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What’s Up with Al Jazeera English’s Egypt Coverage? (updated)

There’s been an abundance of — deserved — criticism of CNN’s coverage today, which spent much of the morning focused on the ongoing George Zimmerman trial while giving short shrift to the showdown between the military and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But if CNN’s ears should be burning right now – what about Al Jazeera ...

Screenshot/Al Jazeera English
Screenshot/Al Jazeera English

There's been an abundance of -- deserved -- criticism of CNN's coverage today, which spent much of the morning focused on the ongoing George Zimmerman trial while giving short shrift to the showdown between the military and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

But if CNN's ears should be burning right now - what about Al Jazeera English? Around noon, EST, just as tensions in Egypt were peaking -- as rumors swirled of tanks taking to the streets in Cairo and President Mohamed Morsy being held under house arrest -- the Qatar-based broadcaster was showing viewers in the United States ... a regularly scheduled special about undocumented immigrants in America? (The channel switched to live Egypt coverage a few minutes before 1 p.m. EST, but continued to intersperse other programming.)

It was Egypt's first revolution in 2011, after all, that first made Al Jazeera a must-watch network outside the Arab world. The broadcaster was widely praised, with some saying it was experiencing a "CNN moment" (evidently intended as a compliment). In particular, the New York Times admired its "total-immersion coverage or news events the whole world is talking about."

There’s been an abundance ofdeservedcriticism of CNN’s coverage today, which spent much of the morning focused on the ongoing George Zimmerman trial while giving short shrift to the showdown between the military and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

But if CNN’s ears should be burning right now – what about Al Jazeera English? Around noon, EST, just as tensions in Egypt were peaking — as rumors swirled of tanks taking to the streets in Cairo and President Mohamed Morsy being held under house arrest — the Qatar-based broadcaster was showing viewers in the United States … a regularly scheduled special about undocumented immigrants in America? (The channel switched to live Egypt coverage a few minutes before 1 p.m. EST, but continued to intersperse other programming.)

It was Egypt’s first revolution in 2011, after all, that first made Al Jazeera a must-watch network outside the Arab world. The broadcaster was widely praised, with some saying it was experiencing a "CNN moment" (evidently intended as a compliment). In particular, the New York Times admired its "total-immersion coverage or news events the whole world is talking about."

But the network — and particularly its Syria coverage — has come under criticism since, in part for reflecting the biases of its Qatari government sponsors. The network is "a shadow of its former self," wrote FP contributor Sultan Al Qassemi in 2012. Al Qassemi and others have wondered about suggestions of a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias in the network’s coverage. That the same Qatari government that owns the network happens to also have been a major investor to the tune of $18 billion — in Egypt under the Morsy regime certainly hasn’t helped much with these perceptions.

There is still plenty of news to come out of Egypt as this apparent coup-to-be plays out; Wednesday’s immigration special may not be a defining moment for the network. But for those used to turning to Al Jazeera for in-depth coverage of events in the Arab world, it has been a disappointing morning. As Twitter user Trey Menefee, wrote, "THIS IS WHERE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO KICK ASS."   

We reached out to Al Jazeera English for comment and we’ll update if we hear back.

Update: We received this comment on Thursday from an Al Jazeera spokesman:

"It’s a bit much to judge our entire #June30 coverage on the basis of a documentary that aired before the military takeover. We were monitoring the situation closely, and as soon as events were in process, our coverage was rolling. We’ve had extremely positive feedback for the work our teams on the ground did last night."

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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