Magazine article Variety

Al Jazeera English's Fight for INDEPENDENCE

Magazine article Variety

Al Jazeera English's Fight for INDEPENDENCE

Article excerpt

Eight years after Al Jazeera English launched as the Arab world's counterweight to CNN Inti, and BBC World, the Doha-based 24-hour news network, now airing in 130 countries, is still in expansion mode despite a few setbacks - perhaps most notably having three of its journalists jailed in Egypt - and the perception by some that its reporting is biased.

Furthermore, its sister channel, Al Jazeera America, is finding that the U.S. market, after a little more than a year, is proving a tough nut to crack. But difficulties do not seem to be dissuading the deep-pocketed TV news service, funded in part by the Qatari government, from forging ahead.

"As an 8-year-old in a very mature market, there is still clearly always room to evolve," said Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey recently at the network's stark state-of-the-art headquarters in Doha. "You want to continuously finesse and challenge your own journalism, and make sure you have integrity that underpins everything you do."

That integrity, however, has come into question. Since its outstanding coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 that, at the time, earned AJE praise from Western media circles and the U.S. State Dept., there's been quite a swing in perception.

While AJE reported the attacks on French magazine Charlie Hebdo with balanced professionalism, leaked internal memos revealed that staff members had conflicting viewpoints on the attack. "Was this really an attack on 'Free Speech'? Who is attacking free speech here exactly?" asked executive producer Salah-Aldeen. To which Paris senior correspon- dent Jacky Rowland answered: "We are Aljazeera. So, a polite remmder:#journalismisnotacrime." The emails revealed what AJE must weight every day: the balance between its Arab roots and the Western correspondents it employs.

"There is more internal debate in A1 Jazeera English than at any other company I've worked for," wrote Anstey in his blog, commenting on the heated Charlie Hebdo exchanges. "That is a good thing and a foundation for our journalism."

More important, no outside criticism was leveled at the network's coverage.

However, AJE'S reporting surrounding the ouster of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and of the civil war in Syria did not meet with universal approval, with some observers claiming it exhibited pro-Islamist sympathies, and leaned toward Qatar's sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs.

Although most of the negative comments are aimed mainly at the separately run A1 Jazeera Arabic, which has lost some standing in the region, the negative perception has rubbed off on AJE.

"On the Arab channel, the philosophical ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are much more clear," said Arab media scholar William Youmans of George Washington U. "With A1 Jazeera English, it's much more complicated. …

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