On Feb. 2, the deputy leader of Bahrain’s largest opposition bloc, the Shia group Al Wefaq, made his way to the headquarters of Al Arab Television for the network’s debut on air.
“The channel approached us [Al Wefaq] to have me on the first broadcast,” says Khalil Marzouq. “I accepted and I felt very welcomed” at the studio.
The host of the program wanted to discuss a Jan. 31 announcement by the country’s Interior Ministry revoking the nationality of 72 Bahrainis, including both opposition Shia activists and Sunni extremists accused of links to the Islamic State militant group. In a roughly three-minute clip, Mr. Marzouq said he objected to the decision on human rights grounds.
Not long thereafter, Al Arab stopped transmission. Bahrain’s state news agency blamed “technical and administrative reasons.” The station’s own Twitter feed issued a similar statement. But analysts and reporters watching drew another conclusion: Al Arab had been taken off air for giving Bahrain’s political opposition a platform.
Whether it was in fact for political or technical reasons, the channel’s disruption makes Al Arab only the latest Arabic cable news station to fall victim to perceptions of political bias – the very thing the new channel had promised would differentiate it among skeptical regional viewers.
The two giants in the Arabic news industry, Qatar-owned Al Jazeera and Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, have lost audience since the Arab Spring began in 2011, when both channels appeared to take their home countries’ sides. The loss in confidence is evident in the gains of a rival station – BBC Arabic – which has seen 15 percent growth in its audience year over year.
Al Arab is privately owned, and promised the type of professional journalism that could prove true competition to state-backed peers. The channel is part of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s media empire, which includes the Saudi Rotana Group, shares in Twitter and 21st Century Fox, and until last year, nearly 7 percent of NewsCorp. The prince’s entertainment channels have broken taboos about family, women, and even political conversation; the editors of Al Arab promised the news channel would do even more.
After last week’s incident, however, viewers are already asking whether Al Arab can really shake up the Arabic news media.
“It seems to me that it would be an embarrassment for the station to change its editorial line so clearly after this incident,” says one Gulf-based analyst, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the shutdown in Bahrain. He notes that many will be watching if and how their stance could change. “Their retreat would be clear to everyone.”
Al Arab’s opening was supposed to mark Bahrain’s emergence as a regional media giant. The channel chose Bahrain as its headquarters in December 2011, when many other businesses were pulling out. Tens of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets earlier that year, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt to ask for reform. After initially tolerating the unrest, the government then shut the protests down with the help of a regional Gulf Cooperation Council security mission.
At least 35 people died and many more were arrested in the initial crackdown. By December, confidence in Bahrain’s economy had fallen, with some businesses relocating to places such as Dubai and Riyadh.
At the time, Prince Alwaleed had been considering both Dubai and Bahrain as the headquarters for a new, pan-Arab news channel. Bahrain won out, and the Prince announced that Rotana’s senior management would also relocate to Bahrain.
Promise of editorial freedom
“It is significant that Prince Alwaleed moved Rotana to Bahrain at that critical time,” the Gulf analyst notes. “In the least, it was an implicit endorsement of Bahrain’s government, because otherwise it would be the exactly opposite: pulling money out for commercial and political reasons.”
Yet Alwaleed also promised editorial freedom – and appeared to secure a commitment from Bahrain, whose state news agency said when the deal was signed in 2011 that it showed “freedom of expression and opinion which are prevailing in the Kingdom.”
In the years since, Al Arab has worked to set up a newsroom to rival those at Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The new station hired more than 250 staffers to work under its editor, the well-respected Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A day before the first broadcast, Mr. Khashoggi promised that his channel would be objective and free to report, no matter the subject matter. Speaking in an interview with TV channel Rotana, he vowed to host anyone, regardless their political persuasion – even “if [ISIS leader] al-Baghdadi was ready to appear.”
Bahrain’s authorities had also promised a successful launch. After touring the facilities, the country’s Information Minister Isa Abdulrahman al-Hamid said Jan. 28 that Al Arab’s launch would “bolster Bahrain's media status, help attract leading international enterprises, woo investments, generate jobs and hone the skills of national media staff,” the state news agency reported.
A provocative debut
Al Arab’s first broadcast seemed tailored to prove it was independent, with provocations in both style and substance. While Bahrain’s Shia-led opposition often speaks in Western and regional media, it is rare for members of Al Wefaq to appear on local television.
The revocation of nationality has also been a particularly controversial topic. Bahrain had previously withdrawn citizenship from 31 prominent Shia opposition figures, but this list of 72 was both larger and broader in scope than any previous decision.
About 50 of the people on the list are Shia opposition figures, activists, and clerics, while the remaining 22 are thought to be Sunnis, including foreign fighters and clerics that have joined ISIS.
The mixing of those two cohorts – political activists and violent jihadists – has raised concerns among human rights groups both at home and internationally.
“It has come to a point where they are using the banner of terrorism to crack down on activists,” says Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, one of those whose nationality was withdrawn. Mr. Alwadaei was a youth activist in the 2011 uprising and was critically injured during the government response to the protests. He has since sought asylum in Britain. “Whether it is those members who have joined ISIS or members of pro-democracy movement. There is no fine line.”
Yet in addition to Marzouq of Al Wefaq, Al Arab had also invited Information Minister Mr. Al-Hamadi to discuss the decision. The revocation was “not political,” he told the station, explaining that anyone on the list of 72 could appeal the decision.
'Not any businessman'
Despite the controversial first discussion, Al Arab’s shutdown surprised many in Bahrain, particularly given how symbolic it had been for the channel to set up on the island in the first place.
“Prince Alwaleed is not any businessman that can be shoved about,” says the Gulf analyst. “He has a lot of investment in Bahrain.”
Bahrain’s private Akhbar Al Khaleej newspaper reported that the suspension was because the channel failed to “abide by the prevailing norms in the Gulf.”
Khashoggi did not reply to an interview request from the Monitor after the shutdown.
The true test of the station will be in the coming months as it tries to become genuine competition in the Arabic media. Viewers may – or may not – be watching.