Al-Jazeera has rightly been lauded for its coverage of the Arab uprisings, but have protests in Syria received the coverage they warrant?
Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Lebanon Daily Star thinks not. The Arab stations Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, he writes, have delivered “utterly inadequate coverage of the current upheaval in Syria, particularly the Syrian regime’s ruthless suppression of peaceful demonstrations”.
Young (writing on April 7) suggests that the “anaemic” reporting of demonstrations there – contrasting with efforts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – have less to do with the state restrictions than has been suggested, and are more likely to reflect the ownership of the Arab stations: “Both Saudi Arabia [Arabiya] and Qatar [Jazeera] share a desire to avert a breakdown in Syria, fearing that chaos might ensue.”
Tim Cavanaugh, a columnist at Reason (to which Young also contributes), believes the west, too, has paid insufficient attention to events in Syria. It has averted its gaze, he argues, because of fears the revolutionary dominoes are just too costly; the lack of coverage is “a proxy for an overextended, penniless America that can spare nothing — no attention, no money, no pills, no planes, no artillery pieces — for another Arab uprising”.
Since Young’s column appeared, al-Jazeera coverage has increased. “Protesters and activists had grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of airtime given to Syria by the Qatar-based channel,” reports the Wall Street Journal. Rime Allaf, a Syrian analyst at the London-based Chatham House, told the Journal that this appeared to reflect a change in heart on the part of its al-Jazeera’s financer, the emir of Qatar:
The sudden extensive coverage seems to indicate that the behaviour of the regime in the last days has reached the limit of tolerance for the Arab countries which have so far given their support to the Syrian president. The message, probably, is that we cannot continue to ignore the situation at this level of repression, whilst the visit of the Emir of Qatar to Washington probably also had an effect
A cable from the US embassy in Doha, dating from 2009, described al-Jazeera as “an instrument of Qatari influence”, which broadcasts “an expression, however uncoordinated, of the nation’s foreign policy” and is deployed as “a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries”.
That assessment has been repudiated by journalists with experience at the station, but it is worth remembering that for all al-Jazeera’s deserved accolades, not to mention the great sacrifices it has made to bring coverage from the “Arab spring”, it is not immune to the vacillations of owners.