Since its first appearance, the Arabic network of Al-Jazeera has been the target of many different critics. Some say, the channel supports terrorism; others praise it as the first free and independent Arab media.
Al-Jazeera has been funded by Qatar since its beginning and it is now led by a member of the Qatari royal family; the question which then arises is whether Al-Jazeera is as independent as it claims.
This paper analyses the relationship between Qatar and Al-Jazeera. Therefore, firstly Qatar’s foreign affairs and interests are presented, and then a comparative analysis of Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab spring follows. My thesis states that Al-Jazeera functions as an instrument for Qatari foreign policy or is at least heavily influenced by it and is consequently not able to present balanced reporting independently. Using the examples of Libya and Bahrain, this essay shows that the tendencies of Al-Jazeera’s coverage match the respective tone of Qatar’s foreign policy. Additionally, it looks more deeply at the replacement of Wadah Khanfar, ex-director of Al-Jazeera who has been replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family.
Al-Jazeera is an Arab broadcast network which unites several different channels under its roof, the two best known being the news channels Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera English. News is additionally distributed over a live stream on Al-Jazeera’s website, a YouTube channel and Twitter. The original Arabic channel was launched 1st November, 1996 – the English sister followed ten years later. Both are broadcasted to more than 100 countries, mainly the Arab-speaking part of the World and reach a viewership up to 220 million (Al Jazeera English, 2003). At the networks first emergence it was broadly received as an alternative to the rest of the Arab media, which was up to this point state-controlled and therefore heavily censored. Al-Jazeera is owned by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer/bin Khalifa Al-Thani who has granted the network a start-up of $137 million US dollars (Miles, Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV news challenged the world, 2005). In the following years “hundreds of millions of dollars annually” [Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara (Tharoor, 2011) ] were invested by the Emir.
Corresponding to their motto “The opinion and the opposing opinion”, Al-Jazeera set up a code of ethics which indicates balanced and independent reporting as well as the guarantee that no political priority should be held over the professional one.
Qatar and its foreign policy
The state of Qatar is situated on the Arab Peninsula; it shares a border with Saudi-Arabia, apart from that it is surrounded by the Persian Gulf. Qatar gained independence in 1971, before that it had been a British Protectorate. Since then, the country has been ruled by the Al-Thani clan, the current head of state being Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Although Qatar is ruled as an absolute hereditary emirate, it has been the first country in the Gulf region to hold democratic elections over certain authorities within the regime. Being a rather rich state, Qatar counts a GDP of $182.004 million – this has its roots primarily in oil resources and extensive fields of natural gas.
Miles compares the ruling emir to “a managing director, running a large corporation” (Miles, Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV news challenged the world, 2005); indeed Sheikh Hamad has been very forward in pushing his ‘trademark’ Qatar to an important position on the world board. In addition, he takes a stand for women’s emancipation, resulting in their right to vote, to drive without company and to take part in the Olympics. Those achievements may seem self-evident to a Westerner, even the Muslim ones, but in the region they are rather rare. Furthermore, he established a very high standard of education in Qatar and he campaigns freedom of speech and press, with the establishment of Al-Jazeera as his showpiece. Though his activities clearly modernized the country, no political parties or any other kind of opposition to the regime are tolerated. This means that Qatar’s accomplishments in recent years depend on the current emir, who happens to have progressive and agreeable interests which he follows. If a descendant, and therefore a future emir would think differently, Qatar might not be able to sustain its open-minded position.
Qatar’s foreign policy has been summarized by Miles as consistently “trying to get along with everyone” (Miles, Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV news challenged the world, 2005). This is quite accurate since three types of stabilization are the main goal of Qatar; first the stabilization of Qatar’s position worldwide, second stabilizing the current emir’s ruling position within Qatar and third the stabilization of Qatar’s region.
Sheikh Hamad stated that his country “should be ‘known and noticed’” (Miles, Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV news challenged the world, 2005). This thought is mirrored for example in the fact that Qatar is the only Arab state in the region not having diplomatic, but at least commercial relations with Israel (Cafiero, 2012). Moreover, Qatar hosts the largest US military base of the region, consequently ensuring the cooperation of the U.S. (Akhmetov, 2012). Hence, secure and peaceful ties with all the ‘global players’ are important for Qatar’s Emir.