Al-Jazeera must not be used as a bargaining chip

By Sanna Camara

Al Jazeera, a major global news organization, with 80 bureaus around the world, has recently come at the center of the ongoing gulf crises.

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Al Jazeera gained worldwide attention following the outbreak of the war in Afghanistan, when its office there was the only channel to cover the war live. Owned by the government of Qatar, its officials have stated that they are editorially independent from the government of Qatar. However, this assertion is disputed and many have accused Al Jazeera of being a propaganda outlet for the Qatari government.

The original Al Jazeera channel’s willingness to broadcast dissenting views, for example on call-in shows, created controversies in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, who until the recent Arab springs its traditional political dynamics were built on tyranny and suppression of dissent.

“From its treatment of blogger Raif Badawi to its tightly controlled media environment, the Saudi authorities must not be able to dictate access to information for the public in other countries. Al-Jazeera must not be used as a bargaining chip,” Rachael Jolley, the editor of Index on Censorship, said.

The news network has gone beyond positively influencing politics and freedom movements around the Middle East to other regions around the world. Even in our small and isolated Gambia that spent two decades fighting Africa’s brutal dictatorship, AJZ was one of the international news outlets that continued to cover The Gambia when all others showed little interest. As a result, their correspondents and TV crews were denied entry into the country.

The Saudi-led alliance against Qatar regards the Arabic wing of al-Jazeera, the most widely watched broadcaster in the Arab world, as a propaganda tool for Islamists that also undermines support for their governments. The list of demands also called for other Doha-supported news outlets to be shut, including the New Arab and Middle East Eye.

It is sometimes perceived to have mainly Islamist perspectives, promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, and having a pro-Sunni and an anti-Shia bias in its reporting of regional issues. The network is also accused of having an anti-Western bias, although the Arab Gulf States Institute agency is funded by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, who are against Al-Jazeera.

Despite these accusations, Al Jazeera insists it covers all sides of a debate; it says it presents Israel’s view, Iran’s view and even aired videos released by Osama bin Laden.

The implication and consequences

The Arab states issued a 13-point list demanding the closure of all news outlets that it funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed, Mekameleen and Middle East Eye.

“We are really worried about the implication and consequences of such requirements if they will ever be implemented,” said Alexandra El Khazen, head of Middle East and North Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organisation promoting press freedom.

Khazen said: “We are against any kind of censorship and measures that could threaten the diversity in the Arab media landscape and pluralism, for instance. The Arabic media landscape should make room and accept the broadest range of viewpoints instead of adopting repressive measures against alternative viewpoints that are found to be critical of some governments.”

Khazen also expressed concern over the impact of the demands on the employees of the mentioned media outlets. “Some of them may come under pressure to resign or to choose to do so to be aligned with the policy of their country, so we are currently investigating this,” she said.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, called the Saudi-led bloc’s demand “absurd”.

“This is just an attempted expansion of the cowardly censorship they have inflicted on their own citizens, but it will fail,” said Tim Dawson, president of the UK’s National Union of Journalists, who expressed his “absolute horror” in reaction to what he called a “monstrous request” and urged the Saudi government to withdraw the demands.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also condemned “the use of news outlets as a bargaining chip” and “urged all countries involved in this dispute to stop holding media hostage” to political differences. “The Gulf region needs a vibrant free press and news outlets based there must be allowed to report freely,” said Joel Simon, the executive director of CPJ.

Meanwhile, The Guardian criticised the efforts to silence Al Jazeera as “wrong” and “ridiculous”. “The attack on Al Jazeera is part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world. It should be condemned and resisted,” the UK-based newspaper said in an editorial.

Stunned by demands on Al Jazeera

Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al Jazeera English, said. “We are stunned by the demand to close Al Jazeera… Of course there has been talk about it in the past but it is still a great shock and surprise to actually see it in writing. It’s as absurd as it would be for Germany to demand Britain close the BBC.”

Trendle assured Al Jazeera is going to continue its “editorial mission of covering the world news in a fair and balanced way. We call on all governments to respect media freedom. We hope other media organisations will support our call to defend media freedom,” he added.

Trendle said the roots of the demand to close Al Jazeera go back to 2011 and the Arab Spring. “At that time, Al Jazeera was covering the dreams and the aspirations of a new generation of people. We provided the platform for the voice of the man and the woman in the Arab streets. We were covering those protests and we were providing a diversity of viewpoints. We were really the voice of the voiceless. I think there are some regimes in the region that don’t appreciate that diversity of views. I think that’s the reason for what’s going on here.”

Yaser Abuhilalah, director of Al Jazeera Arabic, called the demand to shut Al Jazeera a crime violating freedom of speech. “I am against demands to close any media outlet, because it is a crime, a violation of basic human rights to freedom of speech,” Abuhilalah told Sputnik.

“If Al Jazeera violated something, anyone could sue it – in a Qatari court or in [a court of] any other country, it is the legitimate right of every person harmed by the media. But the demand to close [Al Jazeera] is a crime.”

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting “terrorism”. Qatar has denied the allegation.

Whether the Saudi alliance diplomatic assaults against Qatar are genuine or not, it will be unfair for the world to sit and watch the Al Jazeera news network be drawn into their political crisis… Thw orld must not allow the political blocs to use the media as “a bargaining chip” to achieve their ends.

AL Jazeera must not be used as such.

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