Al-Jazeera, Advocacy and Media Value Determinism
Re-conceptualizing the Network's Coverage of the Arab Spring of Revolutions
Mahmoud M. Galander
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This article uses a new theoretical perspective developed by an Arab scholar to investigate the news coverage of the Arab spring in Al-Jazeera (Arabic), in search of a style of coverage that may be qualified as socioreligiously based brand of advocacy journalism. Two news genres, news cast and news report are analyzed to demonstrate that the coverage does not fit “objective” news reporting as defined in journalism literature, but much resembles advocacy style. Rationale for the channel’s adoption of the style is discussed within the theory of “media value determinism,” (MVD).
Advocacy, Media Value Determinism, religio-cultural values, Islamic
values, humanizing the revolution, faith-based image.
Few non-western news channels have stirred controversy as Al-Jazeera
has since its inception in 1994. The extensive coverage of the Afghan war and the famous airing of the Bin Laden tapes in 2001, compounded
by the incessant coverage of the “Spring of Arab revolutions”, have
focused global attention on the channel, and brought to it both foes and
friends. Of particular significance was its unconventional coverage of the
uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, which some construed
more as involvement than objective news coverage and thus, criticized as
subjective and unprofessional (Gornall, 2011). Others praised the
coverage as reflecting a well-merited role of the advocate of liberal
political values. (Talk with the Chief, 2011)
The purpose of this article is to analyze the channel’s coverage of the
spring of Arab revolutions to identify the genres that may provide socioreligiously
explainable advocacy type of journalistic reporting.
Al-Jazeera: a new Brand of Middle East Journalism
In an article about Al-Jazeera English debut, the New York Times drew
the following comparison between the new channel and Al-Jazeera
Arabic (Fattah, November 13, 2006):
“In effect, Al-Jazeera International intends to become for the
developing world what Al-Jazeera became to the Arab world: a
champion of forgotten causes, a news organization willing to
take the contrarian view and to risk being controversial” Though these may not have been the raison d'être for the establishment
of Al-Jazeera, and Al-Jazeera English for that matter, observations of Al-
Jazeera Network during the spring of Arab revolutions, show a style of
reporting that begs the question: Is this form of “reporting the forgotten” a
reflection of a type of journalism responsive to the needs of political
change in the region? Or is it, in the words of NYT, “contrarian” and
When compared to western news channels, Al-Jazeera is, irrefutably,
different. Unlike most western news media, it is owned by the state, not
commercial; it subscribes to a libertarian editorial policy, yet avoids local
affairs under the excuse that it is not a local news station (Galander, 2004) ;
it enjoys wide popularity among the Arab masses, but is abhorred - to say
the least- by Arab kings, emirs and presidents. Internationally, while its
freewheeling coverage has generated research and academic debate, its
reporting of the two recent wars of the region (Afghanistan and Iraq) has
infuriated even liberal governments to the point of threat of violent action1.
Culture, Religion and Values of Journalism: A Theoretical
The controversy over al-Jazeera’s genre of journalism may be linked to
the political theory of media, which underlines ideology of society as the basic determinant of media control2. Such perspective emphasizes the
existence of a direct relationship between economic and political
freedoms, and press freedom (Merrill & Lowenstein, 1979). More recent
contributions, like William Rugh’study of the Arab Press, have continued
the strong politics-media relationship perspective. In his study, Rugh
underlined the highly politicized nature of the media and concluded that
freedom of the press in the Arab World was contingent upon the type of
the political and social structure of society (Rugh, 2004).
Writings like Rugh’s, have failed to reflect the unique nature of the Arab
media; as most press system typologies suggest a strong correlation
between politics and media operations, they downplay such contextual
variables like religion and treated its impact as equal to that of norms and
traditions of society. The strength of religious beliefs in shaping behavior
is nowhere evident as in the Muslim world. Seen as “a way of life,” Islam
occupies a central place in the life of all Muslims, and remains an ultimate
guide of behavior. Understanding Islam as the basic determinant of
media-society relationship (and hence of journalistic behavior), will
provide a better explanation of media role in this part of the world.
An example of the current scholarly doubt of the suitability of western
analysis, for understanding the Arab and Muslim media 3 is the “media
value determinism” theory, which an Algerian communication scholar,
with an intellectual orientation towards structuralism, suggests4. The
author, Abdel Rahman Azze, criticizes western press theories, and
suggests an alternative in which media content and role are interpreted
within the socio-religious environment. He understands religion as a
central force that elicits the values of society as determinants of all
journalistic processes (Galander, 2009). Thus, within this perspective, a
concept like “objectivity” borrows little from the widely acclaimed western
constructs, as it reverts to social values of society to interpret media role.
This approach seems more appropriate for the explanation of what would
be, to western journalism, unusual journalistic styles. Al-Jazeera is more
apt to manifest a style of coverage that reflects religious values that are
derived from Islamic tenets like “standing up against tyrants” and
“defending the oppressed.”5 Measured against western journalistic norms, these values would mean biased reporting, a stark violation of
Al-Jazeera, Islamic Values and the Arab Spring
As it crossed from one Arab country to the other, the spring of
revolutions has, no doubt, propelled Al-Jazeera to the position of a pan-
Arab political force of change. The daily and detailed coverage of the
Tunisian revolution diffused tactics of defiance which were soon adopted
by the Egyptians6. With its coverage of the Egyptian uprising, it was clear
that Al-Jazeera has surpassed the role of a news reporting channel. As it
beamed from huge screens posted in al-Tahrir square, with blasts of
patriotic songs, and fiery pro-revolution commentaries, the channel
looked more like a political medium, a sort of “voice of the revolution”
reminiscent of the revolutionary 70s.
By the time the Libyan uprising of Benghazi turned into a fullfledged
insurgency, the role of Al-Jazeera as a force of political change
was apparent. Advancing with the insurgents from the east to the west,
the channel was present in every battle, not only to report, but also to
provide a platform for the revolutionaries, to propagate, to uplift morale
and, in some cases even, to provide direction for the insurgents.
As an overwhelmingly government-owned medium, Arab television
is not familiar with adversarial coverage of the “other”; official antagonistic
journalism is rare in the region, unless dictated by the politics of
differences. Al-Jazeera’s style is, to Arab rulers, intolerable because they
believe it is reflective of Qatar’ policies (Al-Jabri, 2012); though Al-Jazeera and Qatari officials vehemently deny such policy orientation. Al-Jazeera
has incessantly distanced itself from being a mouthpiece of the
government of Qatar, and contends it is a seeker of truth and a
subscriber to justice and freedom for all (Black, 2011).
As the controversy over the style is not settled, this article suggests
advocacy as a style deliberately adopted by the network, but rationalizes
the style in the context of the prevalent Islamic values of the region.
The concept of media advocacy is not new; it has a considerable
place in the literature of media role in the developed world, but within the
realm of political communication and, to some extent, public relations
(Thomas, 1990). As a distinct journalism genre, advocacy has evolved
out of several socio-political developments in the US during the 60s and
70s (Kaplan, 2002). The concept refers to the press taking positions on
issues and expressing opinions of its stakeholders. It is an intentional
decision to support a certain social or political cause, and is distinct from
propaganda in that it is a factual report of events, but from an angle that
projects a certain point of view.
Though it is fact based, advocacy distinguishes itself from objective
news reporting with four main characteristics (table 1): a one-sided report
of the issue, in which information and sources support the subscribed
point of view; a departure from “objectivity” in its classical sense of
neutrality; a clear criticism of the other in the news reporting; and a subtle
or obvious editorializing in news (Carless, 2000). Elements and
techniques of advocacy are explained in tables 2 and 3 below.
Table 1. Characteristics of Advocacy:
Table 2. Elements of Advocacy
Table 3. Techniques of Advocacy7
Media practice advocacy for various reasons: ideological, in defense of a
political or social cause or as an obligation to the proprietor. Advocacy
may be a temporary obligation; during wars for examples. At such times,
patriotic commitment may lead news organizations to suspend journalistic
values and practice advocacy. The recent history of war coverage is rich
with examples of advocacy. In the 1991 Gulf War, the CNN report on the
tragic bombing of al-Amiriyya bunker in Baghdad was compromised as a
result of the channel’s desire not to provide a stark evidence of
condemnation against the US troops (Shaard, 2003). In 2003, the Gulf
war coverage of Fox news was criticized as being extremely biased; CNN’s reporting was characterized as relying more on human interest
stories to avoid broadcasting extremely violent images from the field8.
Feature of Al-Jazeera’s advocacy:
A close observer of Al-Jazeera during the Arab revolutions may not
only detect the features and techniques of advocacy as suggested, but
also identify new features of the genre. In its coverage, the channel
added a human dimension to the violence and confrontations that took
place in the streets and squares of the Egyptian cities. We call this
dimension: “humanization of the revolution” as it broadcast romanticized,
satirical and faith-based images. To provide a funny escape from the
violent events, the channel reverted to the coverage of ceremonies of
protesters’ weddings, shots of babies accompanying their parents, humor
by protesters, and satirical slogans raised by the crowds. Humanization
of the revolution also focused on religious and faith-based images like
screening of huge crowds during prayers, recitation of Qura’an, and
screen-wide shots of mosques, pages of the Qur’an and motivational
speeches from Muslim clergy.
Al-Jazeera’s “News Report”: In Search of a Model of Advocacy
For a close scrutiny of the channel’s style of advocacy, this article chose
a distinct form of reporting used in Al-Jazeera’s newscast during the
uprisings. Dubbed by the channel “news report”, reporting of the protests
deviated from the standard definition of news reporting9. “News report” of
al-Jazeera looked more like commentary, but was never identified as such; it was rather meshed into the news bulletin and announced as
“report”10. This article investigated a convenience sample11 of these
“news reports” which covered four incidents that represented the climax
of the revolutions in four Arab countries. “News reports” on the exit of Bin
Ali, the abdication of Husni Mubarek and Ali Salih, and the killing of
Qaddafi, were measured in search of characteristics of what could be
identified as an Islamic perspective of advocacy. The investigation
focused on four styles which, this author believes, would provide a socioreligious
rationale for deviation from western journalistic styles12. These
are the use of poetry, Qura’nic verses, and allegory. The “News reports”
were written and read by a certain journalist, Fawzi Bushra, almost
instantly after each of the four events13. Bushra’s eloquence and deep
voice attracted attention and popularized the style during the Arab
spring14. The main focus of the “report” was not provision of new
information about the incidents, but rather a lengthy rhetoric comment on
the incident, with the footages serving as a visual support to the points
To investigate the presence of the suggested “humanization of the
revolution15” construct, the article analyzed the content of a convenience sample of Aljazeera’s 6 O’clock news and 8 O’clock “Hasad al-Youm
(Wrap-up of the day), during the same period. The following tables and
paragraphs summarize the findings of the investigation.
The following tables summarize the findings of the analysis of the two
news genres Table 3 summarizes the content of Bushra’s “news report” about the four
deposed presidents. According to the findings, three styles of Islamic
rhetoric were used in the report: poetry, allegory and Qura’anic verses.
As shown, in the table, poetry was used 7 times, and allegory 23 times.
The “news reports” resorted to Qur’anic verses 75 times; almost double
the other two styles.
Table 3. Islamic Tones in Fawzi Bushra’s News Reports of the Arab Spring
Table 4 summarizes the reporting of news in two non-conventional
formats, namely the use of humor, and the focus of the cameras on faithbased
images during the news. The table reports the use of these two
genres in both the news and commentary or live report as 31 for
humorous images, and 32 for the faith-based images.
Table 4. Images of “Humanizing the Confrontation” in Reporting the Egyptian Revolution
These results confirm the presence of a style of news reporting that does
not match any conventional genre of news or news reports.
Advocacy Journalism in the Region: a Socio-Religious
Observation of Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab spring confirms
the presence of an unconventional style of news coverage. Though the
basics of objective journalism were maintained, an inclination towards
advocate reporting was noticeable. From a mere bold but balanced
reporting of the opposition in the Tunisian case, to a clearer positiontaking
in the Egyptian, to a down-right denunciation of Qadafi in the
Libyan case, advocacy reporting developed in Al-Jazeera from one
revolution to the other.
From a western perspective, objectivity refers to a set of constructs that
include fairness, balance and impartiality among others. These constructs
are reflections of a stable environment in which the media are mirrors of
social reality; an environment that invites a fair and impartial media, and
leads to a peaceful relationship between the institutions of society. But in
places where the relationship among the social institutions is strained and
unbalanced, institutions with power deprive other institutions and
members of society at large, from every source of vigor and strength. In
such a situation, institutions of social power must stand up to their duties
of empowering the powerless and invigorating the weak. In places where
disparity in the social and political order work against the masses, the
media must act as a source of power for people; they should not remain
neutral, but must take the side of civil aspirations of the people at large.
Values of Islam dictate upon all, individuals and institutions, to stand firm
in face of injustice and tyranny. Liberty is central to Islam, for all people
were born free. Advocacy of liberty and the utterance of truth in the face
of a tyrannical ruler are Islamic to the core.
To a person who belongs to the same socio-religious context, Al-
Jazeera’s stand during the Arab Spring seems more a commitment to the
tenets of the religion and the culture; and may therefore be explained as
a pledge to the national aspirations of the people. Objectivity in the
scholastic sense may not suffice to rationalize the channel’s position; the
contextual factors may.
1 US army bombed Al-AJzeera offices in Kapool in 2003. In 2004, The British Daily Mirror reported on a memo describing George Bush’s
intentions to bomb al-Jazeera During Fallujah insurgency.
2 The most famous of these is Siebert, Peterson and Schramm’s “the Four Theories of the Press”.
3 Though it has spanned several years, the trend of criticism of western conceptualization of media theories took momentum in the
International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), during a famous conference under the title Islamization of the Human Sciences in 2004.
This author presented a paper on the issue in that conference. A pioneer in this respect is Professor Abdel Rahman Azze, who was affiliated to
the same university, but currently the dean of the faculty of Mass Communication in Sharjah University, UAE.
4 The author is Professor Abdel Rahman Azze. For more details and sources about the theory of media value determinism please visit:
5 Islamic sources are rampant with Qura’anic texts, and sayings and edicts of Prophet Mohamed (SAW) and the rightly guided Caliphs,
which uphold values such as speaking the truth in the face of tyrants, straightening the deviant rulers by the sword and standing up to the
injustice and tyranny of oppressors.
6 Bou Azizi’ self-emulation was reenacted by several Egyptians few weeks before the uprising in Cairo.
7 Information in the table is based on
Available: http://www.nasna.org/downloads/Advocacy_reporting_HO_notes.pdf, 25-02-2011
8 For comparison and further information on the US media coverage of the Gulf war, see the forum on Covering Iraq: American Media Vs the
world. Available: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums/covering_iraq.html
9 Description and definition of the term abound, a most common would be a “ short account of news”.
10 The popularity of these reports was discussed in an interview with the editor in another al-Jazeera program.
Please see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygORXiV2Zpw.
11 Two news reports for each revolution were extracted from al-jazeera news archives of the period provided by
al-Jazeera Center for Studies.
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13 Personal interview with Fawzi Bushra, Sunday, June 17/ 2012, Doha. Bushra is an Islamically committed
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14 For comments on Fawzi Bushra’s news reports, please visit the following YouTube footage titled (in Arabic)
A report by Fawzi Bushra on the abdication of Husni Mubarek : available at
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crying persons, humorous situations, caricatures and so on.
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