Al-Jazeera’s political orientation has changed since the mid-2000s when its owner, the Emir of Qatar, and “allowed the network to carry anti-authoritarian voices.” During the Arab Spring, the station acquired a reputation for promoting change through its broadcasts of the street protests in Egypt and Tunisia, although critics noted notably weaker coverage of unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, its owners’ neighbors and allies.
But does the resignation of Wadah Khanfar, news director of the Qatar-based satellite news channel, reflect what one observer calls the “ideological warfare” within its upper echelons between pro-Islamist conservative and more reformist “liberals who are opposed to Arab nationalist demagogy”?
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council have emerged as the principal countervailing force against the democratic thrust of the Arab Spring. Gulf states’ concern at the Arab Spring’s democratic momentum and recent internal changes in management lead some commentators to predict that the Al Jazeera’s line will shift in a more conservative direction.
“The network is increasingly keen on pushing the Islamist line of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates,” writes Abu Khalil, a columnist for the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar daily and a political science professor at California State University. “This may not necessarily kill the network, but it will substantially change its audience and reputation.”
The station has emerged as both a winner and a victim of the region’s democratic tumult, writes Philip Seib, director of the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy and author of The Al Jazeera Effect.
The Arab Spring has generated “a more sprawling and vibrant network of local and national news organizations,” he writes in Foreign Affairs. “In some cases these organizations will supplement Al Jazeera’s regional focus, but in others they will undoubtedly supplant it.”
The emergence of rival Arab-language satellite TV stations, growing internet penetration and the dramatic expansion of digital social media are also eroding the station’s audience base.
Total numbers vary substantially throughout the region: according to Internet World Stats, penetration in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is less than ten percent, while in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates the figure has climbed above 65 percent. …Even the poorest nations exemplify the trend: Yemen has seen user growth rise by more than 15,000 percent over the last decade.
With the Internet have come social media. In the 12 months leading up to April, personal and community access for young Arabs in cafés, schools, and other public spots rose from 59 to 62 percent [and]the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world skyrocketed 30 percent from January to April of 2011, as the Arab Spring unfolded. But that rise came on the heels of what was already rapid growth — Arabic-language Facebook users doubled since April 2010.
“Across the Arab world, social media have become go-to sources of information about demonstrations around the corner, as well as places to find real-time reactions from around the world,” writes Selb, author of the forthcoming Real-Time Diplomacy: Politics and Power in the Social Media Era. “Politically active Arabs of a new generation have adopted social media as an indispensible tool, and they will not be surrendering it anytime soon.”
Digital media played a key role in shaping the Arab Spring’s political agenda, new research suggests, even if the tech-savvy activists who arguably led the revolts are unlikely to be the beneficiaries of resulting transitions.
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