A scandal that shook Qatari news channel Al Jazeera this afternoon – in which 22 of the the station’s staffers in Egypt resigned over what they allege is editorial control from Doha enforcing pro-Muslim Brotherhood coverage – is the latest in a series of controversies that have battered the station’s reputation as an independent news outlet.
There are longstanding debates over Al Jazeera’s independence from Qatari rulers.
Some media watchers insist that the station maintains editorial independence from Doha. The claim is that Al Jazeera’s boardroom and newsroom are too large, sophisticated, and entrenched to be dictated to by Qatari rulers.
Others point to evidence, such as a Wikileaks cable signed by then-U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Joseph LeBaron, in which LeBaron described Al Jazeera as “one of Qatar’s most valuable political and diplomatic tools.” The Doha embassy also reported on a conversation between then-Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, under which Qatar would stop Al Jazeera from broadcasting negative coverage of the Mubarak regime “for a year” in exchange for Cairo altering its position on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The Arab Spring brought a new round of criticism to bear on Al Jazeera. The station was accused of promoting the foreign policy of the Qatari emir from the Gulf to North Africa. Arab commentators were already noting last year that it had “become routine to be sent dozens of Internet links that direct you to professional, political or moral scandals associated with what Al-Jazeera broadcasts.”
Today’s resignations may bring renewed and unwelcome scrutiny to the station’s news gathering and broadcasting. Anchor Karem Mahmoud explained the resignations had come as a protest against “biased coverage” of the events in Egypt, explicitly emphasizing that “there are instructions to us to telecast certain news.” In recent days Al Jazeera had already seen another Egyptian commentator and several of its staff in Doha resign.
Al Jazeera is preparing to launch Al Jazeera America this summer, after taking over Current TV. It will rent office space and editing facilities from the Newseum, a Washington, D.C. journalism museum that was engulfed in scandal in May after it announced plans to honor two Hamas terrorists as journalists killed in the line of fire.
[Photo: CMDavid / Wiki Commons]