Middle East

Qatar’s Al-Araby Al-Jadeed: Will new media venture silence suspicions?

Al-Jazeera newsroom in Doha (file photo) Image copyright AFP
Image caption The new network's managers insist it will be more politically independent than al-Jazeera (above)

New Qatari media ventures in London are raising questions - and controversy - about the intentions of its backers in the wealthy Gulf state.

Some Arab governments are wary that they will be a new mouthpiece for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement, which they view as a destabilising threat.

The Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera network has been accused of pro-Brotherhood bias, something the station has denied, but it lost a lot of its audience last year, especially after the crackdown on the movement in Egypt, and Islamists' political setback in Tunisia and Libya.

"Qatar lost the political and media prestige which was created by Al-Jazeera over almost 20 years," said a well-known journalist close to the Qatari decision-makers.

Egypt, Saudi, UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha last March, accusing Qatar of supporting MB efforts to topple their regimes.

All but Egypt recently agreed to return their envoys after reaching an agreement believed to include written commitments from Qatar to stop media campaigns against them.

'No interference'

Last March, a new media project funded by a Qatari-owned private holding company, emerged, first with a website called Al-Araby Al-Jadeed - The New Arab.

Image caption Al-Araby Television Network is planning to launch in January

Last September, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed started publishing a daily newspaper, followed by an English version of the website, and it is now preparing to launch a television channel.

The project is supervised by Azmi Bishara, a prominent Palestinian secular academic, who is close to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Writing on the website when it launched, Mr Bishara talked about the need for a new project because "we live in a new Arab era" in which Arab youths dream of "freedom, equality and a dignified life".

Mr Bishara did not explain the needs for a new platform in addition to Al-Jazeera, on which he regularly appears as a political commentator.

In a book he has written about Syrian conflict, Mr Bishara admitted that the Qatari government interfered in the editorial policy of Al-Jazeera.

However, Islam Lotfy, Al-Araby Television Network CEO, told the BBC that while Al-Jazeera "is a party in a political battle, we are not".

"Up to this moment, there is no interference in the editorial policy from Qatar," he said.

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper CEO Abdulrahman Elshayyal said claims that the project was subject to any political influence were unsubstantiated.

"Our funding is from a Qatari-owned private holding company. We have no qualms about this nor have we ever denied it. Nor are we a political party or affiliated to any group of any kind," he said.

"Our editorial teams, who come from a varied background, have one thing in common; a belief in the highest editorial standards and in our editorial philosophy: a strong and transparent media can only strengthen and support people in their search for democracy and self-determination - whatever their background may be.

"We should be held to account on the basis of our commitment to our declared values and on professional performance and not judged by our source of funding."

Slow uptake

Al-Araby TV is set to launch in London in January. Its main target, Mr Lotfy said, was the youth in the countries of the Arab Spring.

The diversity of cultures and backgrounds of the new project's staff is obvious in the channel's newsroom. However, this is not enough to dispel the suspicions of some, like Shadi Salahuddin, the London bureau chief of the official Egyptian Middle East News Agency.

"Would they be able to criticise Qatar policy?" he asked, before adding: "The Arab audiences are not gullible any more."

Mr Salahuddin drew his conclusion from what has already appeared on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed's website and newspaper.

He insisted that "they are just like Al-Jazeera in the way they are covering the main issues in the Arab world".

On Edgware Road, a road with a significant proportion of Arabic shops and visitors in London where Al-Araby is located, it was clear that the newspaper is not popular yet.

An Arabic newsagent told the BBC that he does not even sell one copy a day. This despite the fact that the paper has been on news shelves for three months now.

"It's still new to the market," said Mr Elshayyal. He rejected the suggestion that the paper's "political agenda" is the reason for its unpopularity.

"We are doing well on the website," he said.

Political position

According to the Alexa index, which measures website traffic, Al-Araby's global rank was 6,967 last week. Despite the fact that it is not allowed to operate in Egypt officially yet, 44% of the visitors are from there.

The Egyptian President, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, has accused the new media venture of "targeting Egyptian stability," a charge denied by its management.

However the website's coverage of Egypt's affairs appears to show a dislike of its new rulers. Its daily news reports focus on what they describe as the "repression" and "corruption" that characterise the "coup leadership".

The newspaper's Egyptian editor-in-chief Wael Kandil, attacks President Sisi in his column on an almost daily basis.

Mr Kandil's columns appear sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, although he is not a member of the movement.

"It is not just in Egypt, the political stance of the newspaper is obvious wherever the MB exists," Mr Salahuddin said.

Observers say it is a stance closely linked to Qatar's policies in the Middle East.

The journalist close to Qatari decision-makers, who did not want to be identified, said there was "no future for this [new media] project without supporting the political Islam movements. Qatar cannot abandon this policy, or else they will be without any political weight".

Update 2 December 2014: The article has been modified to include a statement from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper CEO Abdulrahman Elshayyal, to make clear the media venture is funded by a private company and to remove any suggestion that it may be part of an investigation into Muslim Brotherhood activities in the UK or that Wael Kandil has any association with the movement.

More on this story