By Salman N. Al-Rashid
Much fuss has been made of al-Jazeera’s timid coverage of protests in Bahrain, but all seemed to change after the channel ran a documentary entitled “Shouting in the Dark” that uncovers the extent of government repression in the island-kingdom. The documentary prompted a diplomatic firestorm between Qatar and Bahrain that has been terribly overplayed.
First, the GCC’s (Gulf Cooperation Council) pro-activeness and relative stability during a period of profound uncertainty has ushered in diplomatic and security ties between Gulf states that can’t be broken by 50 minute documentaries. Moreover, despite playing the documentary, al-Jazeera’s approach to Bahrain continues to be guarded, perhaps foreshadowing how the network—widely popular and influential throughout the Arab world—would cover unrest in other Gulf countries and therefore shape regional and international responses to such protest.
GCC countries have each other’s back. As an earthquake rumbles through the Arab world, toppling some regimes and leaving others on shaky ground, the GCC has adopted a unity of purpose. In an extremely rare move in the Arab world, a group of countries agreed collectively to intervene in another (see: GCC and Bahrain). As I note in previous posts, the GCC is aggressively seeking to expand and reaffirm its regional legitimacy. It is no wonder that al-Jazeera, which is funded by Qatari royals, has taken it easy on Bahrain; Aryn Baker wrote in May that al-Jazeera’s Bahrain coverage “has been largely limited to brief mentions and a backstage examination of why the world’s media has been so slow to cover the events there.”
“Shouting in the Dark” seemed to shatter any notions that al-Jazeera wasn’t covering Bahrain the same way it covered Egypt. The program revealed to viewers that there were cracks in the GCC’s seemingly sturdy foundation. How could Qatar, Bahraini leaders might ask, betray a fellow Gulf state?
The initial Bahraini reaction to the documentary, which took the form of politicians and newspapers reprimanding al-Jazeera, was likely conditioned by Bahrain’s previously rocky relationship with al-Jazeera. Back in May of 2010, the Bahraini government issued a decree that barred al-Jazeera from operating in the country because of a “violation of professional norms and not abiding by the laws and rules that regulate press and publishing.”
Suffice it to say, al-Jazeera is a professional network comprised of veteran journalists that abide by the rules. So what was the actual reason for the decree? Though several news sources cite a fishing dispute between Bahrain and Qatar as the potential cause of Bahrain’s ban, others point to a scathing report on poverty in Bahrain as the true cause of the maneuver. The Bahraini government, spoiled by the benefits of friendly domestic media, was outraged that al-Jazeera exposed socioeconomic ills in an island-state largely perceived to be prosperous and trouble-free. It’s clearly hyper-sensitive to al-Jazeera’s activities.
The 2011 documentary, which highlights the despair of protesters seeking a better life, is similar thematically. Thus, Bahraini leaders’ and newspapers’ harsh response to the program was predictable. But reports of Bahraini leaders’ complaints have generated fantastical claims on websites throughout the Gulf that, according to a report by the Guardian, Saudi Arabia pressured Bahrain to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar. So Saudi Arabia, which has dedicated much of its diplomatic energy to consolidating the GCC, is actively seeking to undermine its own efforts?
All this chatter only distracts observers from what al-Jazeera actually did. As Elliot Abrams is correct to emphasize, the documentary was broadcast on al-Jazeera English (in English), which has a miniscule audience in the Arab world and a much smaller global viewership than al-Jazeera. According to a Harvard University report, al-Jazeera English’s viewership (including online viewership) is estimated at 150 million. At the same time, the channel is only available on cable in Washington, DC and New York City.
Al-Jazeera’s Malleability in a New Context
During a period of profound GCC solidarity that is likely to last, al-Jazeera might be similarly passive in its coverage of any unrest in Gulf states moving forward.
While al-Jazeera’s zealous coverage of revolutionary furor reflects Qatari leaders’ desire to present themselves as progressive and aligned with the Arab street, its lack of coverage of events in Bahrain exposes Qatari royals’ anxieties about enhancing the symbolic significance of unrest against a monarchy and simultaneously calling into question the legitimacy of every ruling regime in the GCC.
Al-Jazeera’s initial move to place the documentary on al-Jazeera English was soft enough, but its later decision not to rebroadcast the documentary confirms that some of Qatar’s strategic concerns are important enough to shape (and, in this case, reverse) al-Jazeera’s actions. This is nothing new; a December 2010 Guardian analysis of Wikileaks cables from the American embassy in Doha suggested that al-Jazeera was “adapting its coverage to suit other foreign leaders and offering to cease critical transmissions in exchange for major concessions.”
Qatar’s understanding of the importance of preserving GCC solidarity might inform the way al-Jazeera covers events in the Gulf. Qatar has allegedly shaped its coverage of Gulf countries in the past; a November 2009 cable from the American embassy in Qatar suggests that “al-Jazeera’s more favourable coverage of Saudi Arabia’s royal family has facilitated Qatar-Saudi reconciliation over the past year.”
In the current regional context, al-Jazeera certainly would not cover unrest in the Gulf favorably per se, but it may choose either to devote less energy to portraying such movements or to dampen its criticisms of Gulf leaders as they deal with that potential unrest.
The same aforementioned November 2009 cable suggests that Qatar views al-Jazeera as a “bargaining tool” with other states. Fearing that betraying the GCC could unleash a disastrous diplomatic backlash, it may have to temper any coverage of Gulf unrest, lest it bargain with its own survival.