Why Bahrain could damage Al Jazeera’s image

Ghanem Nuseibeh is a founder, partner and director at Cornerstone Global Associates

“Al Jazeera is the primary source of news for and about the Arab world. The recent Arab uprisings have mostly reconfirmed the channel’s distinctive position. The Arabic language channel is seen by both the protestors and the regimes themselves as vital for disseminating real-time information about the riots. But it is also being accused of incitement as it inadvertently becomes sympathetic to the rioters. In the absence of independent local media, the channel tries to be the independent source of information. But because of its pan-Arab reach, it is turning localised unrest into a pan-Arab revolution.

The Arab street has longed for a news organisation that is independent and answerable to none, and Al Jazeera seems to fit the bill. But one area of coverage is proving very difficult reputationally for Al Jazeera: Bahrain. Al Jazeera and other Gulf-sponsored news organisations barely reported the start of riots. Even when the events in Bahrain became top story in international media, Al Jazeera relied mainly on newswire reports. The Bahrain riots were later given the top story slot on the English language channel, and second story on the Arabic channel. Al Arabiya similarly refrained from giving the story adequate coverage. Many viewers were disappointed, especially given the proximity of Bahrain to Qatar and the UAE. It was only after some criticism that Al Jazeera started reporting about Bahrain, though in no way comparable to the way it reported Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. Despite being banned in Egypt, Al Jazeera went to great lengths to provide non-stop live coverage of events. It did not do that in Bahrain.

Al Jazeera has established itself as a world-class news organisation, but because of Bahrain’s proximity to Al Jazeera’s home-base, Qatar, its impartiality is being severely tested. Unless it can address concerns about its coverage of Bahrain, Al Jazeera will suffer reputation damage. The questions that arise from Bahrain are about how Al Jazeera handles and prioritises events.

The issues do not reflect on the journalism of the reports themselves, but can cast doubt on the impartiality of the channel itself. Al Jazeera is coming of age and facing the invariable tests of any large organisation that has to manage competing expectations from its different stakeholders. But the best way to deal with such complexity is to act consistently with one set of values. Al Jazeera’s Code of Ethics states that the channel “adheres to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity, giving no priority to commercial or political over professional consideration”.

The Bahrain coverage has put this into question, not because of journalistic bias, but because of a complex relationship between the organisation’s multiple stakeholders. The sooner Al Jazeera addresses this, the less bumpy it will find the road ahead as it further consolidates its leading position.”




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