Bahrain’s Voiceless: How al-Jazeera’s Coverage of the Arab Spring Is Uneven

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A couple of weeks ago, the Qatari English language daily the Peninsula ran the provocative headline, “Why Are We So Timid?” in its Saturday special issue. “Freedom eludes the Qatari media even as the country’s top leadership is keen to promote free expression and has lifted all kinds of restrictions on the local press,” opined the writer in a front-page story.

The question comes at an interesting point in time for the tiny peninsular nation just of the coast of Saudi Arabia. Qatar, of course, is home to satellite news broadcaster al-Jazeera, hardly a shrinking violet when it comes to attention grabbing reporting from some of the world’s hottest hot zones. Already the go-to option for news in a Middle East seeking an alternative to the Western perspectives of the BBC and CNN, the station gained world-wide prestige for its ground breaking coverage of the Egyptian revolution, and even earned a place in the Time 100 rankings of the world’s influentials, twice. It wouldn’t be out of line to suggest that the station’s passionate embrace of the young Egyptian revolutionaries helped, in part, to unseat President Hosni Mubarak. Within days of his fall, an online petition demanding that US cable operators start distributing the channel made the rounds. Longtime critics, who derisively labeled it “al Qaeda TV” back when it questioned the U.S. role in Iraq, have started reconsidering the value of a station that now appears to be on the side of free speech, democracy and human rights. In an interview with Time’s Ishaan Tharoor, al Jazeera’s DC Bureau Chief Abderrahim Foukara answered the question of why it was important to have a different perspective:

For Americans, what happens in Egypt is of immense consequence to the U.S. and its interests in that part of the world. And it was really interesting to see all sorts of Americans, including the intelligence community, scratching their heads, trying to understand how this came about, what the ramifications were and how they’d deal with it. Simultaneously, you had this detailed coverage on Al Jazeera. I think our coverage of Egypt has been crucial in demonstrating to people that there are certain stories integral to world peace and stability that require access to a channel like Al Jazeera English. It has made the investment, has the presence, the perspective, the expertise and the knowledge to properly tell a story like Egypt.

Similarly, Al Jazeera leads the way when it comes to coverage of Libya’s ongoing rebellion. Within a week of the protests that launched President Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on his own people, the station started using the rebel tricolor to mark its coverage, instead of the green Libyan flag. I asked Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English’s Managing Director, about the station’s use of such a loaded symbol. I was trying to make a point about balanced coverage of a complicated uprising. He responded that there was no such thing as balance when it came to a tyrannical regime that threatened to go house to house in search of dissenters to eradicate like rats. “We chose the tricolor because Illustrates the dynamic of the story,” he said. “There are so many people challenging the authority of a dictator who has been in power for 42 years, and using the old flag is a symbol of the challenge to that regime.”

“Giving a voice to the voiceless” is how Anstey described the station’s operating logic. And when it comes to victims of earthquakes, floods, and oppressive regimes, al Jazeera largely succeeds. Except, perhaps, in the case of Bahrain, Qatar’s tiny island neighbor to the north, where a Sunni minority monarchy has cracked down brutally on a largely Shia pro-democracy uprising. Over the past three months the authorities have embarked upon a devastating campaign of repression, intimidation and torture that wouldn’t look out of place in Libya or Mubarak’s Egypt. Yet the coverage on Al Jazeera has been largely limited to brief mentions and a backstage examination of why the world’s media has been so slow to cover the events there.

As the program well points out, Bahrain’s government has adeptly blocked major coverage simply by preventing journalists’ entry. But the excuse rings hollow, especially coming from Al Jazeera, which usually takes such blockades as a challenge to a duel, not a reason for retreat. Is there a double standard in effect? Qatari troops are in Bahrain, part of a Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council effort to quash any notions of democracy in a region defined by Sunni monarchies. And Al Jazeera is largely funded by Qatar’s Sunni ruling family. Which leads us back to the Peninsula’s headline: Why are we so timid? Anstey swears that the station is absolutely independent, and if a story merits news, no matter how controversial, it will be covered. Compared to coverage of Syria, where not only are journalists banned, but an Al Jazeera correspondent was kidnapped and delivered to Iran, reporting on Bahrain is insipid at best. As the Washington Post reported a few weeks ago, Bahrain simply didn’t merit the international importance of a story out of Egypt, Libya or even Yemen, according to the station’s news directors. Still, the situation in Bahrain marks a potentially explosive Sunni-Shia conflagration that most certainly will embroil the neighborhood. So is self-censorship to blame? It could be. As one independent Qatari media consultant told me, “no one likes to air out their dirty laundry in public.” And Qatar’s role in quashing dissent in Bahrain, even as part of a grudging alliance with Saudi, would certainly go against Al Jazeera’s much vaunted support for human rights and self determination.