After its coverage of Arab Spring uprisings sent its popularity rocketing, Qatar’s Al-Jazeera is vying to keep its audience despite competition from mushrooming local channels and accusations it supports new Islamist governments.
The Doha-based network claims that it remains at the top among Arab news channels, citing compiled results from two surveys done by two polling agencies — Ipsos in 11 Arab countries, and Sigma in 10 others.
“We have decided to publish those results in response to a campaign facing us after the Arab revolutions,” Al-Jazeera director-general, Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, told AFP.
“Many sides have attempted to… spread rumours claiming that our level of audience has dropped,” he said.
Critics of the first-ever pan-Arab news channel claim that it has certainly lost audience in Arab states where Islamists have climbed to power, like Egypt and Tunisia.
“Although it remains at the top among Arab channels, the way Al-Jazeera covered developments in the Arab world during the past two years has greatly affected its credibility,” said Egyptian media expert, Yasser Abdel Aziz.
In Egypt, Al-Jazeera “has become involved in the political conflict” because it is “the media instrument of Qatar,” which is backing the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.
Al-Jazeera’s chief dismisses accusations of supporting Islamists as “unfounded accusations”, insisting that his channel vies to uphold objectivity at any price.
Founded in 1996 by oil-rich Qatar, Al-Jazeera became a tribune for opponents of entrenched authoritarian Arab regimes, and boasts of inspiring protests by raising rights awareness.
“The coming to power of democratically-elected governments in Tunisia and Egypt diminishes its role as a channel of the opposition, a matter that built its popularity,” said Arab media specialist at Paris’ Sorbonne university, Mohammed El Oifi.
He said Al-Jazeera is now accused by the opposition of supporting new governments formed by Islamists.
“This is a real dilemma for the channel whose audience grew (due to it) challenging the (authorities),” he added.
After round-the-clock coverage of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and the rebellion in Libya, Al-Jazeera is now focused on covering the armed revolt against the Syrian regime.
And after Damascus banned foreign media from operating freely in Syria, the channel trained local citizen journalists and sent teams to rebel-held territories.
But it is not alone in the field, and faces stiff competition from Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel Al-Arabiya, which also openly supports the Syrian rebellion, after having been more reserved in covering the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The two channels have reached a “point of convergence” in their coverage of Syria, said Oifi, thanks to Doha and Riyadh both backing the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Both networks, meanwhile, face competition from local television channels that have emerged in countries that saw regime change.
In Tunisia, since the fall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, “local channels have been the ones that have most of the audience,” said Tunisian university lecturer Mohammed Larbi Chouikha.
“They have dethroned the Arab networks… because they provide wider coverage of (local) news and, most importantly, enjoy a freedom of expression,” he said.
But that does not mean that Al-Jazeera is losing ground.
“It is true that Al-Jazeera is facing stronger competition nowadays in Arab Spring countries, but it remains the reference, mainly when it comes to breaking news,” said Hassen Zargouni, the director of Sigma.
Al-Jazeera’s chief is also confident that local competition will not jeopardise the network’s popularity.
The emergence of local networks “does not affect the audience of Al-Jazeera, because demand for news has become higher,” said al-Thani.
Al-Jazeera “on the contrary, encourages those new channels and has provided support and training for new channels in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen,” he said.