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As Egypt-Qatar relations thaw, Al Jazeera pulls Mubasher Misr off air
 
 

Monday is the last day of broadcast for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, its parent network announced in an official statement.

A new Al Jazeera Mubasher channel with an international scope is expected to launch soon, the statement added.

“The general Al Jazeera Mubasher channel will be aired on the same frequencies of Al Jazeera Mubasher and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which will be shut down temporarily until the conditions are set to broadcast again from Cairo after acquiring new licensing in coordination with Egyptian authorities,” the statement clarified.

A source who used to work for Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr had told Mada Masr in November that the administration in Doha was planning to close down the contentious channel, but Al Jazeera refuted that comment at the time.

Zain al-Abdeen Tawfiq, one of the channel’s anchors, said on his official Facebook page that he is proud of “this free channel that our regional new/old regime could not stand.”

“Shutting it down is better than deceiving its audience and changing its policies,” he argued.

While Tawfiq interpreted the channel’s closure as a sign of independence, others say the move could represent a landmark shift in troubled Egypt-Qatar relations. A political standoff between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military-backed administration and the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster drove a deep rift between the two nations. In Egypt, the Qatari government and its media were castigating for siding with and aiding the Islamist organization.

Al Jazeera in particular has been lambasted domestically for its perceived bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood, and was accused of echoing the Qatari regime’s support for the rise of political Islam across the Arab region after the 2011 eruption of uprisings.

Three journalists working for the Al Jazeera English Cairo bureau have paid the price of the Egyptian-Qatari standoff. Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed all received prison sentences ranging from seven to 10 years on charges of spreading false news and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization.

However, in November Saudi Arabia issued a statement calling on Egypt to accept the so-called Riyadh Agreement’s provisions for an inter-Arab rapprochement with Qatar. The statement was met with a warm, welcoming response from Sisi’s administration.

At Saudi Arabia’s behest, Sisi met with a representative from the Qatari government on Saturday for the first time since he assumed power earlier this year.

After the Egypt-Qatar reconciliation plan was announced, in November the privately owned news site Youm7 declared an initiative to monitor Al Jazeera’s performance.

The initiative would not hinder the channel’s work, the Youm7 statement assured, as the media outlet would use “professional standards” while tracking the channel’s coverage.

The newspaper’s statement specifically pointed out to Riyadh Agreement, expressing concern over Al Jazeera’s commitment to the agreement’s provisions.

“Youm7 will only follow up on the change of Al Jazeera’s media rhetoric, and it will not evaluate it. We will just describe the changes in political terms and the types of guests interviewed,” Youm7 executive chief editor Akram al-Qassas told Mada Masr.

Minutes after Qassas spoke with Mada, Youm7 released the first report for its “Al Jazeera meter,” in which it accused the channel’s anchors of persistently referring to the current Egyptian authorities as the authorities of the “coup.”

“The promise that Doha took not to attack Egypt in the media was only ink on paper, and was never implemented in reality. Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr aired reports of citizens calling what happened on June 30 a coup, not a revolution. It also claimed that there are political detainees in prison, despite remarks by the Interior Ministry spokesperson that there are no political detainees in Egypt,” the report claimed.

Rasha Abdulla, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, thinks that the Youm7 report was obviously politicized, and further points out that the criteria for evaluating Al Jazeera’s performance are not clear.

“It seems that Youm7’s benchmarks have to do with whether Al Jazeera will be following Egypt’s governmental rhetoric more than whether it’s applying professional journalism standards,” she alleges.

“The problem is Youm7 are themselves not being very professional in their coverage, and so are other Egyptian media outlets who should be more of a priority to watch. So Youm7 is doing this as a political move, and not as out of concern for media professionalism,” Abdulla argues.

Speaking by phone from Qatar, Jamal al-Shayyal, a journalist currently working for the Al Jazeera English network, describes Youm7’s “Al Jazeera meter” as “ironic.”

“Egyptian media outlets have been inciting violence and have used very disrespectful rhetoric and insults against the Qatari leadership, while Al Jazeera has never insulted any of Egypt’s military rulers or political figures. How can an outlet that has demonstrated such low journalistic integrity and lack of professionalism evaluate Al Jazeera’s performance?” he asks.

Shayyal, who has worked for Al Jazeera for nine years in both its Arabic and English divisions, also questions Youm7’s criteria.

“How can this be taken seriously if the Egyptian media outlets themselves are not following these professional standards?” he asserts.

Other Egyptian media figures critical of Qatar and Al Jazeera said that their coverage would not be affected by the expected policy changes following the Riyadh Agreement.

Youssef al-Houssieni, an anchor for the privately owned ONtv network and an adamant detractor of the Muslim Brotherhood, has voiced deep suspicion of the rapprochement.

“The Qatari regime remains a traitor that harmed Egypt’s interests and its national security,” he tweeted.

“The Qatari regime took part in killing army personnel and civilians in Egypt. If the Egyptian regime wants reconciliation, that is its own matter of its own. But me, I never forget blood. The Qatari regime is opposed to Egypt and is a traitor, just like the Brotherhood,” he added.

Will Al Jazeera really change its rhetoric?

Al Jazeera’s editorial line is not affected by higher politics, a network spokesperson insists.

“Al Jazeera is committed to telling all sides of the story in Egypt and elsewhere. Our coverage is fiercely independent of any pressure from governments. This is what our audience demands, and is what makes us the most-watched news network in the Arab world,” he asserts.

Shayyal argues that the network’s programs, even those aired on Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, never systematically campaigned for the Brotherhood.

“We were always keen on presenting the two sides of any story we cover. Al Jazeera hosted anti-Brotherhood figures and pro-military individuals, going out of its way and paying for their travel expenses to Doha — as we no longer have studios in Egypt — in order to present balanced coverage and ensure that our viewers were given every angle,” Shayyal says.

He adds that there are “normal mistakes” that take place, especially in the rush of breaking news, “but there has never been any deliberate attempt of misinformation. Never.”

Gamal Abdullah, a researcher at Al Jazeera Center for Studies and author of Qatar’s Foreign Policy (1995-2013): Its Leverages and Strategies, explains that Qatari Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani has worked on reconstructing Qatar’s international image since he assumed power in 1995.

“This happened through many tools, and media was among them. Of course media generally is used to serve foreign policy interests, and Al Jazeera’s line caused a huge deal of embarrassment for the Qatari regime since its establishment,” Abdullah says.

Nevertheless, Abdullah agrees with Shayyal that “there is an obvious distinctive line” between Qatar’s foreign policy and Al Jazeera’s editorial line.

He asserts that Qatar’s foreign policy is pragmatic, and its support for political Islam after the Arab Spring was not due to ideological bias, but due to the “legitimacy” political Islam groups gained through elected governments.

“It is the people who elected political Islam groups, and that’s why Qatar supported them. But Qatar now also cares for Egypt’s stability, which means that this rapprochement could actually lead to better Egypt-Qatar relations. But this rapprochement does not necessarily mean that Al Jazeera would change its rhetoric,” Abdullah says.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a reporter who previously worked with Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr says that the channel never received orders from above to impose a certain editorial view.

“The problem was that most of those who worked on this channel were either members of the Brotherhood or those who sympathized with it. Following this rapprochement, if those are convinced that a shift in the editorial line will work in the best [interest of] the Muslim Brotherhood, they would never mind this shift,” he claims.

Television anchor Heba al-Ghamrawy echoes those sentiments.

Ghamrawy worked for Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr for several years before leaving the channel in June 2012, one year before Morsi’s ouster. She also describes the channel’s administration as dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Our office in Cairo was temporarily shut down back then, before the 2012 presidential elections, and we had to move our offices back to Doha. I remember one of the leading editors of the channel telling me, ‘We are Brotherhood, once we win the elections, we will open our Cairo office again’,” she explains.

Ghamrawy says she left the channel due to what she describes as interventions in the editorial policies of independent journalists. She now works for ONtv, which is known for its anti-Brotherhood editorial line.

However, Rasha Abdulla believes Al Jazeera’s Egypt coverage will change its tone.

“Al Jazeera has long acted as Qatar’s information and at times foreign ministries, so it’s expected that there will be a change of tone in its coverage of events. However, given how far they were skewed toward the Muslim Brotherhood, it is only natural to expect that this change of tone will be gradual rather than overnight, and will also depend on the unfolding political events in the coming few days,” she explains.

Adel Iskandar, co-author of Al Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism, largely agrees with Abdulla. He says that the channel’s contentious line has been always subject to changes of narrative according to surrounding circumstances.

“However, given how much energy, time, money, political munition, historicization and partisan contextualization has been invested in challenging the Cairo regime, it would be a drastic and startling transformation for Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr to disavow its year and a half of unrepentantly critical coverage. Not only would it be dizzingly unsettling for viewers and especially the station’s supporters and fans, it would also be the loss of an important and ignored niche,” Iskandar asserts.

But “the gravest and most serious consequence to a change in tone would be that it would nail the coffin on the Al Jazeera’s often flaunted independence and firewalling from Qatar,” Iskandar warns. “It will forever condemn the station as little more than a publicity stunt for the Gulf emirate, and a PR tool that can be switched on and off at will.”

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Mai Shams El-Din