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May 1, 2007 Special Dispatch No. 1560

For the First Time in Qatar: Criticism of the Administration of Al-Jazeera

May 1, 2007
Qatar, The Gulf | Special Dispatch No. 1560

In a series of articles in the Qatari daily Al-Watan, editor Ahmad Ali harshly criticized the administration of Al-Jazeera TV, which broadcasts from Qatar. This was the first time that any Qatari body had dared to directly and openly criticize the channel, and as such Ali's series sparked a wave of reactions in other Qatari papers.

The following are excerpts from the series and from reactions to it in the Qatari press:


Qatar's Citizens are Excluded From Al-Jazeera

In a January 30 article, Ahmad Ali expressed his anger at Qatari citizens' minimal involvement in Al-Jazeera: "Whether Al-Jazeera is in Qatar or broadcasting its programs [by satellite] above Qatari territory, an embarrassing question remains hovering in Qatar's airspace, which is repeated by the Qatari [citizens]... After a decade and more since [Al-Jazeera] was founded, what place does the Qatari citizen have in Al-Jazeera? Why aren't we seeing an influence, or a presence of any kind, by Qataris on Al-Jazeera... This channel, which has made extraordinary media achievements in its excellent and brilliant media path, is lacking the presence of staff members from the homeland...

"With my great appreciation for this channel... I wonder why Qatari editors are not involved in preparing the political programs in the newsroom, and why there are no Qatari broadcasters on the news programs... Who knows, maybe in 2020, with the approach of the channel's silver anniversary, a Qatari broadcaster will [finally] be given an opportunity to present the news. Then we will hold mass festivities at [Qatar's] seaside promenade to mark the historic occasion...

"Some [Qatari] citizens have worked [at Al-Jazeera] and quit, and there is no doubt that the board of directors knows why they no longer [work there]. We must know whether the reason for the absence of Qatari citizens, or more precisely, for their elimination from the channel, lies in the claims, spread by some, that 'Qataris are unstable by nature.' Or maybe the Qataris who worked there encountered a difficult 'Hanfari' reality [alluding to Al-Jazeera's director-general, Waddah Hanfar] that forced them out... They [the directors] rule the channel as they wish, appoint [employees] as they wish, and give the highest salaries to those who are close to them – and the Qataris have no rights, as if doomed to remain mere viewers... We don't know whether this is 'our channel' or 'their kingdom'..."[1]

Economic Discrimination Against Qatar's Government Newspapers

In another article in his series, Ahmad Ali criticized the Qatari government's extensive financial support for Al-Jazeera and compared it to its relatively paltry financial support for Qatar's daily newspapers: "...While this channel is considered 'free' to deal with overall Arab problems and 'free' of limitations or obstacles in the path of its media administration, we in the Qatari press are also free to discuss [Al-Jazeera's] internal problems, since it is, after all, an institution located in our homeland... In recent years, we have constantly been hearing [Al-Jazeera's] motto, [which is 'Opinion and Counter-Opinion']... We are fed up with hearing the 'opinion' of 'the honorable' Mr. Waddah Hanfar, director-general of Al-Jazeeera network, and it is time for him to hear the 'counter-opinion' from us...

"When [employees receive] monetary incentives, promises of jobs, the height of freedom, and extraordinary privileges, including luxurious furnished dwellings equipped with anything the citizen wants, [including] a swimming pool... in addition to a BMW to drive, funding for their children's schooling in the best foreign private schools in the country, payment of local and international phone bills, and full medical insurance... [it is only natural that] brilliant talent will emerge – not only in the media, television, or the press, but also in the field of nuclear energy!

"What is the monthly salary of the editor of the international Al-Jazeera newspaper, which is expected to come out soon? Compare this with the salaries of all the editors of the other Qatari dailies, and with the salaries of their readers... Without government funding for the newspapers, how can you expect them to produce wonderful journalists? [People] want the press to develop, but they forget that the necessary development cannot occur without an 'infusion' of government funding for the national press institutions..."[2]

Suppression of Internal Criticism in Al-Jazeera

In the same article, Ali commented on the suspension of five employees from Al-Jazeera's sports channel after they criticized the [sports] channel's director in a Qatari magazine: "...Can this arbitrary move [i.e. the employees' suspension] occur in a channel that prides itself, morning and night, on its ['journalistic] freedom?' Over 60 days have passed, and five Qatari employees remain suspended from their jobs at Al-Jazeera [merely] for openly expressing their opinion of their director on the pages of [the Astad Al-Doha sports] magazine.

"Or does this station have a double standard, viewing the principle of freedom of opinion and its expression in a selective manner[?]...

"The brief story of the five Qataris suspended from their jobs at our satellite channel for daring to express their opinion could harm Al-Jazeera's image, not [only] in local public opinion but also internationally. [It could also] cast doubts on the credibility of [the channel's motto of] 'opinion/counter-opinion,' and could even damage its public credit among the Qatari public... If Al-Jazeera permits program guests to criticize heads of state in the name of freedom [of expression], why then are they allergic to their [own] employees' criticism of their boss? Or is 'freedom of expression' permitted for them but forbidden for others?..."[3]

Qataris Are Kept Out of Al-Jazeera

Following Ahmad Ali's series, publicist Dr. Ahmad Abd Al-Malik published an article in the Qatari daily Al-Raya supporting Ali's criticism against the channel and its administration. One month later, following this article and an additional one criticizing the corruption and lack of transparency in Qatar's state institutions, Dr. Abd Al-Malik was fired from his post as media advisor at the Qatari National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, and Al-Raya stopped publishing his articles.[4] Following are the main points of his article about Al-Jazeera:

"We need an investigation committee on the subject of the treatment of Qataris [at Al-Jazeera]. Indeed, we need to open up [discussion] of the issue of Al-Jazeera, and to speak with absolute frankness about the nature of the channel's administration – from which a stench wafts and affects the entire country...

"We want to ask the administrators that control our glorious Al-Jazeera about everything that is taking place there. The first question might be about the salaries of these administrators. Do these meritorious individuals, who take for themselves unbelievable sums every month as a salary, have no colleagues with Qatari citizenship? We want to know what extraordinary operations [these administrators] perform [that they deserve such salaries]...

"Talented Qataris have knocked on the doors of Al-Jazeera's board of directors more than once – upright citizens, with [good] character references and clean security records – [wishing] to serve at Al-Jazeera and to participate in making it prosperous, as it is a precious part of Qatari soil. There is no harm in their enjoying the best [of the Qatari resources], since they are the best and most talented of [Qatar's] citizens. But the doors remain locked to them. The response [they encounter] was: 'Qataris Keep Out of Al-Jazeera'..."[5]

In a March 29, 2007 article, director of the reformist Aafaq website Omran Salman criticized the firing of Dr. Abd Al-Malik, stating that it reflected the inability of the Qatari government and of Al-Jazeera channel to accept Abd Al-Malik's criticism. He wrote: "The problems raised by our colleague Dr. Ahmad Abd Al-Malik, serious and sensitive though they are, are insignificant compared to the criticism and the blows below the belt aimed by Qatar and Al-Jazeera at the Arab and foreign governments. Despite this, the Qatari government could not take his criticism and hastened to silence him – though he merely exercised his natural right, [upheld by] the Qatari constitution and by international laws...

"The question that we repeatedly ask is why the Qatari government cannot take Abd Al-Malik's criticism, and whether this means that the Al-Jazeera's motto of 'Opinion and Counter-Opinion' is false. Perhaps [this motto] is directed only outward, and is not implemented in the domestic Qatari arena..."[6]

The Taboo is Broken: Criticizing Al-Jazeera is Permitted

In another Al-Raya article, Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former dean of the Shari'a and law faculty in Qatar University, commented on the importance and uniqueness of Ali's and Abd Al-Malik's articles: "...There is a need to reexamine the media policy of [Al-Jazeera] – in its broadcasts, in its [future] programming, and in how it is administered. This is because without criticism and without self-examination, excellence cannot be assured...

"As I see it, [Ali's] article is an important media event in the Qatari arena, and it therefore found a broad echo in the public – particularly the Qatari public, which responded to it in an extraordinary fashion, supporting it... with a huge number of emails...

"In my view, Ali's article is important and unique for two reasons. To begin with, this is the first time an article has appeared criticizing Al-Jazeera, its director and its board of directors openly and clearly, calling things by their name.

"We have become accustomed to criticism of Al-Jazeera from outside [Qatar], but [criticism of Al-Jazeera] from within Qatar, in its [own] media, is a sensitive matter, horribly so, to the point where no senior media member has dared to engage in it – despite the increase in the atmosphere of media freedom in Qatar...

"Indeed, criticizing Al-Jazeera was strictly taboo, or so we thought, until Ahmad Ali's article came along, and apparently broke the taboo... Also, along came the article by the well-known publicist Dr. Ahmad Abd Al-Malik, which was written in the same context, to underline the breaking of this apparent taboo...

"The second reason is the demand made by the two writers – which [reflected] a concern of the Qatari public since it hit a nerve and expressed the Qataris' feelings – [namely the demand] to change how Al-Jazeera is run, so that it will serve Qatari interests and will actualize the aspirations of Qatar's [citizens]...

"Although 12 years have passed and the Al-Jazeera network has expanded, we [still] see no [presence] of any Qatari element – not in participation in the programs, not in employment, and not in the training of future Qatari media personnel. This strange situation raises serious questions as to the degree of the board of directors' involvement in setting policy, in directing decisions and in demanding an accounting from the director-general...

"Is Al-Jazeera capable of meeting the challenge? Will a move for change begin?..."[7]



[1] Al-Watan (Qatar), January 30, 2007.

[2] Al-Watan (Qatar), February 4, 2007.

[3] Al-Watan (Qatar), February 4, 2007.

[5] Al-Raya (Qatar), February 5, 2007.

[7] Al-Raya (Qatar), February 12, 2007.

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