Pan-Arab broadcasters who played a key role reporting Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are helping dynastic rulers police the gates of the Gulf to stop the revolts from spreading on their patch, analysts say.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera, the leading Arabic language network, was pivotal in keeping up momentum during protests that toppled Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, both entrenched rulers who were no friends of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani dynasty.
When Al Jazeera’s cameras turned to Yemen, it was as though its guns were trained on the next target in an uprising longtime Arab leaders were convinced was of the channel’s making.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose impoverished country of 23 million is not a member of the affluent Gulf Arab club, accused Al Jazeera of running an “operations room to burn the Arab nation.” His government has revoked the Al Jazeera correspondents’ licences over its coverage in Yemen.
For viewers watching protests spread across the region, the excitement stopped abruptly in Bahrain. Scant coverage was given to protests in the Gulf Cooperation Council member and to the ensuing crackdown by its Sunni rulers, who called in Saudi and Emirati troops in March under a regional defence pact.
Protests in Oman and Saudi Arabia have also received scant attention in recent months.
“Bahrain does not exist as far as Al Jazeera is concerned, and they have avoided inviting Bahraini or Omani or Saudi critics of those regimes,” said As’ad AbuKhalil, politics professor at California State University.
“Most glaringly, Al Jazeera does not allow one view that is critical of Bahraini repression to appear on the air. The GCC has closed ranks and Qatar may be rewarded with the coveted post of secretary-general of the Arab League.”
Despite a wealth of material, there were no stirring montages featuring comments by protesters or scenes of violence against activists in Bahrain. Al Jazeera has produced such segments to accompany Egyptian and Tunisian coverage.
The threat posed by Bahrain’s protests was closer to home. Their success would have set a precedent for broader public participation in a region ruled by Sunni dynasties. More alarming for those dynasties, it would have given more power to Bahrain’s majority Shi’ites, distrusted by Sunni rulers who fear the influence of regional Shi’ite power Iran.
From an early stage, Al Jazeera framed the movements in Tunisia, Egypt and then Yemen as “revolutions” and subverted government bans on its coverage by inviting viewers to send in images captured on mobile phones to a special address.
“Despite being banned in Egypt, Al Jazeera went to great lengths to provide non-stop live coverage of events. It did not do that in Bahrain,” said political analyst Ghanem Nuseibeh.
“Unless it can address concerns about its coverage of Bahrain, Al Jazeera will suffer reputation damage.”
Al Jazeera acknowledged “challenging terrain” in Bahrain.
“There has been a particularly heavy news agenda in recent months, with uprisings taking place simultaneously in multiple countries across the Arab region,” a spokesman said.
“Editorial priorities are weighed on a number of factors at any given moment. All news organizations have faced these pressures, but despite this and the challenging terrain in Bahrain, we have covered events in the country extensively.”
Al Jazeera has won plaudits for revolutionising Arab media since 1996, but observers have seen coverage fluctuate on some issues depending on the whims of Qatar’s rulers.
A major oil and gas power, Qatar employs vast resources to back Al Jazeera, whose English-language sister channel has not shown the same reserve when it comes to the Gulf states.
A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in December said U.S. diplomats saw Al Jazeera, owned by the state Qatar Media Corporation, as a bargaining tool in its foreign policy.
Qatar has launched a foreign policy drive over Libya. It has recognized the rebels as Libya’s legitimate authority and joined the West’s airstrikes on the forces of Muammar Gaddafi — a veteran Arab ruler long on bad terms with his Gulf peers.
Al Jazeera has followed with heavy coverage of Libya.
Meanwhile, attention to the protests in Syria — whose anti-Israeli stance had ensured Bashar al-Assad years of positive coverage — has been slow to pick up. It has lacked the in-depth discussions given over to more favoured Arab uprisings.
Through months of unrest, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya has been conservative, reflecting the shock in Riyadh at the fate of longtime allies whom it felt Washington should have defended.
Saudi Arabia gave sanctuary to Ben Ali after he fled on January 14. On Egypt, whose ruler quit on February 11, Al Arabiya long avoided the word “revolution” in favour of “the change.”
Presenter Hafez al-Mirazi’s talk show “Studio Cairo” was nixed in February after he said on air he would host a discussion of Gulf political reform in his next show.
“I said there was no excuse for anyone at Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya to discuss Egypt while not being able to talk about the Emir of Qatar or Qatari politics or King Abdullah and Saudi politics,” Mirazi said after the nightly show was dropped.
But in Libya, Al Arabiya appeared to finally find an Arab revolution it liked, throwing itself into the coverage with gusto. It has also been gung-ho in covering Syria, which, like Libya, has been on bad terms with Riyadh.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia persuaded its neighbours that any concessions by Bahrain’s rulers would have repercussions for all Gulf states, including Qatar, though it has a tiny population of only 260,000 nationals among a 1.7 million total.
“There has been fantastic pressure from Saudi Arabia on Qatar to join in (the Gulf military operation) in Bahrain, and at least to rein in Al Jazeera,” said a London-based analyst who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia — rivals for leadership roles in the Gulf — ended years of frosty ties in 2007. The result was the end of any serious discussion of Saudi politics on Al Jazeera.
The channel and its leading competitor, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, operate in a crowded news market that includes Hezbollah’s Al Manar, BBC Arabic, France 24, Iran’s Al Alam and Egyptian channels, catering to some 300 million Arabic speakers.
“Al Jazeera is not much different to Al Arabiya when it comes to Bahrain — both are tongue-tied by the Saudi military intervention,” said Ayman Ali, a commentator in the Gulf press.