The Middle East is going through a period of “historical regional re-arrangement” where Al Jazeera is an enemy to the forces opposed to democracy, government accountability and press freedom, a panel of journalists and media heads said at an event in the Houses of Parliament yesterday.
In a discussion about the importance of media plurality in the Arab world, British MP Catherine West chaired a lively debate over the attempt by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to shut down Al Jazeera. One of the 13 demands made by Saudi and its Arab allies before lifting the blockade against Qatar was for Doha to close down its “most famous export”.
Abdulla Al-Najjar, the executive director of global branding and communications at Al Jazeera, began the discussion by expressing his concerns over what he described as the general shift towards authoritarianisms around the world. Pointing to the growing trend, where there has been a rise in attacks on media agencies and the imprisonment of journalists, he warned “unless this trend is challenged it will be the death of plurality of media around the world”.
Al-Najja considers media freedom in the Middle East to be a “life and death issue”. He seemed to be saying that freedom of the press was more crucial for the Middle East than other parts of the world where the media is not under complete control of governments. He stressed that due to growing political polarisation of the region a lot more was riding on having free media in the Middle East than elsewhere. “Without diversity you cannot embrace tolerance,” Al-Najjar said, “without diversity you are forced to live in a life of bias.”
For his part, Giles Trendle, acting managing director of Al Jazeera English, began by telling the audiences that the blockading countries had begun the process of rowing back from their unreasonable demands. The four countries who initially placed 13 demands including shutting down Al Jazeera now wanted Qatar to accept six principles including a pledge to fight terrorism and extremism and end incitement. Al Jazeera was nowhere to be mentioned.
In the four minutes Giles and other panel members were given to speak, he mentioned that the experience of past months has been the “toughest experience since its [Al Jazeera’s] existence”. Giles has previously condemned the demands in an interview saying: “It’s as absurd as it would be for Germany to demand Britain close the BBC.” He considers Al Jazeera to be unique in the region while mentioning that over 70 nationalities of all religion and all faiths and none were represented by its employees.
The two next speakers addressed the broader trends shaping the region. Former Director General of Al Jazeera TV Network and its co-founder, Wadah Khanfar, began by describing the collapse of the “old axis”, referring to President George W Bush’s “axis of evil” speech that launched the “war on terror” and also the political axis that existed in the region before the Arab uprising in 2011 which saw the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in friendly relations with Sunni countries and Sunni forces across the region.
Khanfar mentioned that that the Arab uprising fragmented this alliance. He believes that Arab leaders, being of late age and unfamiliar with modern technology, failed to grasp the central role played by social media in the uprising. Al Jazeera, he said, “was not the major tool during the Arab spring it was social media”. Khanfar was expressing what he considers to be a complete misreading of the situation by Arab leaders, who came to view Al Jazeera as enemy number one in their efforts to hold on to the grip of power permanently.
The counter revolution, which destroyed the dream of the Arab spring, resurrected a “new axis” led by Saudi Arabia, he said. Khanfar believes that the “new axis” was determined to destroy the social and political “ecosystem” that enabled the Arab Spring to take root and spread so quickly.
One by one, the counter revolution targeted every opposition to their rule and Al Jazeera is the last to be attacked.
The panellists however, did not think that the forces of the popular uprising had been completely wiped out. They believed that “the second wave of the Arab Spring will come”.
Khanfar revealed that the decision to go after Al Jazeera, dubbed “the voice of the voiceless” by its proponents throughout the evening, had been taken earlier, but it was the visit by President Donald Trump last May to Riyadh that lined up the forces required for launching the attack.
Despite Al Jazeera’s flaws, which the last speaker, David Hearst mentioned without hesitation, the audience was asked to imagine the Arab world without the broadcasting company. Hearst, editor-in -chief of the Middle East Eye, was suggesting that the Middle East without Al Jazeera would be a much poorer region. He said he regretted his initial depiction of the dispute within the GCC as a “spat” and revealed his reasons for believed it to be an internationally orchestrated blockade undertaken following “high level” meeting in the US. Hearst cited recent reports by US intelligence officials revealing that the UAE instigated the fake story leapt on by Saudi and its allies as their justification for imposing the blockade.
Hearst claims that the popularity of Al Jazeera, which the audience was told has 300 million viewers in a single day in the Middle East, is a threat to the monarchs and dictators. Hearst believes that autocrats who want to rule with impunity are afraid of public opinion which makes them turn on media agencies that report freely and honestly. He thinks the current leaders are behaving with greater impunity and are “far worse” than the likes of ousted leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali.
With the event taking place in Westminster while the British government negotiates a deal for exiting the EU, the final remarks fittingly weighed up the prospect of the UK being confronted with the GCC in meltdown. The real risk of the GCC fracturing and its implications for the UK, now desperately seeking alternative trading blocs was discussed. This dispute is not in Britain’s interest said Hearst “if there’s no GCC then there’s no trading block for the UK”.