News & Opinion on how countries are aiming to utilise 'Soft Power', 'Public Diplomacy' and 'Nation Branding'
In March and April of this year, the satellite network Al Jazeera was lambasted for bias within its coverage of the Arab Spring, with critics claiming that it now acts as a mere mouthpiece for the state of Qatar; its principal financial backer. While the channel has not been short of criticism since its foundations, these latest accusations could prove detrimental to Qatar’s ‘public diplomacy’ strategy as Al Jazeera can be seen as the country’s ‘jewel in the crown’; helping Qatar maintain a presence as an international broadcaster and as such a place on the global stage.
The Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, which has now become a ‘media giant’ serving several regions and expanding into several platforms, was launched in 1996 through the Qatar Media Corporation. Although seen as independent it marks the earliest example of “an investment that serves to convey some form of ‘soft power’. Its foundation as a diversion from the state-controlled and state-oriented news channels, creating the first “free press zone in the Arab world”, and enabled Middle Eastern citizens to have access to a credible and authoritative source of news and opinion in and about the Middle East.
This creation of a free press; it was one of the first institutions created after the Emir disposed his father, helped to complement his vision of the emirate as a “centre of commercial development and progress”. It helped put Qatar on the map: as Rockower has observed; “Al Jazeera remains the iconoclastic media flare of the Middle East and shines as a ‘public diplomacy’ beacon radiating on the tiny emirate”.
Like the BBC in Britain and CNN in America, Al Jazeera is Qatar’s attempt for a nation to influence; the creation of a brand that transcends the globe. Companies with popular images and brands augment their host country’s ‘soft power’ and while American companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google heavily aid US ‘soft power’ and contribute to the country’s perception and brand promotion as ‘cutting-edge, modern and innovative’, at the same time Al Jazeera helps to display Qatar as an ‘inclusive, democratic, mediator’ that is a communicative hub within the Middle East. At a time when Qatar is criticised for its own national regression on the media freedom front, Al Jazeera helps to work on this image and tackle this image. Utilising Al Jazeera has allowed Qatar to be seen as reliable, credible and legitimator; a mediator within the Middle East. This greatly aids the country’s foreign policy goals.
While providing the citizens of the Middle East with the first free press are justification for its creation, ultimately it provides a voice for Qatar; a powerful one at that. Observers have noted that Al Jazeera has a formidable authority as an opinion-maker. Its coverage often determines what becomes a story and not, helping Qatar to push “certain envelopes when it deems them important” and neglects others. It has helped affect the course of events across the region and how populations think and react about particular issues; increasing Al Jazeera’s content is rebroadcast around the world.
While this has generated some criticism for advancing Qatari interests, its uncensored images have had a powerful influence and produced a popular following. Its broad availability “operating with less constraint that almost any other Arab outlet” has ensured that it remains the most popular channel within the region. This has forced other states, primarily Qatar’s neighbours, to take note. In paying attention to Al Jazeera they pay attention to Qatar; attention that is welcome as the country is a “tiny fish stuck between giants”. Safeguarding Qatar’s own interests and survival it keeps its larger neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Iran, on the defensive.
For a state the size of Qatar, a country which is said to make up less than 0.1 per cent of the total world population, reaching a global audience would be near-on impossible. Al Jazeera helps to rectify this as international broadcasting helps reach global foreign audiences; a powerful communication tool which reaches out to a multitude of different and varied audiences. It is so successful at reaching audiences that in the United States, former Senator Joseph Biden, when chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed a half-billion dollar initiative for a satellite channel from the US that would compete with Al Jazeera for audience share.
Since then Al Jazeera has expanded into a multitude of platforms and access audiences around the globe. In giving the tiny state access to millions it gives Qatar a role, propelling Qatar further up the proverbial international ladder. Audiences are seeing events unfold on Al Jazeera, a Qatari channel, while the links between the two are greatly stated.
A Qatari voice
It provides the tiny state access to millions as it serves several regions around the world, giving Qatar a role in the world, propelling Qatar further up the international arena. Audiences are seeing events unfold on Al Jazeera, a Qatari channel, while the links between the two are greatly stated: the channel is headquartered in Doha, while at the start of every bulletin the link is reinforced. Through these loose connections Qatar is gaining prestige through association, helping to project its influence both regionally and internationally as Al Jazeera aids both “public diplomacy support and mediation leverage”. Qatar has benefited from the loose ties to the satellite channel in much the same way that the BBC has helped reap ‘public diplomacy’ rewards for Britain. It gives Qatar a voice and the public understands Qatari values, ideals and the credible, legitimate justifications behind it then it will become easier to gain support and influence.
Ambiguity in the relationship between Qatar and Al Jazeera suggests that it is an important tool of Qatari foreign policy, although this ambiguity has been on the wane recently and criticism has abounded. Although Qatar is its principal benefactor, the government disavows any direct control and the strength of the channel as a ‘public diplomacy’ tool lies in the credibility and legitimacy of the channel. It is through the indirect funding of loans or grants rather than direct government subsidies that the channel, claims, can maintain independent editorial policy.
It is the ability to retain an aura of closeness simultaneously as independence that the channel remains credible and legitimate in the eyes of foreign public’s. As foreign audiences are more sensitised to propaganda and opinion polls have suggested that audiences are not fooled by propaganda tactics, if the credibility of Al Jazeera is called into question, and perceived as nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Qatari regime then it would not be effective. In fact it would be counterproductive. As such Qatar have hit back at criticism than it is a mere mouthpiece for the regime stating that it is ridiculous to judge that “Qatar is a superpower wishing to control the region through Al Jazeera, or as if Al Jazeera could transform Qatar into a superpower with the ability to change maps”.
Despite apparent Qatari protestations that Al Jazeera is a mouthpiece for the state, arguments have settled on justifications that describe it as a tool of influence: nothing symbolises Qatari ‘public diplomacy’ and the growth of ‘soft power’ within the regime than Al Jazeera. Having an international broadcaster is seen as a crucial part of a ‘power’ strategy nowadays as economic and military clout is not enough. It is instead about the story, winning the ‘hearts and minds’. International broadcasting aids this, and as such Al Jazeera has become a powerful ‘public diplomacy’ tool for Qatar to utilise. Its global appeal, brand image and credibility have aided Qatar, giving them a presence around the world; a global platform on which to engage.