Even Al-Jazeera English, which does better than its Arabic sister station, did not follow up its coverage of deaths at Qatif protests
A security checkpoint in Saudi Arabia's eastern Gulf coast town of Qatif. The government stepped up security after four people were killed in recent unrest. Photograph: Fahad Shadeed/Reuters
Arab broadcasting has never been renowned for neutrality but the events of the past week in Saudi Arabia have revealed some interesting – if not surprising – bias.
On 20 November, 19-year-old Nasser al-Mheishi was shot dead in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. When the authorities refused to hand over his body to his family, protests ensued the next day and security forces shot another young man, Ali al-Felfel. In the demonstration that followed on Wednesday, two more protesters, Munib al-Adnan and Ali al-Qarayrees, were killed.
On Thursday, al-Jazeera Arabic did mention those two deaths but it simply echoed the Saudi authorities' claims that the security forces were fired upon and shot back in self-defence. The casualties were merely caught in the crossfire. End of story.
As if on cue, Iran then waltzed into the picture. The Saudis blamed "foreign-backed criminals" for the unrest in Qatif – dangerous forces that had infiltrated the civilian population. The same propaganda ploy worked wonders in Bahrain earlier this year, though an independent commission of inquiry later concluded that, actually, Iran did not have a hand in the protests.
In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain using Iran as a pretext. It is using a similar rhetoric today in its own oil-rich eastern province. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are playing a very dangerous game because blaming Iran could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are creating a situation that may force protesters towards Tehran.
The decision to use deadly force in Qatif could only have come with the blessing of Prince Nayef, the crown prince and interior minister, who is very conservative even by Saudi standards. One member of the royal family even suggested that the authorities should lay siege to Qatif in order to cleanse the city of Iranian agents.
Meanwhile the Arab media is obsessed with the protests in Syria, eagerly following developments in Egypt and excited about elections in Morocco. Yet when it comes to innocent young men dying in Qatif, it appears on the news ticker only if they're feeling generous.
Al-Jazeera English has been better than the Arabic channel. It didn't cover the initial murder of Nasser al-Mheishi but it did report the protest on Monday which led to the killing of Ali al-Felfel. It also covered the demonstration on Wednesday that led to two more deaths.
Al-Jazeera English certainly does seem to have greater editorial freedom. Saudi opposition members, such as Ali al-Ahmed from the Institute for Gulf Affairs, appear to be excluded from the Arabic channel but they do appear on the English channel.
But although its coverage is better relative to its Arabic sister channel, there was no real follow-up of the events in Qatif, no camera crews on the ground to film the violence and certainly no interviews with human rights activists for context.
The bias on the English channel may be more subtle than on the Arabic channel but can be plainly seen on its YouTube pages. Take, for example, the report on the human rights violations that occurred during the uprising in Bahrain. Al-Jazeera English disabled comments on all five videos uploaded on Bahrain yet no such restriction was placed on the videos about Syria, Yemen and Egypt uploaded on the same day. Let's not forget that Qatar, the home of al-Jazeera, also sent troops to Bahrain to restore "order and security".
For obvious reasons, the trouble in Qatif was glossed over by the Saudi-based al-Arabiya, which merely acted as a mouthpiece for the interior ministry, but it is disconcerting to see that the events have also been overlooked by major western media outlets such as the BBC and CNN. Had these deaths occurred in Libya, Egypt or Syria, the world would be paying attention.
The Saudis picked a very good time of the year to provoke their Shia citizens. As the month of Muharram has started, the authorities can exploit this yearly mourning period to paint the Qatifis as sectarian "others" and ensure any violent crackdown will go unnoticed in the Arab world.
Al-Jazeera English might consider changing one of its slogans from the ambitious "all sides, all views, always" to the more realistic "all sides, all views, sometimes".