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Speculation grows about the launch of Al Jazeera's Rightly digital US platform

A picture taken on December 5, 2019, shows a general view of the headquarters of al-Jazeera Media Network, in the Qatari capital Doha [KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images]
A picture taken on December 5, 2019, shows a general view of the headquarters of al-Jazeera Media Network, in the Qatari capital Doha [KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images]

News emerged last night that Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) is to launch a new online channel called Rightly. This was confirmed by the network today. "Al Jazeera Media Network today announced the launch of Rightly, a new US-based digital platform that will generate content for audiences currently under-represented in today's media environment. Rightly will soft launch with its first show, 'Right Now with Stephen Kent', on 25 February."

Twitter was abuzz last night with mixed messages. Some tweets expressed disappointment about the move while others welcomed it. The controversy surrounded Steven Kent, the platform's new editor. Kent is a well-known right wing journalist who has worked for Fox News Network in the US for a number of years. Al Jazeera, however, has since its inception in 1996 been associated with left of centre politics, covering and exposing political maladministration and human rights abuses in the Middle East. Its Arabic channel has been credited with facilitating the Arab Spring which led to changes in the political infrastructure in a number of countries in the region.

There are a number of factors worth mentioning about the rationale behind the latest decision by AJMN in the US. For a start, when Al Jazeera was launched it decided to cater for audiences that were ignored by other global media networks. It amplified the voices of the Global South, and opened offices in non-English/non-Arabic speaking countries in Latin America and Asia, for example. Diverse audiences have been won by the network and cross-regional socio-political understanding has been exchanged.

Thanks to the deep pockets of its funders, the government of Qatar, stories that wouldn't see the light of day on other media networks are highlighted and prioritised on Al Jazeera. The network has also lived by the motto of "an opinion and another opinion"; all sides must be and deserve to be heard.

The presidency of Donald Trump has pushed journalists and journalism in the US to the brink. Consequently, audience behaviour is hardly the consequence of the cross-pollination of news media consumption. Audiences consume news media according to their political affiliations and tastes. Companies and politicians seeking to reach certain markets and constituencies respectively, target and utilise different news media platforms. This is both understood and accepted in the US. Hence, most news media platforms do not shy away from being labelled as either to the right or left of the political spectrum. Why must it be any different for Al Jazeera's newest platform Rightly?

Moreover, understanding Trump's transactional politicking could also explain Al Jazeera's new developments in the US, where the network suffered certain misfortunes in 2017. In 2018 I wrote the following for MEMO, which I believe is worth quoting in full because it provides some context for the launch of Rightly:

In 2017, the network's 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. As a direct result, the Israeli Embassy official implicated in the programme, Shai Masot, was removed from his position as senior political officer and sent back to Israel. Australian-born Ambassador Mark Regev was forced to make an apology to the British government.

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. The network's victory did not come cheap, as it involved costly legal representation.

Soon after the ruling, the Investigative Unit's 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.

American lawmakers have since 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, and had to take into consideration certain realities and business potential on the ground. It could be argued that it was a decision which has saved the reputations and careers of many AJMN journalists in the US. Importantly, it helps to preserve an important brand in news media in America.

It could also be concluded that the decision was a result of pressure during Trump's term of office to prevent Al Jazeera and its employees from being designated as state agents in the US. It is clearly a decision carried over from Trump's presidency.

Moreover, Gulf countries have long entered the American market. The UAE, for example, has invested huge amounts in advertising on CNN and other media platforms in the US. In fact, there is entire show on CNN anchored by Becky Anderson broadcast directly from Abu Dhabi. Although Al Jazeera has an active bureau in the US, it lacks broadcasting facilities and audience access. Steven Kent's background and experience could facilitate immediate access to certain American audiences. "His brand, it is believed, could help communicate certain messages to rising Republicanism and political conservatives about Qatar in the US," the network has said. What's more, the establishment of Rightly is also keeping in line with Al Jazeera's ethos of "an opinion and another opinion".

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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