June 6, 2017 / 6:06 PM / 2 months ago

How Al Jazeera covered Arabs severing ties with its backer

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the newsroom at the headquarters of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English-language channel in Doha February 7, 2011.Fadi Al-Assaad/File Photo

CAIRO (Reuters) - As one Arab state after another announced it was severing ties with Qatar, the tiny Gulf monarchy's flagship television channel Al Jazeera did not react like other broadcasters -- it updated its news ticker but its presenters said nothing.

It was only when the Qatari foreign ministry released a statement saying it was facing a campaign of lies and fabrications aimed at putting the Gulf Arab state under guardianship that the channel came to life on the topic.

"This has been planned since 2014 but only came out after the Riyadh summit," said Mohamed al-Mosfer, one of the many Qatari analysts the channel had on to comment, referring to a meeting last month attended by U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Arab world's strongest powers cut ties with Qatar on Monday over alleged support for Islamists and Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain coordinated their move, while Yemen, Libya's eastern-based government, and the Maldives joined in later.

Al Jazeera did not focus on the statements and comments coming out of those countries, instead giving air time to the U.S. and Turkish foreign ministers and an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani -- all urging dialogue.

The channel is at the centre of the controversy. Arab rulers accuse Qatar of using its multi-million-dollar franchise as a mouthpiece to attack them.

Local media in the countries that cut ties speculated it would be shut down in an effort by Qatar to appease its angry neighbours, but while journalists working there are rattled by the crisis, they think their station will survive.

"Everybody is shocked at the escalation but no one thinks the channel will close, said one journalist with Al Jazeera English. "It is something the Qataris will not give up."

Later that night Al Jazeera focussed on news coming out of Washington indicating Trump wanted to see the Gulf rift healed, as well as Kremlin statements calling for unity in the fight against militancy.

A White House statement saying Trump would work to smooth things over between Arab Gulf states played for over an hour on Al Jazeera screens. Saudi and Emirati channels ignored it.

When a senior Trump administration official told Reuters several of Qatar's actions worried its Gulf neighbours, Al Jazeera disregarded it. Other Gulf channels gave it prominence.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Al Jazeera Media Network is seen during the annual MIPCOM television programme market in Cannes, France, October 17, 2016.Eric Gaillard/File Photo

INFLUENCE AND ENEMIES

The channel cheered on the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, particularly in Egypt, but now faces aggressive competition in its home region, and suspicion from many governments over air time given to Islamist groups in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.

Al Jazeera's spectacular growth took place under former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani who, unlike other Gulf Arab leaders, backed Middle East protest movements and played mediator in a host of wars.

Under his son and current ruler Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar has toned down its foreign policy.

Founded in 1996 as part of Qatari efforts to turn economic power into political influence, Al Jazeera offered free-wheeling, uncensored debate of a kind rarely seen on Arab televisions.

Its talk shows hosted guests who challenged the wisdom of Arab rulers and adopted the role of supporter of the dispossessed. Reporters broke with a widespread taboo of the Arab news media by interviewing Israeli officials.

Funded by Qatar's royal family, Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian journalist who was director general of the network between 2006-2011, helped turn the Arab satellite channel into a world network with millions of viewers and more than 20 channels broadcasting in languages including Arabic, English and Swahili.

With Al Jazeera's expansion came unprecedented influence in the Arab world, but also new enemies.

Egypt views Al Jazeera as critical of its government, and the channel has been banned there since 2013. Al Jazeera says it is an independent news service giving a voice to everyone in the region.

Egyptian security forces have arrested several of its reporters and last year a Cairo court recommended the death penalty for two of them, charged in absentia with endangering national security by leaking state secrets to Qatar.

Three others had previously been sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail on charges including spreading lies to help a "terrorist organisaion" -- a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood -- but were later freed.

Saudi Arabia shut down the channel on Monday.

"Al Jazeera condemns the measures taken by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture and Information to close the Al Jazeera Media Network's office and withdraw the operating license," said a spokesman in Qatar.

Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Mostafa Hashem; Additional reporting by Tom Finn in Doha; Writing Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Catherine Evans

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