Former Staffers Claim that Al-Jazeera has Become a Propaganda Mouthpiece

An Al Jazeera reporter holds a microphone.
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Has Al-Jazeera lost its journalistic independence?

That's the charge made by some prominent staffers who quit their jobs at the Arab TV network. They claim Al-Jazeera is now beholden to a political agenda dictated by the man who bankrolls the operation, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar.

Such problems came to light in 2012, when Al-Jazeera's news director ordered staffers to lead their coverage of the United Nations debate on Syrian intervention with the emir's speech on the issue, instead of a more significant address from President Obama. Staffers protested to no avail, the Guardian reports.

More recently, former staffers claim that Al-Jazeera has sided with the new rulers who came to power in the Arab Spring - even if those leaders violated the principles that Al-Jazeera championed.

In the past, Al-Jazeera made a habit of excoriating Mideast dictators like former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, while providing sympathetic coverage of dissidents who were jailed under such regimes.

But when Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, the tables turned. Former Al-Jazeera staffer Aktham Suliman, in an interview with German magazine Spiegel, said network execs wanted positive coverage of Morsi's decrees.

"Such a dictatorial approach would have been unthinkable before," Suliman told Spiegel.

Morsi was ousted from power in 2013 and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned.

Similar accusations are coming from former Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who was freed in September 2015 after being jailed for more than 400 days by Egyptian authorities. Fahmy is suing the network, alleging that its Arabic coverage promotes the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Jazeera officials have denied such claims.

Al-Jazeera was launched in 1996 aiming to provide an independent journalistic voice in a region where censorship was the norm. It was branded a "terror network" by some in the U.S. when it broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden, but it also won praise for being the only Arab news outlet to regularly feature Israeli politicians in debates.

In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually praised the network, saying, "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials, and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."

But as far back as 2010, a U.S. State Department memo released by WikiLeaks charged that the Qatar government was manipulating Al-Jazeera's coverage to suit the tiny country's political interests. Critics have also claimed that the network is anti-Semitic and anti-American.

Al-Jazeera has more than 3,000 staffers and dozens of bureaus worldwide. Some 50 million households throughout the Arab world watch regularly. Al-Jazeera English was started in 2006 and in August 2013 Al-Jazeera America was launched in the U.S. in order to compete with the likes of CNN.

But if such ventures are to gain acceptance here, they will have to prove they aren't propaganda mouthpieces. With the allegations swirling around Al-Jazeera, it remains to be seen whether the network will be truly independent, or merely a tool of the emir.