Last month, at a media training session for a number of Syrian local council press officers, I asked each of the participants to name the favorite television channels on their satellite receivers. The unanimous answer was, Al Jazeera.
This reminded me of my early days of training journalists in Baghdad in late 2003. Back then, I asked the same question to the trainees, and just like their Syrian counterparts, the unanimous answer was Al Jazeera and some said Al Arabiya.
More recently, I put the question to a number of Baghdad trainees, and got the following replies: Al Sharqiya, Al Sumaria, Al Iraqia, Al Baghdadiya or Al Hurra Iraq. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya did not come up at all.
Considering the dramatic decline in popularity of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in Iraq, there may be good lessons here for other satellite channels that try and operate in the same way, but are unable to do so. The story could also offer some hints as to the future of these channels.
When Al Jazeera began, its motto was to offer alrai wal alrai alaakher, or opinion and counterpoint.
Apart from a selection of news that was gathered and presented in accordance with international standards, but with the subtle or overt agenda of the funders dominating facts and views, the main thrust of Al JAzeera’s service was to provide a platform for all opposing and different views of the Arab world, which was largely ruled by oppressive regimes that did not allow opposing views to be heard or aired.
Al Jazeera was benefiting from the media vacuum that existed in these countries, with audiences turning to the channel for news, views and information.
In the early period after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, for various reasons the Iraqis did not have a proper source of impartial news, so they turned to Al Jazeera, which exploited this advantage and echoed the policies of the funders.
But with every new Iraqi media outlet that popped up — good or bad — the need for Al Jazeera began to decline, simply because audiences no longer had to turn to Al Jazeera alone if they wanted to hear opposing views. The politicians, newsmakers and analysts now had other media outlets where they could vent their views.
These new Iraqi outlets also have had the kind of local access and knowledge that Al Jazeera did not possess. They also have a clear political agenda that makes them more credible than Al Jazeera, because of the overt political agenda that Al Jazeera and others try to disguise behind their sleek and professional appearance.
As a result, Al Jazeera started to move down in the list of satellite channels on the various decoders of countries that can afford to have opposing views and have free access to the Internet and the freedom to set up new media outlets.
Al Jazeera will continue to lose its importance unless it starts tackling other real issues in these countries, such as corruption, good governance, nepotism, transparency, equality and social justice. These are all issues that could return Al Jazeera and similar channels back to the top spots on satellite decoders.
But this needs more than bringing two people to a studio and having a cockfight between them. It needs substantial funds so that investigative journalists can pursue the bad guys who are abusing power and pocketing the nation’s wealth.
However, this will never happen because the regimes and establishments that support such outlets are by nature rife with corruption, secrecy, nepotism and abuse of power.