Al Jazeera: when politics hijack journalism

Article  by  Paloma HASCHKE  •  Published 04.12.2013  •  Updated 04.12.2013
Through its professionalism, its taste for juicy scoops, and its pioneer role in media freedom, Al Jazeera has undeniably revolutionized journalism in the Arab world. Yet the channel’s credibility is now being compromised by the increasing politicization of its editorial line.

Summary

Since its creation in 1996, Al Jazeera has progressively become to be considered a matrix for news media in the Arab world. Its journalistic methods and style are now being regarded as standards by the whole pan-Arab industry.
 
Born from the singular overlapping of unprecedented regional and national contexts, the Qatari channel never stopped expanding the limits of public debate in the region, compelling its competitors to follow in its footsteps towards the liberalization of media discourse. Al Jazeera seems motivated by an ambiguous self-given mission to become one day the catalyst for political reforms in the Arab world.
 
Hailed as such in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, the channel is now harshly criticized for the obnoxious politicization of its editorial choices, and for seeming to be nothing more than the sophisticated tool of Qatar’s geopolitical ambitions.
 
This ambivalent relationship between Al Jazeera and its public sheds light on the deep-rooted contradictions at the heart of the Qatari channel’s structure – and of the Arab media industry in general – torn between discourses of democratization and the protection of strategic interests.

A channel born within a singular political environment

Al Jazeera was born in Qatar in an unprecedented political background. A couple of months after he ousted his father from power in 1995, new emir Hamad Ben Khalifa Al-Thani stated his ambition to abolish media censorship and suppress the Minister of Information. These measures set Qatar apart from the rest of the Arab countries, who regards the draconian control of media as a matter of national security. On February 8th 1996, a government decree announced the launching of Al Jazeera, a satellite news channel free from all forms of censorship. At that time, the media industry in the Middle East was cramped between the protection of political interests and the absence of editorial freedom. Within that context, Al Jazeera made a staggering entrance on the region’s market.
 
Nevertheless, the channel was still a central element of the emir’s political agenda. Few months before launching Al Jazeera and frustrated by his neighbors’ support to Bahrain over a territorial dispute, the new ruler of Qatar decided to use national media as a tribune of expression for Bahraini opposition movements. Even if it didn’t put an end to the conflict, this incident is revealing of an early political will to increase Qatar’s influence in the region by acquiring a nuisance capacity through media in the name of freedom of expression.
 
In order to distance itself from the channel and as a proof of its editorial independence, Doha allocated 500 millions Qatari riyals (about 100 millions Euros) to Al Jazeera in the form of a loan instead of a direct state subvention.
 
The team is composed with journalists originating from all over the Arab world. In addition to an unprecedented margin of freedom, such political and ideological pluralism within the channel also fed a project that would become Al Jazeera’s editorial fundament: the renewal of Arab journalism.  Al Jazeera’s editorial fundament? The renewal of Arab journalism. The character of the advocate reporter is at the center of this vision. His mission, while complying with the professional standards of authenticity and neutrality, is to defend the Arab cause and further political and social reforms across the region[+] NoteTALON Claire Gabrielle, Al Jazeera. Liberté d’expression et pétromonarchie, PUF, Paris, 2011X [1]. Such editorial policy helps understand Al Jazeera’s bold support to the Arab uprisings and its active role in the expansion of the revolutionary wave from Tunis to Cairo and Benghazi.
 
Soon after it started broadcasting, Al Jazeera began focusing on sensitive issues that were until then carefully avoided by the rest of the media in the region. The channel’s professionalism and its taste for breaking news quickly propelled it to the rank of credible source of information on the pan-Arab and global news market.
 
Critics were quick to condemn Doha for taking the freedom to challenge the region’s taboos while keeping Qatar’s policy in its blind spot.
 
But beyond such observation implying that Qatar could be Al Jazeera’s red line, it is the clear alignment between the new emir’s ambition and the channel’s editorial policy that represents a crucial element to assess Al Jazeera’s potential in strengthening Qatar’s political influence. When he took power, the emir started promoting a set of political reforms within which the channel held a central function. By doing so he aimed at emancipating his country from its neighbors’ domination, most particularly from Saudi Arabia, and to impose its state as a key player in a region where news media and political power are tightly linked to each other.
 
Between the years 1990 and 2000, the technical evolution of broadcast transmission led to the explosion in number of satellite channels in the Arab world. But despite such a proliferation the strife for the fundamental right to information remained a reality. Whereas the creation of independent newspapers was legal in the majority of the region, state’s monopole on broadcast media still prevailed. The crucial link between financial independence and editorial freedom was sorely lacking[+] NoteSAKR Naomi, Satellite Realms. Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East, I.B. Tauris, New York, 2001X [2].
 
Satellite revolution has also contributed to solidify Gulf’s investments supremacy over the region news media market, especially Saudi Arabia, which has been overshadowing the industry since the 1960s. Rivalries between Arab emirates have reinforced the prominence of the Gulf political and religious visions on the region media landscape.  News channels are financial black holes, they are first and foremost tools of political ambitions.  The augmentation and intensification of conflicts in the Arab world at that time have also motivated political actors from different horizons to launch their own news media outlet whenever they could afford it. Most of the region round-the-clock news channels are financial black holes, and them being so numerous shows that these channels are first and foremost tools of political ambitions. 
 
It is within this context of collusion between financial and political interests that Qatar decided to enter a market petrified by censorship and Saudi domination. Besides of being the first round-the-clock news channel to broadcast uncensored live programs, Al Jazeera also set itself apart from its competitors by establishing its headquarters in Doha and not within a media free zone or a western city.
 
But make no mistake here. Qatar’s green light for the creation of a channel that will have an irreversible impact on the liberalization of media discourse in the Middle East has more to do with the region context of pan-Arab rivalries in the Gulf and the new emir’s political agenda, than the ideological argument of freedom of expression.
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The post-Al Jazeera era

Rapidly, the channel’s style and method became regarded as a model by the rest of pan-Arab news industry. The higher the number of satellite channels, the tighter the gap between Al Jazeera and its competitors in terms of program formats and visual codes. The growth of the channel never relied on exclusive innovations. The ingredients of its success – diversity of topics and opinions, international professional standards, an Arab orientation, heated and uncensored debates – have allowed Al Jazeera to take advantage of a freedom niche on the Arab media market at a turning point in the evolution of the region industry. But widening the margins of media freedom doesn’t represent in itself a comparative advantage on the long run, nor does it protect the Qatari channel from rivals willing to imitate and improve its products[+] NoteZAYANI Mohamed and SAHRAOUI Sofiane, The Culture of Al Jazeera, Inside an Arab Media Giant, MC Farland and Company, Jefferson, 2007X [3]. This situation has led to progressive market standardization and a normalization of Al Jazeera’s style, formats, rhetoric, and images. It is however undeniable that the channel has turned freedom of expression into a sine qua non condition for any competitor or newcomer wishing to be taken seriously on the market.
 
There is thus a before and an after Al Jazeera that is being characterized by the industry uniformity but also by an intensification and a diversification of competition in front of increasingly fragmented and demanding audiences.
 
It can be said that the post-Al Jazeera era started in 2003, after Saudi Arabia launched its own round-the-clock satellite news channel, Al Arabiya, which explicit mission is to counter the vision of the world defended by Al Jazeera[+] Note LYNCH Marc, Voices of the New-Arab Public. Iraq, Al Jazeera, and the Middle East Politics Today, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006X [4]. The new channel quickly won recognition as a heavy challenger. Based in the media free zone of Dubai Media City, the channel as a part of the Saudi group MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Company) is presented as a promoter of moderation to balance its Qatari rival’s extremist and sensationalistic point of view.
 
The competition between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and the editorial choices that set them apart, is displaying the political rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the television screens of the region. Numerous critics blame the editorial teams of both channels for being carried away by their ideological antagonism to the detriment of professionalism and news quality.
 
The Arab uprisings of 2011 have exacerbated these tensions. In a post-revolutionary transition period, it has become essential both for Qatar and Saudi Arabia to take part to the political remapping of the region. The channels’ instrumentalization became even more noticeable. Within that environment, in May 2012, a third competitor, Sky News Arabia entered the market of round-the-clock pan-Arab news channels. Joined venture between Rupert Murdoch’s New Corp. and Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, this Emirati outlet has the ambition to position itself between its Qatari and Saudi rivals. The channel’s correspondent in Cairo explained that the United Arab Emirates are now trying to become the Switzerland of the Middle East. Sky News Arabia wants to compensate for Al jazeera’s and Al Arabiya’s loss of editorial neutrality in the aftermath of the uprisings. The arrival of the UAE on the news channel market also confirms that the enmities between Gulf political powers continue to shape the Arab world media landscape.
 
Despite the rising of its Saudi contender, Al Jazeera has maintained a dominant stance on the market. The superposition of dictatorial regimes on a national level, and the increasing liberalization of media discourse on the transnational scale, has prompted the Qatari channel to act as the region substitute for domestic public spheres choked by authoritarian governments.
 
Though Al Jazeera’s impact on the formation of an Arab public opinion is certitude, the causality with the organization of collective actions on the ground is less obvious. Even if the ruling system in the Arab world is configured in a way that allows some political debates to happen, the real power of change remains in the hands of a small elite. The concretization of mass mobilization and the acquirement of knowledge on democracy have no obvious correlation with Al Jazeera’s role as a stand for dissent and a proxy for the Arab peoples’ frustration, except in reaffirming the region’s support to the Palestinian cause and to other Middle Eastern conflicts. The Qatari channel has certainly rekindled a general interest for public discussions and a broader acceptance of pluralism of expression. But it is difficult to assert that, once the TV is off and without local supports to relay it, Al Jazeera has had any tangible political impact on the ground.
 
It is however irrefutable that the channel’s influence over its competitors – both on a national and regional level – led to the liberalization of media discourse and increased the pressures on Arab regimes. In Egypt for example, since the beginning of the 2000s, Al Jazeera never stopped covering the country’s current affairs in a very critical manner towards the Mubarak regime, putting the heavily censored Egyptian media in an awkward position. Worried about this unprecedented type of concurrence, businessmen in control of the country’s private media sector decided to launch on their own satellite channels talk shows in dialect dubbed as opposition platforms, and copycats of Al Jazeera’s famous programs “The Opposite Direction” and “More than one opinion”. The regime agreed on giving them a wider margin of action to deal with social issues and matters of public interest that were until then rarely talked about on TV. By challenging the limits of public debate Al Jazeera compelled private satellite channels to follow its path in order to stay competitive.
 
Hussein Abdel Ghani, head of the channel’s bureau in Cairo from 2000 to 2011, explains the crucial influence Al Jazeera has had on the country’s popular consciousness long before the revolution, which is itself the result of the accumulation of diverse political events. During the first half of the 2000s, the channel covered relatively isolated and disparate political mobilizations across the country. But it never had an impact on the masses. In his opinion, the ambition to change the situation on the ground was impossible to achieve without the involvement of local media[+] NoteInterview with the author on May 8th 2012.X [5].
 
The rising of blogs and social media by 2005 radically changed the situation. The growing politicization of new media appeared in continuity with Al Jazeera’s discourse for mobilization and reform. This new media ecosystem beneficiated to both parties. As Al Jazeera helped them to gain more visibility the cyber-activists in return gave the channel local backing on the ground to capitalize its political influence. Such articulation represents a major turning point, which reached its peak during the revolutions of 2011.
 
Al Jazeera - Doha
 
It is however irrefutable that the channel’s influence over its competitors – both on a national and regional level – led to the liberalization of media discourse and increased the pressures on Arab regimes. In Egypt for example, since the beginning of the 2000s, Al Jazeera never stopped covering the country’s current affairs in a very critical manner towards the Mubarak regime, putting the heavily censored Egyptian media in an awkward position. Worried about this unprecedented type of concurrence, businessmen in control of the country’s private media sector decided to launch on their own satellite channels talk shows in dialect dubbed as opposition platforms, and copycats of Al Jazeera’s famous programs “The Opposite Direction” and “More than one opinion”. The regime agreed on giving them a wider margin of action to deal with social issues and matters of public interest that were until then rarely talked about on TV. By challenging the limits of public debate Al Jazeera compelled private satellite channels to follow its path in order to stay competitive.
 
Hussein Abdel Ghani, head of the channel’s bureau in Cairo from 2000 to 2011, explains the crucial influence Al Jazeera has had on the country’s popular consciousness long before the revolution, which is itself the result of the accumulation of diverse political events. During the first half of the 2000s, the channel covered relatively isolated and disparate political mobilizations across the country. But it never had an impact on the masses. In his opinion, the ambition to change the situation on the ground was impossible to achieve without the involvement of local media[+] NoteInterview with the author on May 8th 2012X [6].
 
The rising of blogs and social media by 2005 radically changed the situation. The growing politicization of new media appeared in continuity with Al Jazeera’s discourse for mobilization and reform. This new media ecosystem beneficiated to both parties. As Al Jazeera helped them to gain more visibility the cyber-activists in return gave the channel local backing on the ground to capitalize its political influence. Such articulation represents a major turning point, which reached its peak during the revolutions of 2011.
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Al Jazeera at a crossroads after the Arab revolutions

“Long live Al Jazeera” was cheering the crowd on Tahrir Square in front of improvised sheet-screens a week before Hosni Mubarak’s fall. Al Jazeera’s exceptional round-the-clock coverage of the Egyptian uprising – to the point where the channel decided to suspend all its regular programs – and other revolutionary events in the Middle East, propelled the Qatari channel to the upfront of the political scene. By staging images of jubilant crowds, Al Jazeera finally seemed to have accomplished its self-given mission of becoming one day the catalyst of democracy in the region. Even though today in retrospect the analysis of events is a bit different, the chances are high that if Egyptians never had witnessed, from their living room or popular coffee shops, the Tunisian uprising unfold on their TV screens, the revolutionary unrest in the Arab world would never have gained such a spectacular magnitude.
 
Al Jazeera Arabic 
 
Al Jazeera’s bold commitment for the fall of dictatorships – and the huge popularity the channel earned from it – has sparked a wave of bitter criticism from its competitors denouncing the channel’s confusion between journalism and activism. Lawrence Pintak quotes Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya’s executive director – which coverage of the 2011 uprisings was more tamed – saying that it is not media’s role to support a revolution: ”It’s not about trying to act as a political party who’s trying to be activist rather than to offer information. (…) Al Jazeera, is trying to be part of the conflict.”
 
Furthermore, the Qatari channel has been the first news outlet to pay attention to online mobilization and to spread information and videos shared on social networks by protesters. Al Jazeera was thus relaying with fervor their demands and actions on the ground.
 
It is precisely this new media ecosystem that has allowed Arab youths, main protagonists of these uprisings, to speak up and be heard.  If there has been a revolution, it is the unprecedented access granted to younger generations to political debate and public expression.  For the first time in the history of Middle Eastern media, young people, who never had a say in political matters, were interviewed on TV to give their opinion on something else than music videos. If there has been a revolution, it is the unprecedented access granted to younger generations to political debate and public expression. By becoming their champion, Al Jazeera helped these “Shababs” – “young” in Arabic – to become the heroes of their own revolution.
 
However, Al Jazeera’s increasingly explicit politicization of news narratives on Arab affairs led to a progressive loss of credibility. It soon became obvious that the channel’s coverage was unequal in terms of quality and intensity from a country to another, especially on Bahrain and Syria.
 
In the first case, the channel refused to report the uprising as a popular revolution, even though every mobilization happening in the Arab world in 2011 had been labeled as such. Instead Al Jazeera resorted to the terminology of interreligious conflict between Shiites (abhorred in the Gulf for dogmatic and political reasons) and Sunnis (the religious confession of the region’s ruling families). This designation of the Bahraini conflict was way less alluring and was carried by the channel’s famous preacher Youssouf Al Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and whose popular program “Shariah and Life” gathers more than 60 millions viewers. Al Jazeera’s editorial policy was to stall a revolutionary momentum getting dangerously too close. Qatar took part, in March 2011, to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) joined military intervention in order to protect the royal family of Bahrain and stifle an uprising that was bringing the Arab revolutions at the doorstep of the region’s monarchies.
 
In the case of Syria, the channel adopted the complete opposite strategy. Al Jazeera relayed without questioning their authenticity YouTube videos uploaded online by activists presenting themselves as opponents of the regime. A large number of these clips appeared to be fake, which gave the impression that Al Jazeera had put sensationalism and political activism before news quality and veracity.
 
The channel’s Cairo team recalls how, as early as January 25th 2011, they have been caught up by the unfolding events. Being themselves Egyptian, these journalists don’t deny having been carried away by the revolutionary euphoria and their pride to take an active part in the making of their country’s history. Overwhelmed by images that spoke on their own, the editorial guidelines were minimal and their work on the ground was to cover as many protests as they could in order to help the Egyptian people to get to know its heroes. The team said they were actively striving for the fall of the regime and never gave room to Hosni Moubarak’s supporters.
 
Quickly, Doha, eager to take part to the reshaping of the country’s political scene and media industry, decided to capitalize on the channel’s unprecedented popularity by weighing on editorial decisions.  By imposing a pro-Islamist tone to the coverage of post-revolutionary Egyptian news, the channel sacrificed its balanced approach that was until then a token of professionalism for its employees.  By imposing a pro-Islamist tone to the coverage of post-revolutionary Egyptian news, the channel sacrificed its balanced approach that was until then a token of professionalism for its employees. Al Jazeera did play a crucial role during the Arab uprisings but it actually earned the channel more losses than benefits in terms of image and ratings.
 
Since the ousting of president Morsi last July, tens of the network’s correspondents (a majority of them working for the channel Al Jazera Mubasher Misr) have resigned. Denouncing an editorial policy of disinformation and incitement of violence, they said they received precise instructions to broadcast some news in detriment of others, giving a biased understanding of reality and current events. In August, an Al Jazeera English news presenter was pulled off air mid-bulletin by a senior executive, after she interviewed a Muslim Brotherhood representative shedding what has been perceived as a negative light on her interlocutor and his organization.
 
Accused of being the Muslim Brotherhood’s mouthpiece, the channel’s popularity in Egypt has reached an all-time low. Nowadays the network’s journalists, once acclaimed as heroes of the revolution, are not welcomed on Tahrir Square anymore and are being attacked by protestors. This situation also prevails in press conferences where other media’s reporters refuse to start until Al Jazeera’s journalists haven’t left the room.
 
About thirty of Al Jazeera’s employees have been arrested during the week that followed Morsi’s departure. Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which was accused of operating in Egypt without a legal permit, has also been shut down. Several members of the interim government have blamed the channel for leading a campaign of lies and threatening the country’s national unity and security. The decision to close down Al Jazeera Mubashr Misr was taken the day after the channel broadcast a declaration by then-wanted Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie in which he criticized the transition government. 
 
In September 2011 Wadah Khanfar, whose vision has propelled Al Jazeera to its pinnacle during the Arab uprisings, has been replaced as the director general of the network by Ahmed Bin Jassim Al Thani, a close parent of the emir. It is the first time that this seat is given to a member of the ruling family and it illustrates Qatar’s will to enforce a tougher control over its satellite channel.
 
When he gave his resignation, Khanfar explained that he did so because he had attained the objectives he had set for the network. But such a sudden move after such a success have force skeptics to wonder if it wasn’t Doha which in reality had reached its strategic goals and was now looking to consolidate its political gains. Thanks to the channel’s popularity and its active role during the Arab uprisings, Qatar has been able in a more or less explicit manner to play an important part in the remapping of the region. The country now beneficiates from a political influence that is disproportionate in regards to its tiny population (about 2 millions of inhabitants). Up to now its small size on the global scale could justify why Qatar was not a priority on Al Jazeera’s editorial agenda. It is not the case anymore. It was only a matter of time before Khanfar’s loyal audiences started demanding that his critical vision be redirected towards the Gulf region including Qatar.
 
The challenge for Doha would have been to interfere on Al Jazeera’s editorial policy in a subtler manner. For a network, which has built its credibility on its political independence, the shift should have been barely noticeable. But the loss of credibility has become too obvious and has irrevocably compromised the Al Jazeera brand in the eyes of the Arab public.
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Key Dates

The news sector:
- 1996: the Arabic channel broadcasts 6 hours a day until 1997 when it extends its transmission to 12 hours before offering a round-the-clock coverage in 1999
- 2005: Al Jazeera Mubasher (“live” in Arabic) covers live and without comment political conferences, public discussions and parliamentary debates.
- 2006: Al Jazeera English covers global affairs in English from four main centers – Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC – from which tens of bureau branch out all over the world.
- 2011: Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr (“Egypt Live”) – a duplicate of the channel Mubasher – was launched in March 2011 few weeks after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The channel’s team is exclusively made of Egyptian journalists focusing on the country’s local news.
-2011: Al Jazeera Balkans started to broadcast in Serbo-Croatian from Sarajevo for the countries of ex-Yugoslavia
-2011: the network known until then as Al Jazeera Satellite Channel (AJSC) changed its legal status form a public entity to a “private organization devoted to public interest”, becoming Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) with the aim to facilitate the expansion of the Qatari media empire.
- 2013: Al Jazeera America (AJAM) became available on US cable networks. Its creation triggered a controversy among Al Jazeera English’s team as the channel was until then available online for free everywhere in the world. In order to avoid any free competition with its new channel the network decides to geo-block Al Jazeera English in the US even though its news quality has been praised by Hillary Clinton.
- 2013: Al Jazeera Turk should start broadcasting at the end of the year from Istanbul
- Still in prospect: Al Jazeera Urdu for the Afghan-Pakistan region, and the launch of channels in French and Spanish. The project of Al Jazeera Kiswahili which was supposed to broadcast from Nairobi for the region of East Africa has been discontinued.
 
Al Jazeera Sports has been created in 2003 and counts today more than twenty channels in several languages and broadcasting from various countries.
 
Al Jazeera Children launched in 2005 is now composed with four channels:
-          “Baraem” for children from 3 to 6
-          “Jeem TV” for children from 7 to 12
-          “Taalam” an on-demand educative portal
-          “Siwar” which mission is to encourage artistic expression for children from 9 to 16
 
Al Jazeera Documentary has been producing and airing documentaries in Arabic on various topics since 2007.
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References

Naomi SAKR, Satellite Realms. Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East, I.B. Tauris, New York, 2001
 
Claire Gabrielle TALON, Al Jazeera. Liberté d’expression et pétromonarchie, PUF, Paris, 2011

Mohamed ZAYANI et Sofiane SAHRAOUI, The Culture of Al Jazeera, Inside an Arab Media Giant, Mc Farland and Company, Jefferson, 2007

Marc LYNCH, Voices of the New-Arab Public. Iraq, Al Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006
 
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Photo Credits:
- Main picture : Al Jazeera Arabic (Sam Granleese / Flickr)
- Hamad Ben Khalifa Al-Thani
- Al Jazeera set (Paul Keller / Flickr)
- Al Jazeera Arabic (Osama Saeed / Flickr)

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  • 1. TALON Claire Gabrielle, Al Jazeera. Liberté d’expression et pétromonarchie, PUF, Paris, 2011
  • 2. SAKR Naomi, Satellite Realms. Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East, I.B. Tauris, New York, 2001
  • 3. ZAYANI Mohamed and SAHRAOUI Sofiane, The Culture of Al Jazeera, Inside an Arab Media Giant, MC Farland and Company, Jefferson, 2007
  • 4. LYNCH Marc, Voices of the New-Arab Public. Iraq, Al Jazeera, and the Middle East Politics Today, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006
  • 5. Interview with the author on May 8th 2012.
  • 6. Interview with the author on May 8th 2012
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