QATAR: Changing the Channel

ALEXIS CRUZ WRITES- This year, two pan-Arab television channels were launched with the aspirations of providing an independent media platform. Al-Arab launched in Bahrain on February 1. Its owner, Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, promised that he could run the channel without any political interference and set up the base in Bahrain supposedly to avoid Saudi censors. However, hours after Al-Arab launched, the Bahraini government shut it down after it ran an interview with a Bahraini government opposition activist.

The other channel is Al Araby, backed by a private Qatari media company. The channel is seen as a rival to Al Jazeera and an attempt to distance Qatar from the Muslim Brotherhood. The station is based in London along with the website Al Araby Al Jadeed to evade Qatari censors. The website began in March 2013 and later started publishing a newspaper. Both are modest but ambitious publications that target Arab youth. In a hugely symbolic move, Al Araby launched on January 25, 2015, the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.

So far, comparisons to Al Jazeera have not been positive. Similar to Al Jazeera, Al Araby was accused of having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias in Egypt days after its launch. Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian scholar close to Emir of Qatar, supervises the channel (although he openly opposes the Brotherhood) and its CEO, Islam Lotfy, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was expelled from the group. Lotfy has stated that there is no Qatari interference on the channel’s editorial policy.

Al Araby has not garnered enough prominence to rival Al Jazeera. In March, the channel provided examples of multiple female Arab anchors putting down obnoxious male guests after a video of a female Lebanese television host cutting off the microphone of a rude male guest became viral among Western viewers. The piece focused on the fact that this was actually a common phenomenon, stressing Western misunderstandings of Middle Eastern gender dynamics.

Although Al Jazeera has faced backlash for some time in the Middle East, there is stiff competition in Arab television. Most viewers have turned to Saudi-owned channel Al-Arabiya, which offers a more conservative viewpoint. The region is already saturated with heavily partisan media, much of it opposing Qatar’s policies. The fact that Al Araby is still on the air is an accomplishment, but it remains far behind its expansive goals.

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