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Arab Spring 'Champion' Al-Jazeera Marks 15th Year

posted on: Nov 3, 2011

Al-Jazeera, which prides itself as one of the champions of the Arab Spring, is celebrating 15 years on the air with a new leadership for the television network accused of Islamist leanings.

The pan-Arab satellite network enjoys renown for providing a platform for dissent in an Arab world ruled mostly by monarchs and despots, a reputation bolstered by its coverage of uprisings in the region this year.

Relentless in its non-stop reporting of the street protests in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the rebellion in Libya, Al-Jazeera is now celebrating its 15th anniversary while boasting of its contribution to the revolutions.

“On this occasion, we are celebrating the ‘Arab Spring’ because our coverage has deepened the Arabs’ awareness of their rights and their causes,” Mustafa Sawaq, the director of the network’s 24-hour Arabic news channel, told AFP.

Praise for the network has also come from prominent figures of the Arab Spring.

Rached Ghannouchi, chief of the Islamist Ennahda party, victors in Tunisia’s first democratic elections since the fall of long-time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, has described the network as a “partner in the Arab revolutions.”

For its coverage of the Egyptian revolt, the pan-Arab network was awarded a top prize in the breaking news category by the Online News Association in September.

The praise heaped on the network comes amid the shock resignation of its long-time chief, Wadah Khanfar, who stepped down in September after eight years at the helm.

Khanfar’s departure was announced after whistleblowing website WikiLeaks released a US government cable suggesting that he had agreed to alter content on the channel’s website following a US request.

He was replaced by a Qatari royal, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassem Al-Thani, an engineer by training.

Two other senior posts were reassigned since Khanfar’s resignation, including the appointment of Sawaq, an Algerian, to the top position at the Arabic news channel and Egyptian Ibrahim Hilal to the head of the newsroom.

The management shake-up has stoked speculation that Al-Jazeera is gearing up for a change in an effort to deflect criticism that its reporting takes on the Islamist cause.

“The latest changes at the network indicate a desire to re-balance the network’s editorial direction currently leaning towards certain political currents,” said Ahmed al-Rumaihi, chief editor at the Qatari daily Al-Arab, hinting at Jazeera’s Islamist leanings.

Arab press veteran Abdelwahab Badrakhan was more explicit.

“Al-Jazeera needs to reconsider its often… Islamist agenda,” he said.

Among the network’s harshest critics is the US government, which accuses the channel of anti-American bias and has denounced its policy of airing tapes by the likes of late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other militants.

The network’s new chief, Sheikh Jassem, denies the management reshuffle was intended to reflect a change in Al-Jazeera’s editorial outlook.

Quoted on Tuesday in Qatar’s Al-Sharq newspaper, he said the network “would not change an editorial policy that has elevated us to the highest levels of success.”

Owned by the ruling family of the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, Al-Jazeera was launched in 1996, broadcasting into the homes of millions of Arabs that until then relied primarily on state-run channels for their news.

Since its inception, Al-Jazeera has maintained an antagonistic relationship with most Arab regimes and, as a result, has had its offices shut down, its bureaux ransacked, its journalists arrested and its signals jammed in the region’s capitals.

In January, when a decades-long silence was broken and millions of Arabs emerged into the streets demanding freedom, the satellite news station gave them a voice.

In Bahrain, however, where a brutal government crackdown crushed a Shiite-led rebellion against the Sunni-ruled kingdom in March, Al-Jazeera was absent, a sign that despite claims of independence, the network would not challenge its owners interests.

With more than 65 offices around the world, a global network of some 400 journalists, 24-hour English and Arabic news channels, a documentary channel, a children’s channel and more than a dozen sports channels, Al-Jazeera dominates the Arab media industry.

Competition is on the rise, however.

The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya is Al-Jazeera’s main challenger but the network shares the air waves with BBC Arabic, France 24, Russia Today and the up-and-coming Sky News Arabia, which plans to launch in 2012.

Faisal Baatout