Q&A: Why Some Countries Are Trying to Muzzle Al-Jazeera

The Al-Jazeera global news network has once again become the subject of the news.

The Israeli government called this week for the Qatar-based network’s Jerusalem bureau to be closed, its journalists’ press credentials revoked and its transmission blocked.

The move follows a decision by Saudi Arabia and Jordan to shutter the network’s local offices. Its websites and channels were also blocked in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Egypt has banned Al-Jazeera since 2013, when the military there took power.

These countries accuse Al-Jazeera of inciting violence. Al-Jazeera says the moves are an attempt by governments to suppress freedom of expression.

Here’s a look at what’s at play.

What’s Al-Jazeera story?

Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar and has grown to become one of the most widely seen Arabic news channels in the world. The network says its channels reach 100 countries and 310 million homes worldwide.

Since its inception in 1996, the station has been one of the few to present views that contrast with traditional, state-censored Arabic press. It was the first Arab-owned news outlet to host Israeli officials and commentators, which some analysts note coincided with Qatar’s ties with Israel at the time.

While Al-Jazeera maintains that it operates independently of the Qatari government, critics say its coverage reflects Qatar’s foreign policy.

Al-Jazeera has said the measures to close it in Saudi Arabia are unjustified, and that Israel’s accusations of unfair coverage are odd and unsubstantiated.

Why is Al-Jazeera being targeted?

In early June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain launched a diplomatic assault on Qatar, cutting diplomatic and transport links with the small, energy-rich Gulf country due to its foreign policy. They also took aim at Al-Jazeera and other Qatari-funded media outlets for allegedly seditious and provocative coverage.

The four countries accuse Qatar of backing terror groups and want it to curb its ties with Iran. They also accuse Qatar of backing the Muslim Brotherhood group and its offshoots, which Egypt and UAE see as a top threat.

Qatar says the measures against it are politically motivated and an attempt to strong-arm Qatar into falling in lockstep with Saudi Arabia.

Israeli officials – seeing an opportunity in the Arab quartet’s blockade of Al-Jazeera – criticized the station’s coverage of renewed tensions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and accused it of presenting unprofessional journalism before proposing to block it altogether.

What is Qatar’s role?

Al-Jazeera and Qatar have been intertwined since it was launched in 1996 with financial backing from the ruling emir at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Throughout its existence, the station has received funding from Qatari’s leadership. Its chairman is a member of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family.

The network generates some revenue from advertisers, though details of its finances and ownership are not made publicly available as it is not a listed company.

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has outright rejected demands the country shut down Al-Jazeera. He told The Associated Press in June that Qatar’s foreign policy does not dictate Al-Jazeera’s coverage.

How will Al-Jazeera be affected?

Even before this diplomatic spat, the network was shrinking some of its global operations after years of ambitious expansion. It has laid off hundreds of employees in recent years and now has some 4,000 staff worldwide. The network in 2016 pulled the plug on its Al-Jazeera America channel less than three years after its launch to compete with U.S. cable news broadcasters.

It’s unclear how effective the bans will be in keeping Al-Jazeera from reaching its viewers. Across the region and in Israel, many Arab citizens watch Al-Jazeera through private satellite dishes rather than traditional cable transmission. The channels also livestream on YouTube.

What is Al-Jazeera’s coverage like?

American viewers became familiar with Al-Jazeera after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when its golden-hued Arabic logo became synonymous with video messages by America’s then-most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The channel aired the messages it received, sparking frequent complaints by then-President George W. Bush’s White House. The station defended its policy, saying the messages were newsworthy.

Critics say in past years, Al-Jazeera – particularly its flagship Arabic channel – has reflected Qatari policy by promoting Islamist movements. Many of the region’s Arab rulers, particularly in Egypt and the UAE, see the Muslim Brotherhood group and its offshoots as a top threat.

Israel has long been irked by Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the conflict there. During past wars in the Gaza Strip, Al-Jazeera has carried unflinchingly raw images of Palestinian women and children killed by Israeli airstrikes. Its reporters refer to Israel as an occupying force and to east Jerusalem as Occupied Jerusalem.

However, Al-Jazeera’s English and Arabic channels, as well as its news websites and its popular online AJ+ videos, do not mirror one another in style and target different audiences.

What are others saying?

Reporters Without Borders says Al-Jazeera has become a collateral victim in the diplomatic offensive against Qatar. The group says closing the station’s bureaus is a political decision that amounts to censorship of a TV broadcaster.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized Israel’s moves against Al-Jazeera. The CPJ said closing Al-Jazeera’s offices would put Israel firmly in the camp of some of the region’s worst enemies of press freedom. It called on Israel to allow all journalists to report freely from the country and areas it occupies.

Rights group Amnesty International says moves to censor Al-Jazeera are a brazen attack on media freedom and sends a chilling message that the Israeli authorities will not tolerate critical coverage.

Source: Voice of America

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