Al Jazeera and the Lebanese elections: a missed opportunity

I’m still wondering why at 10,30 pm Lebanon time, when the entire world (OK, maybe not the entire world but the entire Arab world) was following the only true competitive elections in the entire Region, Al Jazeera was broadcasting Sheikh Qaradawi’s programme Sharia wal hayat, an episode focused on cinema and Islamic religion, i.e. what’s “haram” and “halal” in art. The topic sounded more than surrealistic, while all the Lebanese parties (including the Islamic one, Hezbollah, which is one of the best in the Region in terms of media strategy, they produce everything, from TV to radio to films to videogames) were pretty much involved in showing the first projections on the results, hosting talk shows, debating on the Internet. Sharia wal hayat is one of the flagship programmes in Al Jazeera schedule and Qaradawi is more than a Sheikh, he is an institution, probably untouchable, but I am sure this is not the only reason for having this weak coverage of Lebanese elections. Even during the day -the election day, yesterday sunday 7th of June- while Al Arabiya was hosting talk shows featuring Lebanese and non-Lebanese writers, journalists, political analysts, Al Jazeera was giving very few airtime to the elections, being much more focused on issues like Iran’s upcoming elections and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Al Jazeera almost ignored the fact that Lebanon was about to vote in what was considered an historical elections, despite the fact that the channel bureau in Beirut is one of the best the network has, being his manager Ghassan Bin Jeddu one of the most prominent journalist of the station.  Moreover, during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon Al Jazeera provided an excellent and extensive choice.  It’s clear that not to cover the Lebanon 2009 elections has been a choice, not a mistake for the most famous Arabic all news channel. So why Al Jazeera has not covered the elections properly? Wasn’t this election “breaking news” as it should have been? Were there yesterday other more relevant breaking news to be followed?

I don’t have the answer to these questions, unfortunately. But of course Lebanon was a breaking news, in journalistic terms, and particularly for an Arab media it should have been so. Al Jazeera’s competitor, Al Arabiya, has devoted much more airtime to the electoral marathon, during all the election day and even today.

Too easy to say that Al Jazeera -closer to Hezbollah’s position- and Al Arabiya -closer to the Hariri family’s position, an historical ally of Saudi Arabia (which controls Al Arabiya and all the MBC group) were playing their Lebanese  allies’  interest. In this case, Al Jazeera should have known before the results of the elections and devoted less airspace to the story, just cause it knew before that  Hezbollah was going not to win? I don’t trust conspiracy theories. I just think that, as my colleague and Arab media analyst Augusto Valeriani suggested yesterday, “Al Jazeera has some difficulties in finding a new role in the post-Bush world”.  It was much more easier to have an enemy to blame being able to mobilise the people around this common enemy.

Obama is not Bush and Al Jazeera knows it. We will be all waiting to see this new, post-Bush Al Jazeera and its upcoming editorial choice.

Al Jazeera in the past few years has given its best by reporting conflicts and wars like the Lebanese one in 2006 and the Gaza attack of 2008, not to go too far in time. The Lebanon war coverage, for example, was great and very professional and yesterday I wish I could have seen the same professional journalists Al Jazeera has got in Lebanon reporting not a war, but a peaceful election, at least once.

Being used to watch Sayyed Nasrallah‘s speeches in a great Arabic language on Al Jazeera I was indeed surprised to have seen that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, despite broadcasting Sayyed’s speech tonight, were interrupting it and not broadacasting it entirely. I understand why Al Arabiya has done so but, again, it’s very hard for me to understand why Al Jazeera,  which has always supported Sayyed, has now changed its view. Even worst, if we consider that Nasrallah‘s speech tonight was an exercise of diplomacy, not a call out to war. @mikewhillis wrote the best Twitter on this: “Nasrallah’s speech sounds like it could’ve been written by Obama‘s staff. It puts M14 in a tough position”. True. Nasrallah said: we acknowledge their victory with democratic spirit. Mabrouk, ya Sayyed, very clever.

It”s easier when you have a common enemy or a war to mobilise your audience at…what will be the future of Al Jazeera in the post-Bush, new Obama era? I hope to see a new Al Jazeera soon, at the forefront of news reporting as we’ve always seen.

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