(Corrects 12th paragraph in article published Sept. 26 to say Khanfar not Haddad supported the Islamist role)
By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
Sept. 26 -- With the sudden departure last week of the news director of Al-Jazeera, commentators in the Arab world were full of theories about what direction the region's most-watched TV network might take.
Wadah Khanfar resigned as head of the Qatar-based network after a WikiLeaks cable described his October 2005 meeting with an official from the U.S. embassy in Qatar to discuss coverage of the Iraq war. According to the memo, he told the official he had removed three images of wounded civilians from the Al-Jazeera website and would remove another piece in a few days, all at the request of the Americans.
A number of commentators defended Khanfar's actions as a worthy effort to improve the professionalism of Al-Jazeera, while others said it ruined his credibility. Most of the debate, however, was about the future of the network under Khanfar's replacement, Sheikh Ahmad Bin Jassim Bin Mohammad al-Thani, a former Qatar Gas executive, leading member of the Qatari royal family and political unknown.
Many were nostalgic for the network's heyday, in the mid-2000s. During that period, the Emir of Qatar, who finances and hosts Al-Jazeera, was on the outs with the Saudi royal family, so he allowed the network to carry anti-authoritarian voices, including those critical of Saudi policies. As'ad Abu Khalil, a columnist for the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar daily and a professor of political science at California State University, wrote:
The network thrived and grew when the conflict with Saudi Arabia gave it a wide margin of freedom, when it was able to articulate the grievances of most, if not all, Arabs.
In 2007, however, the two Persian Gulf monarchs achieved a rapprochement that included reining in Al-Jazeera. Wrote Abu Khalil:
The Saudi-Qatari alliance has severely limited the parameters of acceptable debate on the network and has made it yet another propaganda outlet for another Arab potentate.
Most recently, Al-Jazeera has been a voice for change, albeit selectively. The network, like the Qatari government, has played a prominent role in pushing forward the uprisings against governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, though notably not in Bahrain, the monarchy next door to Qatar.
Layal Haddad, culture and society columnist at Al-Akhbar, expects a renewed push by Qatar's emir to use Al-Jazeera as an instrument of his country's more assertive foreign policy. ``With a member of the royal family appointed to the position, the channel's independence will likely be compromised,'' she wrote.
Many commentators expect to see Al Jazeera championing not just a change agenda, but an Islamist change agenda. Wrote Abu Khalil:
The network is increasingly keen on pushing the Islamist line of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. This may not necessarily kill the network, but it will substantially change its audience and reputation.
Others thought Khanfar's departure weakened the network's Islamist leanings. In addition to losing credibility due to the Wikileak, Haddad wrote, Khanfar was said to have run afoul of a close friend of the Emir, Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab who was formerly a member of the Israeli parliament. This conflict, Haddad wrote, played out along Arab nationalist-Islamist lines, with Khanfar supporting the Islamist line and Bishara the Arab nationalist position.
Does it really matter all that much who sits at the top of Al Jazeera? Hussam Eddin Muhammad, a columnist for the Palestinian-owned, London-based paper Al-Quds al-Arabi, doesn't think so. He wrote:
This channel has accumulated huge symbolic capital, to the point where its name can be placed next to international ones such as Google, CNN and BBC. It has become a massive and complex apparatus whose direction cannot be altered with the changing of individuals, even if the individual is the head of the network. Therefore, to those who love Al-Jazeera, I say, be reassured. And to those who hate it, I say, worry even more!
At the same time, Al-Jazeera is less important these days in part because the field is more crowded.
According to the Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group, the number of fully operational, free-to-air satellite TV channels in the Arab world grew by 12 percent from 448 to 501 between April 2010 and April 2011. Half these channels are based in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.
Israel is set to launch an Arabic station, Hala TV, which would represent the third time Israel's broadcasting authority has tried to establish an Arabic channel.
A former Al-Jazeera bureau chief, Ghassan Bin-Jiddu, who resigned recently over the station's coverage of Syria -- he deemed it biased against the Syrian government -- plans to launch Al-Mayadin TV, based in Beirut, which will have the Palestinian cause as its centerpiece.
All of which may signal that despite the deep pockets of both Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- where a member of the royal family owns the second most popular news station in the region, Al-Arabiya -- the range and depth of media choices is inexorably expanding for a population demanding change and choice both on TV and in the halls of power.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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-0- Sep/27/2011 22:34 GMT