is akin to CNNs ireport and just as unreliable. Al Jazeera, once a poster child of the Arab Spring revolutions, has now lost credibility with this new take on Syria according to Sultan, a “shadow of its former self” he said, losing revenue in advertisements because of showing hours of uncorroborated youtube videos uploaded via activists with “shady backgrounds”. Because of the obvious agendas at hand, Sultan has flattened the playing field between these networks and their opponents – for example Syrian state TV or Iranian Press TV – in that they back one side over the other this “civil war” as he put it.
Though I agree with some basic points made, there are some contradictions in this article that need to be addressed thoroughly, taking into account Sultan’s stance on previous revolutions.
The first thing that caught my eye was the actual terminology used – “civil war”. No matter how messy things have gotten in Syria, many Arabs still see the Syrian conflict as an uprising / revolution against a brutal dictatorship, a continuation or progression of the Arab spring that started in Tunis. It is a hard fact that if these uprisings didn’t happen across the Arab world, Syria would not be where it is today. To only label Syria as a “civil war” but the other uprisings as something else entirely, delegitimizes and demoralizes the shared idea of “the people want the fall of the regime” that continues to perpetuate itself there. When Gaddafi was killing his people in Libya, hardly anyone – apart from a handful of anti-imperial conspiracy theorists – labelled the Libyan uprising as a “civil war”. Why do we do so with regards to Syria? Because it is more bloody? Or because of its geopolitical importance in the region?
I wonder, if Mubarak had actually ordered those F16s flying over Tahrir Square to fire on his people (which he could have if he was as brutal as Assad), war would have erupted in Egypt. Would we be referring to that as a “civil war” today or an armed revolution? Or is the Syrian revolution ‘just not popular enough’, like As’ad Abu Khalil (or As’ad Abu Khara – “As’ad who is full of Sh*t as some Syrian activists call him) in this Al-Akhbar article? Symbolism plays a strong role in political events, and even if that symbolism is reduced to two words, it has a strong impact on the observer, revealing perhaps the moral standpoint or “direction” of the author more than anything else.
Another interesting point was how Sultan claims that Al Jazeera was a more reliable source of news before it began reporting on Syria. Though I’d like to believe it, this idea itself is far removed from reality. Since its inception, one can safely say that Al Jazeera was the most controversial, provocative news channel on the Arabian satellite airwaves. In its regular broadcast it referred to Jerusalem as “occupied Jerusalem”, had analysts and politicians screaming at each other with occasional fist fights on its “opposite direction” talk show, and it was the first station to exclusively air Osama Bin Laden’s videos post-911. In Kuwait in the late 90s, we also had a conspiracy theory circulating that it was being funded by Saddam Hussein, so many Kuwaitis boycotted the channel altogether.
During the Arab spring, Al Jazeera’s popularity exploded because it was the only channel that continuously broadcast the entirety of the revolution from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya. Its dramatically edited inserts between news segments about events that were taking place was something new to see in a news channel broadcast. It was sensational, moving, and shaped the imagination of its viewers about current events (Al Arabiya was also quick to copy these inserts to catch up on the “drama” that it was missing out on).
In other words, the agenda was already there for everyone to see. Al Jazeera already had a completely pro-revolution, one-sided biased position by all standards. Neutrality never existed. The only difference was that if you – the viewer – were for or against the revolution when you tuned in. At the time, a regime sympathizer or “felool” would not watch Al Jazeera, in the same way a pro-Israeli would not watch it either.
However, despite its already clear agenda, one cannot claim as Sultan has done that Al Jazeera has not gone far enough to deliver quality reporting and images of the events taking place. Western media outlets were far, far behind Al Jazeera’s coverage of the dizzying everyday reality of the Arab spring. Despite many governments shutting down their offices and banning them from entering, Al Jazeera always found ways to sneak in reporters and show us on the ground reportage, often putting correspondents in harms way to do so. I still remember very clearly its reporting from Tripoli when rebels were advancing on Gaddafi’s Bab Al-Aziziya compound and its correspondent Abdul ‘Atheem Mohammad was reporting from inside the compound armed with a bullet proof vest and helmet, shouting erratically as machine guns were being fired all around him. A few days ago in Syrian city of Aleppo as well, their reporter Omar Khashram was shot at and injured while delivering his report.
Ethically speaking, I do not know if a news network should really put its staff in danger zones as much as Al Jazeera has done, but it is certainly unethical to demand of them to do more than they already have done to deliver these images.
As for their use / or recycling of “unreliable” activists youtube videos to show the situation on the ground, this is actually their method of choice since the beginning of the Arab spring, whether it was in Egypt or Libya or Tunisia, so I wonder why Sultan feels this should change only when they report on Syria? Moreover, this is actually a phenomenon that did not begin with Al Jazeera nor the Arab Spring. This began with most Western well-trusted media outlets when the Green Revolution was taking place in Iran in 2009. Every news network imaginable was airing activists videos of demonstrations, clashes with police, even deaths, posted on youtube as a viable source of information (never mind reliability) when all other means were blocked. Since then, youtube reporting has become a main-staple of citizen journalism that was later adopted by activists during the Arab spring, among other movements across the globe. Labeling this entire movement / change in the way images are delivered to us as simply “unreliable” or equivalent to CNN’s ireport does not take into account this entire process of how we got to this point.
Sure, some videos are fuzzy and not clear. Sure, some videos are recycled. But this does not put into question the “medium” itself, whether it comes from a camera or a mobile phone, that many activists risk their lives to deliver to us. As far as I know, when big agendas are at play, any regular TV-quality footage or photographs can be skewed and distorted just as much, or am I not thinking straight?
As far as Al Arabiya is concerned, its real litmus test of bias appeared much, much earlier than its coverage on events in Syria. We all first saw it in crystal clear technicolor vision when it was covering events in Bahrain. I remember this report when their correspondent was deliberately provoking protesters into a fight to present a picture that they are either violent or sectarian groups. Or when the F-1 was taking place there and some sparse reports appeared on other news channels of demonstrations happening, Al Arabiya was in complete denial of any such reality. In other words, Al Arabiya clearly did and still does have an apparent agenda, but this did not start with Syria at all.
In conclusion, even though there is a difference in the amount of bias a news channel spews out on its viewer, I don’t recall there being an outlet that is completely unbias in its coverage, especially when such events come too close to home and political stakes are so high. Even the BBC itself, when riots were breaking out all around London, it suddenly changed face and transformed into an Arabiya-esque biased network all by itself for a limited-time-only offer.
However, it is too far-fetched to claim that any of these networks can come close to the bias of “opponents” as Sultan put it, which in my interpretation would be the Syrian state-funded networks or the Iranian regime ones.
For comic relief, I will post this report from Syrian state TV that claims that Qatar has produced a replica of Damascus and Aleppo and Daraa in Hollywood studios costing 36 billion dollars, so that Al Jazeera can stage and fake its reportage of events in Syria. Because this was so comical, some activists posted a photoshopped picture online of the Hollywood hills with a sign in front of it pointing to the Qatari replica studio called “Assad is Duck Really”. Surprisingly, Assad regime sympathizer Al-Dunya TV picked up on this joke and aired it as a reality. Also, after the explosions in Damascus that killed Syrian defense and interior ministers, Iran’s Press TV immediately “produced” a report that claimed the Saudi intelligence building was struck by an explosion, and the newly appointed intel chief prince Bandar was killed, just to, you know, fire back with a “counter-reality”.
So is the bias playing field really as equal between these networks, Sultan? As far as cockamamie stories go: No, I beg to differ.