On 5 June this year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. Among other things, they justified the act based on the state’s alleged support of “terrorist” groups and it’s so called diplomatic sympathies with Iran, all of which Doha denies. Soon after, it emerged that the lifting of sanctions might come at the cost of no fewer than 13 demands, later reduced to six principles.
Among the obligations was the closure of all news outlets which are directly and indirectly Qatari funded, it specified; Al Jazeera, Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Mekameleen and Middle East Eye.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani responded that Al Jazeera Media Network was to remain an “internal affair”. In response, Giles Trendle, the managing director of Al Jazeera English, said: “It’s as absurd as it would be for Germany to demand Britain to close the BBC.”
Why is the Doha-based broadcaster being targeted? Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar, yet claims an independent editorial line. When Al Jazeera was established it disrupted the mainstream Arab language media. On the one hand, it was celebrated as mouthpiece for voices that had long been neglected, on the other, shunned as a tool for inciting sectarianism and dissent in the Arab region. While the sanctions are unprecedented, spats between Qatar and its neighbours have been common over the years and similarly Al Jazeera has frequently come under pressure.
To place the channel in its highly combustible context, Trendle states:
The Middle East is boiling, people are very passionate, for many years they have not had a voice, Al Jazeera is like a safety valve, there is a lot of pressure that has been building up.
Pressure and passions aside, many argue that for a media channel to be funded by an authoritarian regime remains problematic on credibility front.
The roots of this recent Al Jazeera onslaught go back to 2011, the Arab Spring and Al Jazeera’s unapologetic coverage of opposition groups in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere. It comes as no surprise therefore that the calls to shut the channel down are coming from those same autocratic leaderships. Bahrain’s authorities for example would not have forgotten Al Jazeera’s commissioning and broadcasting of the documentary “Shouting In The Dark” offering a rare and harrowing insight into the oppression of the country’s uprising in 2011. Wadah Khanfar, ex-director general of Al Jazeera, says:
We are being punished now because for one day we thought that the Arab Spring was a brilliant day in our history and we at Al Jazeera stood for the people who marched in the Arab streets.
In the case of Middle East Eye, a UK based platform for online news, David Hearst, its editor-in-chief, responded that the news site is not funded by Qatar. Instead he blames the attack on the independent nature of its media model which sells articles to an Arabic audience. Hearst says: “A lot of what I write and also what the rest of the Middle East Eye writes gets translated into Arabic and the people behind this, particularly the Saudis, are really dead scared of any criticism or examination on what’s going on.”
Another report that would support this is that only Al Jazeera Arabic is currently being asked to close, not its English counterpart. Although the editorial line between the two differs, Hearst warns: “Understand the mindset of a power that says we can take criticism in English but not in Arabic.”
Broadcasting opposition movements have often been overshadowed by the channel’s supposed Islamist sympathies. In 2015 criticism of the channel peaked when Al Jazeera Arabic published a poll in which 80 per cent of its viewership voted “Yes” in response to the question on Daesh’s influence: “Do you consider the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq and Syria in the interest of the region?”
Trendle supports the move saying: “We don’t incite, we report, and that’s a key difference.” He said with regard to channel airing or hosting extremist figures: “Remember Margret Thatcher in the eighties, she banned the BBC from interviewing the ‘terrorists’ of the IRA and the BBC got around it.”
When asked if Al Jazeera would be compromised by the demands on Qatar, Trendle answered: “No, we just get on with our jobs”. No doubt things are not that simple and as with the majority of international media outlets there are many areas in which Al Jazeera could improve. Even Khanfar admits: “Of course we made mistakes otherwise we would not be a human organisation.” Yes, Al Jazeera should be scrutinised but doing so at this particular moment in time unfortunately feeds into the hands of people with no tolerance of others’ press freedoms nor their own. Khanfar continues: “Do you know they [Saudi] have just issued a law for punishing with five to 25 years in jail if they write a tweet sympathising with Qatar?”
The fact that Qatar’s support of terrorist groups is projected by states who are directly involved in the funding of extremist organisations remains confusing at best. The attack therefore should not in itself tarnish Al Jazeera’s or other targeted media’s reputations but instead serve as an alarm bell to the wider onslaught on media by authoritarian governments and leaders around the world. Bias or not, one can’t help agreeing with Trendle when he says: “The day that Al Jazeera isn’t around would be a dark day for journalism and a dark day for the region.”