Journalists are often told never to be the story themselves; “Tell the story, but never be part of the story” is the general advice. Al-Jazeera’s journalists and the network itself, however, have for years been at the centre of the story.
On International Women’s Day, for example, the UN Women for Peace Association (UNWFPA) awarded Al-Jazeera Media Network its inaugural “Awareness Award” for its pivotal role in shedding light on women’s issues around the globe. However, on most occasions when Al-Jazeera has been part of the news, it has been for not-so-celebratory reasons.
The network has continued to attract admiration and anger from people and governments alike ever since its launch in 1996. Dozens of Al-Jazeera journalists have been arrested and killed in different parts of the world, while some have been thrown into jail, especially in Egypt. Mahmoud Hussein has been held in Egypt for over a year without charge; his detention has been extended 11 times.
Furthermore, the Al-Jazeera offices in many countries face regular threats of closure; the latest of these was the bureau in Jerusalem when, in August last year, Ayoub Kara, Israel’s Minister of Communication, announced plans to revoke the credentials of Al-Jazeera journalists and close it down. More recently, American lawmakers have been lobbying and pushing for the designation of the network as a “foreign agent” in the US. These efforts followed a letter sent by Representatives Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat; Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican; and 16 other House members, including Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, claiming that Al-Jazeera directly undermines “American interests”. The designation will have dire consequences for the network’s journalists and operations in the US should it ever be confirmed. Al-Jazeera and its contractors in America would have to disclose information on their corporate structure, budget, expenditure and personnel which would be posted on the Justice Department’s website. The designation could bring undue scrutiny of the journalists and have a hugely negative impact on their careers.
Al-Jazeera has been operating in the US for a number of years — its Arabic bureau in Washington is as old as the network itself — so why is this happening now? In 2017, the network’s Investigative Unit produced a documentary which exposed how the pro-Israel lobby influences British politics. It was a six-month undercover investigation which revealed how Israel had penetrated different levels of British democracy. The documentary angered Israeli officials in Britain and jeopardised relations between the UK and Israel. As a direct result, the Israeli Embassy official implicated in the programme, Shai Masot, was removed from his position as senior political officer and sent back to Israel. Australian-born Ambassador Mark Regev was forced to make an apology to the British government.
The programme vexed Israel so much that it sent a complaint about Al-Jazeera to the British government’s regulatory and competition body for the broadcasting, telecommunications and postal industries, Ofcom. After much deliberation, Ofcom ruled in favour of Al-Jazeera, saying that the January 2017 four-part series “The Lobby” was factually accurate and correctly observed the rules on fairness, impartiality and privacy, and, importantly, that it was not anti-Semitic. The network’s victory did not come cheap, as it involved costly legal representation.
Soon after the ruling, the Investigative Unit’s Director, Clayton Swisher, announced that Al-Jazeera was preparing to broadcast a similar documentary about the pro-Israel lobby in the US. The announcement sparked the interest of powerful lobby groups, which began to prepare themselves for a bigger battle this time around, including strategies to prevent the film from ever seeing the light of day. Likewise, Al-Jazeera had to prepare itself to ensure that all legal pitfalls were avoided. This has, unfortunately, led to a delay in the film being broadcast. Naturally, the delay has made the journalists who worked on the film, including Swisher himself, very anxious. Speculation about the delay in broadcasting the programme has included innuendos that there has been undue government pressure on the network. This is when things got complicated and careful answers and clarification became necessary.
Al-Jazeera has important and pressing matters to hand, the intention of US lawmakers to designate it as a “foreign agent” being a case in point. The network will have to prove its independence if it is to succeed in countering such accusations by the Americans.
A clear explanation of the documentary’s delayed broadcast is, therefore, necessary, and needs to be articulated urgently to all stakeholders lest other unscrupulous and inaccurate “reasons” permeate the debate. The narrative which links the delay with government pressure has already gained momentum. This is unfortunate, since Washington has withstood pressure in the past to involve itself directly in Al-Jazeera’s operations. For example, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — who are currently leading a political and economic blockade against the State of Qatar — demanded the closure of the network and when the government in Doha insisted that Al-Jazeera is an independent entity, it came at a huge cost. There are plenty of other experiences which continue to demonstrate Doha’s insistence in this regard.
Suffice to say that the delay in broadcasting the US pro-Israel lobby documentary is actually a managerial prerogative and a decision which has, hopefully, taken into account the best interests of the network. There remains, however, a school of thought which argues that the release of the film could exonerate Al-Jazeera and separate the Qatar government from the institution very clearly. What’s more, the premature release of the film, ignoring certain concerns and legal pitfalls, could lead to dire consequences for the network, its staff and international operations, including protracted legal battles which could eat into its dwindling resources.
A third option, of course, could be to allow other platforms to broadcast the documentary, including social media. Whichever route is chosen, the stakes are high.