Wednesday, March 28, 2012

al-Jazeera follow-up

Today, the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, which has been on the forefront of Middle East media criticism regarding the "Arab Spring," published details into al-Jazeera's editorial position on Syria.
They focus on the period from November 2011, when a significant shakeup occurred at the top of the Doha based editorial board, through today.
When the former director general Wadah Khanfar left in September 2011, the channel’s administration changed.  The Egyptian-born Ibrahim Helal was then appointed as head of news.  He replaced an Algerian, Moustafa Sawwaq, who was appointed as director general of the Arabic channel.  Another Algerian, Mohammad Safi, was appointed as director of input instead of the Jordanian Mohammad Daoud. Abdul Haq Saddah, also from Algeria, was appointed as head of planning.  These changes came as a result of an internal settlement of accounts. Thus begins the era of the hawks in the Qatari news channel.
They write that Helal originally attempted to reform al-Jazeera's coverage of Syria, which he viewed as "unprofessional" and too heavily focused on opposition-provided casualty counts, which Helal did not trust:
The killing of French journalist Gilles Jacquier in Homs on 11 January 2012 led to Helal losing his composure. Rather than highlighting Jacquier’s death, the editorial department focused on the numbers of Syrians killed and exaggerated the number. Helal thought this was purely sensational.  He sent out a letter entitled “The Killing of the French Journalist” on 12 January 2012. It was highly critical of the “obsession” and “celebration” of “the death toll.” He stressed the sanctity of Al Jazeera’s slogan and insisted on “not adopting a position just to appease viewers.”
Helal's attempts at reform, however, failed to take hold, as the al-Akhbar article states "senior employees admit in their private circles that no one who works for the channel can express opinions on Syria contrary to those of the Qatari emir. Otherwise, they will be ostracized and humiliated until they leave."  This seems to be the case of Ali Hashem, the al-Jazeera Beirut correspondent who resigned earlier this year over the channels editorial dictates on Syria.

The most interesting part of the article details al-Jazeera's "Syria Desk," which was created in November 2011 and has complete control over the satellite channel's reporting on Syria, as well as access to opposition spokesmen.  Evidently, the desk is run by Syrian national Ahmad al-Abda, the brother of Anas al-Abda, a member of the Syrian National Council and theorist for the Muslim Brotherhood.  The article states that within the channel, he is known as Ahmed Ibrahim, in order to hide his controversial family ties.
The desk’s main work revolved around developing stories and choosing activists and eyewitnesses to interview.  It later encouraged activists to hold short nighttime protests in several locations, to be carried live during the news reports. The goal was to claim that demonstrations are happening continuously, even at night.  The Syria desk would also oblige every newscast to interview activists from Syria, even if there is nothing new. They would ask them to speak about past events just to incite against the regime.
The charge that al Jazeera "encouraged" protests fits neatly into the French CF2R Observer mission, which sent a delegation to Syria in December 2011.  Here, they detail numerous examples of misreporting in Syria by al-Jazeera and its fellow Gulf network al-Aribya, including examples that can be understood as the product of collusion between the protesters and the television networks.

  • In Latakia, on 9/11/11, the television networks announced at 2 AM that gun-battles had begun, however the fighting did not start for another two hours.
  • In Damascus on 9/23/11, the television networks announced major demonstrations at Abbasside Square.  However, these demonstrations occurred the following weekend.
  • In Douma, in November 2011, the television networks announced at 1:30 AM that Government security buildings had been bombed.  But when Syrian TV networks investigated an hour later, they found no evidence of any bombing.  Then, at 3 AM, the building was bombed.

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