Media close ranks behind Al Jazeera
‘Freedom of expression paramount’
NOT LONG after media freedom came about in South Africa in the 1990s, Al Jazeera started television broadcasts from the Gulf state of Qatar.
Daoud Kuttab, of Community Network, Jordan, remembers vividly 21 years ago when Al Jazeera became the first station in a sea of state-controlled Middle East media to allow a live interview. Kuttab told a two-day conference in Doha this week that this first live interview led to some loosening of control over the media in the Middle East.
The meeting themed “Freedom of expression: facing up to the threat” was called in response to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain launching a blockade of Qatar after cutting ties with it, and a call for the closure of Al Jazeera.
The sanctions were described as “bullying” at the conference.
The four states three of which – are fellow members with Qatar of the Gulf Co-operative Council have – accused it of financing militant groups in Syria, and allying with Iran, their regional foe.
The stand-off erupted at the beginning of last month after remarks were published at the end of May attributed to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in which he was quoted as praising Gaza’s ruling Islamist Hamas movement and calling Iran an “Islamic power”.
Qatar, however, said the emir had not made the remarks and said its official news agency’s website had been hacked.
Qatar’s opponents called on the energy-rich state to shut down Al Jazeera, especially its Arabic service, which was accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood political movement, the nemesis of the current Egyptian regime.
The demand prompted an international outcry from proponents of freedom of expression and international journalism bodies. The concern led to Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee calling this week’s conference, which was organised with the International Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute and with support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Broadcasting Union and Human Rights Watch.
Kuttab said: “Media houses must stay united to protect media freedom, forgetting their differences, if any.
“They must show solidarity with other journalists and media houses if they are subjected to unfair treatment.”
Zimababwean journalist and trainer, Luckson Chipare, from the Namibian-based Media Institute of Southern Africa, and Rhodes University alumnus and UK-based advocate, Rodney Dixon, talked about international regulation of the internet.
Chipare gave an example from Zimbabwe of how internet freedom is undermined, saying: “Governments often use national security as cover for violating free expression rights of their citizens.”
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said: “We are all aware of the terrorism allegations (against Qatar) that are said to be the foremost concern.
“I can’t speak to the claims of secret financing. But I am aware that long-term, open Saudi financing of Wahhabi and Salafist preachers and schools has promoted an extreme form of Islam that lies behind many terrorist groups today,” he said.
“While we tend to limit the terrorist label to non-governmental groups, the Saudi-led coalition has been causing a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Indiscriminate bombing has repeatedly killed many civilians. An embargo has led to widespread malnutrition and even starvation. A weakened population now faces the world’s largest cholera outbreak.”
He noted that one of the demands by the four Arab States was that Qatar stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, for which Al Jazeera’s Arabic service has been accused of being a cheerleader.
While noting that adherents of some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political manifestations may sometimes be involved in violent attacks on civilians and intolerance of dissent, he stressed that “the essence of what the Gulf monarchs found dangerous about the Muslim Brotherhood is that it represents a vision of Islamic governance based on the ballot box rather than hereditary (or, in the case of Egypt, military) rule”.
“Like Al Jazeera, the Muslim Brotherhood saw a role for the general public in political discourse and governance. That is a scary proposition for the Gulf royal families and Egypt’s military rulers.
“The Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian governments have rounded up their own Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Bahrain and UAE have even threatened to punish anyone ‘expressing sympathy’ for Qatar.”
Roth saw the conference as an opportunity for Qatar to become a proponent of human rights, much as South Africa had become for some years after 1994. “It is noteworthy that Qatar was willing to support the Muslim Brotherhood since this country is no more a democracy than the other Gulf monarchies. I hope that signals an opening.”
Barbie Zelizer, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, condemned the calls on Al Jazeera as a demonisation of journalism that does not serve the public.
She said when Al Jazeera was launched two decades ago, it promoted high ideals of journalism.
“Its platform aimed to provide reliable information across the Arab world, and it strove… to offer a different kind of journalistic presence for and about the region,” Zelizer said.
“To be sure, no news outlet is perfect, and Al Jazeera is no exception. The past few years reveal a dip in its credibility and tilts to its balance for overarching coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Both Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera Mubasher (similar to South Africa’s parliamentary channel) closed down,” she said, adding that, “criticism of the government in Qatar is pretty much non-existent”.
James Tager, from PEN America, argued that although the call on Al Jazeera may be part of a larger political dispute it “should not stop us… from forcefully standing up for press freedoms, for the right of Al Jazeera and other outlets to report free from interference.” He spoke of shutdowns of media in Egypt and Bahrain and “an attempt to control narratives” in the UAE.
He reserved some of his strongest criticism for his own country, the US, which has faced a “constant barrage of denigration” from President Donald Trump, who, “only a few weeks into his administration, labelled a large portion of the American media as ‘enemies of the American people’.”
Daoud Kuttab, Community Network, Jordan, at a meeting on “Freedom of expression: facing up to the threat” in Qatar this week. PICTURE: PETER KENNY