Times must be turbulent at Al-Jazeera. It was incredibly sad to see the Qatari state-owned broadcaster resort to citing a seemingly non-existent study to claim that it is the most-watched channel in the Middle East and North Africa.
It was even sadder to see a respected news agency such as Agence France Presse having to retract an article referring to the above. But who could blame AFP for trusting a news channel that claims to be the most-watched in the region?
(Last February, Spiegel reported on the early signs of the turbulent times at Al Jazeera)
This article is not about ratings. It is about a sincere concern regarding the credibility of one of the region's main media players. The original Al-Jazeera press release, posted on its Arabic website on 22 May 2013, said the network's main Arabic channel was the most watched, according to a study conducted jointly by two agencies, Ipsos and Sigma.
However, it later became evident that the study never took place. "We quoted the news from Al-Jazeera itself. However, Ipsos, the firm said to have conducted the survey, said it had studied only 11 Middle Eastern countries, and that no other joint survey regarding Arab news channel viewership was carried out," an AFP spokesperson told Asharq Al-Awsat earlier this month.
The Saudi Gazette quoted a source at Ipsos saying the study "doesn't exist." Ever since, Al-Jazeera has been on the defensive, insisting that despite all of the above, it stands behind its figures and ranking.
It went on to publish two separate statements from Ipsos and Sigma on its English website, confirming that both conducted studies (in separate areas) on behalf of Al-Jazeera, and that each agency stands by their numbers in the respective countries where they operate.
There was also an admission by Ipsos that they were requested by Al Jazeera to combine Sigma's figures with their own; however, the agency went on to state that they can only 'affirm the accuracy resulting in the 11 MENA countries covered by Ipsos and claim full responsibility for it.'
The Arab Spring effect
Al-Jazeera's top executive gave AFP an interview to explain the network's position on the matter. "We have decided to publish those results in response to a campaign facing us after the Arab revolutions," Director-General Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani told AFP. "Many sides have attempted to spread rumors claiming that our level of audience has dropped."
As noted by AFP in a follow-up report, Al-Jazeera is believed to be facing challenges in maintaining its audience share, amid competition from local TV channels, and in the face of public opinion over the network's support for new Islamist governments in the region following the Arab Spring.
Many people believe that Al-Jazeera is merely an extension of the foreign policies of its owners, and its owners -- the Qatari government -- have been widely criticized in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia for supporting Islamists.
The fact that Al-Jazeera in September 2011 replaced its long-standing head and veteran journalist Wadah Khanfar with a member of the Qatari royal family (who previously worked as an executive at Qatar Gas) adds to the questions raised regarding the channel's independence.
Last February, Spiegel Online reported on a number of Al-Jazeera's top journalists quitting in objection to "a clear political agenda." One former correspondent told Spiegel that "executives ordered that [Egyptian President Mohammad] Mursi's decrees should be treated as pearls of wisdom. Such a dictatorial approach would have been unthinkable before."
It has become evident that Al-Jazeera's turbulence is not exclusive to its Arabic channel, but is also affecting its English-language channel and, apparently, its forthcoming U.S. venture Al-Jazeera America.
Just last month, its decision to delete from its website an essay on Zionism and anti-Semitism by Columbia University's Middle East scholar Joseph Massad led to accusations of censorship. The article was subsequently reposted, alongside a note from Al-Jazeera English's online head Imad Mussa, acknowledging that the broadcaster "should have done better" in its handling of the case.
More recently, Tony Burman, the former head of Al-Jazeera English, warned that Al-Jazeera America seems to have an "odor of disaster." Writing in the Toronto Star, Burman noted that the American launch keeps getting delayed, that it has so far been unable to hire an American senior team, and that the rumored shortlist of potential 'presidents' include several people who have driven U.S. cable networks to a level of utter mediocrity.
Burman also has something to say about the growing government role in running Al-Jazeera. "During the period 2008-2010, when I was in Doha as managing director of Al Jazeera English, I never sensed any involvement by Qatar's government in our journalism. However, that was then and this is now," he said.
"The Qatari government now assumes a far greater importance in the Middle East than when I was in Doha. And, I am certain, Al Jazeera's performance is now closely monitored if not influenced by Qatar's government. I do know there was no feeling within Al Jazeera when I was in Doha that the American project should assume the financial importance it now does. To me, that inevitably was a decision by the Qatari government," he added.
Given all this, Al-Jazeera's management is right to be concerned about ratings and viewership. We at Al Arabiya sincerely believe that healthy competition is always necessary, so we wish our colleagues in Doha all the best.
However, they must remember that our field is journalism, where the rule is very simple: you are only as good as your last story. Judging by the last couple of stories coming out of Al-Jazeera, they are far from being number one, and there is indeed, much work to be done in Qatar.
*This article was first published in the opinion section of Al Arabiya News Channel's English website.