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Al Jazeera coverage and the Arab Spring   

Arab News - 11 January, 2012
Author: Ramzy Baroud

In the final days of the Libyan conflict, as NATO conducted a nonstop bombing campaign, an Al Jazeera Arabic television correspondent's actions raised more than eyebrows. They also raised serious questions regarding the journalistic responsibility of Arab media - or in fact any media - during times of conflict.

Using a handheld transceiver, the journalist aired live communication between a Libyan commander and his troops in a Tripoli neighborhood targeted by a massive air assault. Millions of people listened, as surely did NATO military intelligence, to sensitive information disclosed by an overpowered, largely defeated army. The Doha-based news anchor sought further elaboration and the reporter readily provided all the details he knew.

Did Abdel-Azim Mohammed, a journalist reputed for his gutsy reports from Iraq’s Fallujah, violate the rules of journalism by transmitting information that could aid one party against another, and worse, cost human lives?

While there are few doubts about the impressive legacy of Al Jazeera — and the valuable individual contributions of many of its reporters — urgent questions need to be asked regarding its current coverage of the so-called Arab Spring that began in December 2010.

Some of us have warned against the temptation of a one-narrative-fits-all style of reporting. A nonviolent popular uprising is fundamentally different from an armed rebellion and a homegrown peaceful Tahrir Square revolution is different from NATO-Arab military and political campaigns aimed at settling old scores and fomenting sectarian conflict (as in Libya and now Syria).

Al Jazeera coverage of the Egyptian revolution was, for the most part, impeccable. It was the type of coverage that reflected the revolutionary fervor felt throughout the country. Even when the former regime of Hosni Mubarak pulled the plug on Al Jazeera coverage, it somehow found a way to transmit the country’s mood with impressive clarity.

Yet, despite the fact that some Arab uprisings are inherently more complex than others (because some societies embody a more involved sectarian makeup, for example), Al Jazeera news anchors continue to jump from one country to the other, as if addressing different points of the exact same topic. In the channel’s coverage of Libya, NATO’s unwarranted bombing campaign received little reporting. The targeting of black Africans (covered by some Western and African media) earned little airtime at Al Jazeera Arabic. Ever-available guests were often immediately dispatched to dismiss any reports of maltreatment of captured soldiers accused of being “loyal to Muammar Al-Qaddafi”. Al Jazeera had indeed striven to present a perfect scenario of a perfect revolution. Now that the sentimentalization of the revolution is fading away, a harsh new reality is setting in, one that encompasses numerous arms groups, infighting and Western countries ready to share the spoils.

Al Jazeera’s priority has now shifted from Libya to Syria, a country that has been on Washington’s radar for many years and long irked Israel for its support of Lebanese and Palestinian resistance factions.

From a political and humanitarian viewpoint, there is no denial that Syria is in need of fundamental political reforms. More, the blatant violence employed against the uprising was simply indefensible. However, unlike what Al Jazeera Arabic and other media may claim on an hourly basis, there is more to Syria than a brutal “Alawite regime” and a rebelling nation that never ceases to demand “international intervention”. There is also the reality of ill-intentioned parties seeking their own objectives, such as further isolating Iran, strengthening allies in Lebanon, weakening Damascus-based Palestinian factions, and aiding US allies in rearranging the entire power-paradigm in the region.

One would argue that whatever ambitions some small Arab country may have, these should not be pursued at the expense of the Syrian people, who are seeking real democracy in a sovereign country free from meddling, armed militias and unexplained car bombs. The fact is, insecurity and political uncertainty will be the future of Syria if a political settlement is not achieved between the government — which must end its violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protests — and a truly patriotic opposition that doesn’t call for foreign intervention or “no-fly-zones”. The Iraq no-fly-zone in 1991 and the Libya no-fly-zone in 2011 were mere prologues to military actions that devastated both countries.

There is little justification in repeating this scenario; the Syrian people did not rise merely to see their country being destroyed.

In Jan. 5, a massive blast killed 26 people in Damascus, exactly two weeks after twin bombings killed 44. Between the two bombings, hundreds of Syrians were reportedly killed and wounded in the armed conflict involving the Free Syrian Army.

Considering the large and porous border areas between Syria and Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and the contentious border area with the occupied Golan Heights (illegally annexed by Israel), one cannot dismiss the possibility that Syria has been infiltrated on many fronts. But this also goes unreported.

While one lacks sympathy for any regime that brutally murders innocent people, journalists are also accountable to both balance and humanitarian standards. They cannot completely dismiss one party and embrace another. Al Jazeera Arabic channel has done just that. It has failed to maintain its independence, and is growingly covering the upheaval in the Arab world from the narrow political prism of its host country.

In Al Jazeera’s early days in the mid and late 1990s, the channel took on taboo subjects and proudly challenged the status quo. This continued with Al Jazeera’s coverage of Afghanistan and the Iraq war, when mainstream Western media were disowning their own proclaimed standards of objectivity and treating Iraqis like dispensable beings underserving of even a body count.

In recent months, however, Al Jazeera has begun to change course. It has deviated from its journalistic responsibilities in Libya, and is now completely losing the plot with Syria.

The channel is in urgent need to revisit its own code of ethics, and to fulfill its promise of treating its audience “with due respect and address every issue or story with due attention to present a clear, factual and accurate picture.” Yes, perhaps the Syrian regime should be changed, and perhaps an armed rebellion in Syria will eventually overtake the nonviolent uprising. But the outcome is not for me, Aljazeera, The New York Times or any other journalist or publication to decide. The revolution belongs to the Syrian people alone, and only they can determine where it leads.
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