Speculations grow amidst the launch of Al Jazeera’s new Rightly digital platform

News emerged last night that Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN)was due to launch a new online channel called Rightly. Today AJMN issued a statement confirming the news. “ Al Jazeera Media Network today announced the launch of Rightly, a new US based digital platform that will generate content for audiences currently underrepresented in today’s media environment. Rightly will soft launch with its first show, “Right Now with Stephen Kent,” on February 25th.” Twitter was abuzz last night with mixed messages, some followers expressing disappointment to the decision whilst others welcoming it. The controversy surrounding the decision was as a result of Steven Kent, the platform’s new editor. Kent is a well know right leaning journalist who has worked for Fox News Network in the US for a number of years. Understandably, Al Jazeera has been since its inception in 1996 associated with left politics. It has covered and exposed political maladministration and human rights abuses in the Middle East. Its Arabic channel has been credited for its good coverage of the Arab Spring which led to changes in the political infrastructure in a number of countries in the region. There are certain factors worth mentioning in attempting to unpack the rationale behind the latest decision by AJMN in the US.

First, when Al Jazeera was launched it decided to cover audiences that were ignored by other global media networks, it amplified the voices of the Global South, opened office in non English/Arabic speaking audiences in Latin Americas and Asia for an example. Subsequently diverse audiences were gained with time by the network and cross regional sociopolitical understanding was exchanged. Thanks to the deep pockets of its funders, stories that wouldn’t see the light of day on other media networks are highlighted and prioritized. AJMN has also lived by its motto of an “opinion and another opinion”, all sides must and deserve to be heard.

The presidency of Donald Trump has pushed journalists and journalism in the US to the brink. Consequently, audiences’ behavior is shaped strictly by a particular news media platform instead of cross-pollination of variety of news media platforms as it is a case in some countries. Audiences consume news media according to their political affiliations and anything contrary is ignored. Companies and politicians seeking to reach certain markets and constituencies respectively, target and utilise different news media platforms as well, it is understandable and accepted practice. Subsequently, most news media platforms do not shy away from being labeled as either right or left of the political spectrum. Why must it be different for Al Jazeera’s newest platform Rightly?

Second, understanding Trump’s transactional politicking could also explain Al Jazeera’s new developments in the US. AJMN suffered certain misfortunes in the US in 2017. In 2018 I wrote the following for this publication, it is worth a rewrite to provide context to the establishment of Rightly: AJMN Investigative Unit produced a documentary which exposed how the pro-Israel lobby influences British politics. It was a six-month undercover investigation which revealed how Israel had penetrated different levels of British democracy. The documentary angered Israeli officials in Britain and jeopardised relations between the UK and Israel. The programme vexed Israel so much that it sent a complaint about Al-Jazeera to the British government’s regulatory and competition body for the broadcasting, telecommunications and postal industries, Ofcom. After much deliberation, Ofcom ruled in favour of Al-Jazeera, saying that the January 2017 four-part series “The Lobby” was factually accurate and correctly observed the rules on fairness, impartiality and privacy, and, importantly, that it was not anti-Semitic. Soon after the ruling, the Investigative Unit’s then Director, Clayton Swisher, announced that Al-Jazeera was preparing to broadcast a similar documentary about the pro-Israel lobby in the US. The announcement sparked the interest of powerful lobby groups, which began to prepare themselves for a bigger battle this time around, including strategies to prevent the film from ever seeing the light of day. Since, the American lawmakers have been lobbying and pushing for the designation of the network as a “foreign agent” in the US. These efforts followed a letter sent by Representatives Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat; Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican; and 16 other House members, including Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, claiming that Al-Jazeera directly undermines “American interests”. The designation will have dire consequences for the network’s journalists and operations in the US should it ever be confirmed. Al-Jazeera and its contractors in America would have to disclose information on their corporate structure, budget, expenditure and personnel which would be posted on the Justice Department’s website. The designation could bring undue scrutiny of the journalists and have a hugely negative impact on their careers.

The establishment of Rightly was a management decision, it has to take into consideration certain realities and business potential on the ground. It could be argued that it was a decision which saved reputations and careers of many AJMN’s journalists in the US. Importantly, it helped preserve a brand in news media business in the US. Imagine if AJMN and its employees were to be declared foreign agents. Therefore, it could also be concluded that the decision to establish Rightly was as a result of pressure during Trump political tenure. Trump insisted on an alternative platform for his benefit in return he allowed Al Jazeera and its employees to continue to operate without impediment. It is in all appearance a decision carried over from Trump’s presidency. Moreover, Gulf countries have long entered the news media market directly and indirectly in the US. The UAE for an example has invested immensely in advertising on CNN and other media platforms in the US. In fact, there is a daily show anchored by Becky Anderson broadcasted directly from Abu Dhabi on CNN, it is sponsored by the UAE. Although Al Jazeera has active bureaus in the US, it lacks broadcasting facilities and licenses. Steven Kent’s background and experience could facilitate immediate access to certain audiences in the US. “His brand it is believed, could help communicate certain messages to the rising Republicanism and political conservatives about Qatar in the US”. Finally, the establishment of Rightly is keeping in line with Al Jazeera’s ethos of “opinion and another opinion”.

Head of Research Relations, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies

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