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

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