Five women presenters have resigned from the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera after being accused of not dressing modestly enough.
In a row which has split the channel, the five complained about harassment from a senior editor, whom they accused of making “offensive remarks” about their appearance.
After the channel refused to back them, the five women, some of the best-known faces in the Middle East thanks to the channel’s popularity, quit. Three others have registered protests while staying with the station.
An internal inquiry has since cleared the official, the deputy editor-in-chief Ayman Jaballah, and asserted that the channel had the right to dictate how its presenters appeared.
The women concerned in the latest clash are Jumana Nammour, Lina Zahr al Deen Jullinar Mousa , Luna al-Shibl and Nawfar Afli, the first three from Lebanon, the other two from Syria and Tunisia resectively.
All are relatively liberal societies, and the five appeared with their hair uncovered, in contrast to some of Al-Jazeera’s other women presenters, as well as heavily made up.
According to sources within the channel, there had been an escalating conflict between the two sides, with Mr Jaballah in particular making repeated comments about the women’s “clothes and decency”.
The issue is likely to refocus attention on the difficulties Al-Jazeera faces in trying to reconcile its mission to be the BBC of the Middle East with the conservativism of some of the societies in which it broadcasts.
Al-Jazeera has become by far the most popular satellite television station in the Middle East since its launch in 1996, breaking a stranglehold largely dominated by state-backed national channels. It was founded by the Emir of Qatar, whose investment fund bought Harrods earlier this month, and is based in the country’s capital, Doha.
Its name, meaning The Island, is a reference to the island of Qatar, which lies off Saudi Arabia in the Gulf.
It claims to present its news impartially but from an Arab perspective allegedly missing or underplayed in the West, but has been accused, particularly in America, of allowing itself to be used as a mouth-piece for terrorist groups.
The station failed to investigate the women’s complaints until after they handed in their resignations at the beginning of last week. An immediate inquiry backed Mr Jaballah.
“The on-screen style and general appearance of broadcasters and announcers are the legal right of the network to determine and develop,” it ruled, adding that it had to take into account “the spirit and principles of the channel and the image it wishes to present”.
It did, however, call for the establishment of a code of conduct to cover appearance of presenters. It also said that in future such comments should be made in writing.
Arab bloggers have taken up the story, claiming that Mr Jaballah had Islamist sympathies and that management was “attempting to impose one political and ideological view” on the newsroom.
Al-Jazeera did not respond to a request for comment, while the five women have also so far refused to go public on their complaints.
Source: Richard Spencer, Telegraph Dubai.