Sunday, November 15, 2009

Al Jazeera: Ticking off authority figures since 1996

Gilboa and Powers' chapter "The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera" provides a helpful overview of the history of the network and insight into the controversies surrounding its "internal" and "external" roles. On the one hand, Al Jazeera has attracted a lot of flak for providing a forum for political and cultural dissent and the discussion of topics considered taboo in the Arab world. On the other hand, since 9/11 the network has been accused by formerly quiet international bystanders such as the U.S. for fanning the flames of anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world.

Gilboa and Powers' example of “political fatwas” issued by Saudi Arabian clerics against Al Jazeera highlight the contrast between the idea of a free press that Al Jazeera represents to its target audience and the pressure for conformity and maintenance of the status quo espoused by political and religious leaders in the region. It is interesting that the Arab governments mentioned in the chapter would sever ties with Qatar, suggesting that despite the network’s self-identification as independent, these regimes consider the family that holds the company’s purse strings either responsible for or at least somewhat in control of the network's message. Even in their response to Al Jazeera's expression of journalistic freedom, these authoritarian antiques are constrained by the old paradigm of state-controlled media and their own rusty rhetoric. (Al Jazeera "controlled by Zionists"? Please.) Of course, Al Jazeera has received criticism both domestically and from other Arab states for not putting the spotlight on issues facing Qatar itself, lending a hollow ring to its claims of independence. Nevertheless, it has definitely managed to deliver hefty helpings of open discourse and dissent on issues relevant to the international Arab and Muslim community. In a political environment that suppresses the free press and demands loyalty to the ruling regime, this is an accomplishment, too. The Gallup poll and Zogbi/Telhami poll cited in the chapter both indicate that Al Jazeera is in a powerful position due its reputation as a trustworthy source for news, and is the first place viewers in the region go to get their information.

In contrast to the responses of Arab states over controversial coverage and content, the U.S. has treated Al Jazeera as an influential media outlet rather than an appendage of Qatar. From what I understand, the U.S. actually has good diplomatic relations with Qatar, so perhaps there is dialogue about the network's coverage going on behind the scenes. I think that the most likely explanation for the U.S.'s choice to address its complaints to Al Jazeera and not Qatar, however, is that Al Jazeera both presents itself to the world and is accepted by its audiences as a regional representative on the international stage (72). The network sets the parameters for internal discourse, and has branding power over the actors and issues included in that discourse. The chapter is full of quotes and examples of the influence Al Jazeera has over public opinion-- and not just in the Arab or Muslim world, but among other people dissatisfied with "Western" media coverage as well. It is because of this serious framing power that the U.S., mired in two wars in Muslim countries and a global effort against jihadi terrorism, takes such an interest in the message the network conveys. Gilboa and Powers say that the criticism of Al Jazeera, “especially from external sources,” only serves to make the outlet more popular among Arab audiences (62). If that's the case, then it's no wonder that Al Jazeera is a go-to source for news from Cairo to Karachi and beyond.

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