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The Case Against Incrementalism
The resignation last week of Wadah Khanfar as managing director of Al Jazeera has provoked speculation that scandal lurks beneath his departure. Many have pointed to a WikiLeaks cable stating that Khanfar had succumbed to pressure from the U.S. in 2005 and played down civilian casualties in some of the network's coverage of the Iraq War. Others have argued that larger political matters related to its coverage of the Arab Spring -- especially its unrestrained, albeit selective, endorsement of democratic reforms -- forced Khanfar's ouster.
Both suggestions contain more fancy than substance: it is hard to believe that Doha did not already know about Khanfar's talking to the U.S. ambassador or that pro-democracy strands in Al Jazeera's programming would end his career. (Khanfar regularly ruffled feathers during his tenure.) A far likelier explanation is that, after eight stressful years, Khanfar simply decided that he had contributed all he could to the network. Indeed, his contributions have been transformative.
The more intriguing question is what comes next for Al Jazeera. On one level, the network is doing well. It has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 1996. Al Jazeera English's reputation for solid journalism continues to improve, as evidenced by its surge in popularity in the United States during this year's Arab uprisings. The network is developing franchises in sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, and the Balkans. There is even talk of Al Jazeera Urdu. But despite its expanding global reach, the Arab world's flagship 24-hour satellite news channel must now face the fact that Arabs' dependence on it is decreasing. As more and more of the region gains access to the Internet, a proliferation of information providers is eroding Al Jazeera's dominance. Meanwhile, the revolutions that the network helped drive have unleashed a cascade of largely local news outlets, which provide more direct competition. There is no doubt that Al Jazeera will remain a major force in the region for years to come, but its singular role as a unique provider of open, honest content may already be a thing of the past.
In many ways, Al Jazeera is a victim of its own success. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, which the network is regularly credited (and criticized) for galvanizing, Al Jazeera played a vital role in spreading news about the uprisings throughout the region. Al Jazeera's critics -- and the network's dogged reporting ensures that it has plenty -- may argue that its coverage was sensationalistic, but the channel provided a much-desired flow of information that offset old-guard governments' efforts to suppress the news. It also helped lay the groundwork for the revelations by providing skeptical coverage of religious and other sensitive issues, such as women's rights, that traditional government-dominated media had long avoided.
Once the revolutions started, the network featured more than just traditional newsgathering. In addition to providing its own reporting, throughout the Arab Spring Al Jazeera made a point of aggregating social media content, repurposing YouTube video, reproducing Facebook material, and delivering Twitter messages to its TV viewers. Because many countries across the Arab world still have limited Internet access -- but boast very high percentages of satellite TV viewers -- Al Jazeera bridged a vital communications gap.
Following Al Jazeera's success, the number of free-to-air satellite channels has continued to grow, increasing by more than ten percent in just the last year. More than 530 channels are now broadcast on the region's three principal satellites: Arabsat, Nilesat, and Noorsat. More than two-thirds are privately owned. Direct 24-hour news networks such as Al Arabiya have sprung up as direct competitors to Al Jazeera. Analysts expect more to come.
Meanwhile, Internet penetration is growing rapidly in the Arab world. Total numbers vary substantially throughout the region: according to Internet World Stats, penetration in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is less than ten percent, while in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates the figure has climbed above 65 percent. Growth, though, has been widespread. In percentage terms, the increased rate of Internet use in the last decade has been huge. Even the poorest nations exemplify the trend: Yemen has seen user growth rise by more than 15,000 percent over the last decade.
With the Internet have come social media. In the 12 months leading up to April, personal and community access for young Arabs in cafés, schools, and other public spots rose from 59 to 62 percent. Facebook first introduced an Arabic-language interface in early 2009, and according to the Dubai School of Government's Arab Social Media Report, the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world skyrocketed 30 percent from January to April of 2011, as the Arab Spring unfolded. But that rise came on the heels of what was already rapid growth -- Arabic-language Facebook users doubled since April 2010.
Across the Arab world, social media have become go-to sources of information about demonstrations around the corner, as well as places to find real-time reactions from around the world. Politically active Arabs of a new generation have adopted social media as an indispensible tool, and they will not be surrendering it anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has also resulted in a more sprawling and vibrant network of local and national news organizations. In some cases these organizations will supplement Al Jazeera's regional focus, but in others they will undoubtedly supplant it.
Consider Egypt. New local television channels are gaining audiences by focusing heavily on local Egyptian, as opposed to pan-Arab, issues. In the early days of the revolt, the Mubarak regime banned the private broadcasters ON-TV and Dream-TV from airing regular newscasts. So while Al Jazeera and other international channels provided live reporting from the streets, ON-TV and Dream offered studio interviews with key participants in the revolution. In the days since the fighting ended, these local networks have provided more Egypt-based coverage than the regional channels and are likely to draw eyeballs away from Al Jazeera and the other satellite news channels.
Some new television channels are going a step further, with remarkable social media savvy. After the fall of Mubarak, 16 low-budget television stations quickly went on air. One of them, the Cairo-based January 25 TV, offers shows such as "Hashtag," which collects news from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to broadcast to the large audience that has television but not Internet at home. "We're broadcasting what Egyptians need to hear," one of 25 TV's reporters said of its programming, "not what the state wants us to say."
In many ways, Al Jazeera already knows that it has to transform to keep up. It has Arabic sports, children's, and C-SPAN-type channels. It may now need to decentralize its content by creating separate national channels within the region. That would be an expensive and complex management task. Indeed, once you consider these monumental challenges, it becomes easier to believe that Khanfar may have simply decided to let someone else take on the burdens.
This is not to predict the demise of Al Jazeera. The network will remain a significant player in Arab journalism and politics for many years to come. It will continue to merit careful scrutiny by governments that want to understand the region. But Al Jazeera will be, to a certain extent, a victim of its impressive success and is unlikely to retain the dominance it once enjoyed.