For Al Jazeera, May is the cruelest month. In just the past four weeks, two ex-employees have filed separate lawsuits totaling some $100 million, three executives have resigned from its New York-based American channel and plans for a Turkish version have been scrapped.
The Qatar-based network looked unstoppable just a few years ago, but its loss is a gain for anyone opposed to the extremist agenda it promotes.
Four years ago, amid the optimism of the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera was winning friends in high places. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded the network as “real news,” and Sen. John McCain said he was “very proud” of the role it played in the uprisings.
As long-entrenched rulers were swept away across the Middle East, many were replaced by the Qatari-aligned Muslim Brotherhood. The future was looking bright in Doha.
It’s hard to overstate the change in Al Jazeera’s, and Qatar’s, fortunes since. Not only is the Brotherhood on its knees — pushed out of power in Egypt and Tunisia and banned in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — but former employees and even governments once sympathetic to Al Jazeera are now questioning its ethics.
The network’s latest travails began several weeks ago as former Al Jazeera America employee Matthew Luke filed a $15 million wrongful-termination suit, complaining of a hostile work environment including an executive he claims consistently made “discriminatory, anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks.”
The same day the lawsuit was filed, Executive Vice President of Human Resources Diane Lee and Executive Vice President of Communications Dawn Bridges resigned.
Less than a week later, they were followed by Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of outreach and a three-decade veteran of CBS News. Capping the indignity, Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Shihabi was abruptly replaced earlier this month.
Soon after, news broke in Turkey that the managing director of Al Jazeera’s Turkish group had been sacked, that three-year-long preparations for a Turkish news channel had been scrapped and that some 160 employees would be let go.
Turkish media is abuzz with speculation Ankara blocked Al Jazeera’s inroads over the network’s sympathetic coverage of 2013 anti-government protests in Istanbul.
The snub from Turkey, which shares Qatar’s Brotherhood sympathies, spoke volumes about Doha’s dwindling circle of friends.
The latest blow to Al Jazeera’s prestige came May 11, when Mohamed Fahmy, the former Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera Arabic, announced he had filed an $83 million lawsuit against the network in a Canadian court.
Fahmy — a Canadian citizen of Egyptian origin who spent more than a year in an Egyptian jail — accuses the network of negligence, misrepresentation and breach of contract.
In a scathing press conference in Cairo, Fahmy blasted his former employers as “not only biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood — they were [its] sponsors.”
It’s hard to disagree. Al Jazeera Arabic — the flagship of the Al Jazeera conglomerate — has long served as a mouthpiece for Qatar’s Islamist-driven regional agenda.
During last summer’s Gaza war, the channel’s coverage seemed taken from Hamas’s own playbook (an unsurprising fact given Qatari support for the terrorist group), describing all Palestinian casualties, whether civilians or militants, as “martyrs.”
Similarly, an article from February on last year’s slaughter of worshippers in a West Jerusalem synagogue with a gun and a meat cleaver described the killers as “martyrs.”
Al Jazeera is by far the most-watched channel in the Arab world, and Al Jazeera English (the network’s English-language channel for everywhere but America) is available in 140 countries, including every European market.
But the network has never quite found a market in America. It ranked a dismal 104 out of 106 among ad-supported cable channels, and in the first quarter of 2015, averaged only 35,000 viewers (about the same figure as Al Gore’s failed station Current TV, which it replaced).
Americans, it seems, simply aren’t buying what Al Jazeera is selling. This month’s rebuffs, resignations and litigation — from New York to Cairo and Ankara — suggest an ever-diminishing pool of those who are.
Oren Kessler is deputy director for research and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler
David A. Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg