Al Jazeera Must Not Fall

By Leo Hochberg (Liberal Undergraduate)

You’ve doubtlessly heard of Al Jazeera. Perhaps you followed their famous coverage of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe you watched their news streams during the Arab Spring. And those AJ+ videos your liberal friends constantly share on Facebook? Al Jazeera as well. So why has a media network suddenly catapulted from news provider to news maker in recent weeks? The answer lies in the so-called ‘Qatar crisis’; as of June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar over allegations that the Qatari government has been funding terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. While even Donald Trump has declined to corroborate these charges, the situation was dire enough in the first days that it caused a brief food crisis, the rerouting of hundreds of Qatar Airways flights, and mass political instability as all nations involved look for diplomatic solutions. All gulf states have by some means or another chosen a side, with the notable exception of Kuwait, which has remained impartial in order to facilitate peacemaking operations.

Most recently, Saudi Arabia offered Qatar a list of 13 demands geared towards limiting the small but powerful emirate’s international capital. Most of these are hardly surprising; sever ties with Iran (Saudi Arabia’s historic enemy), cut funding to any groups deemed terrorist organizations by the Saudi government, shutter a Turkish military base within Qatar’s borders, and align economically and politically with the other GCC states. However, two extremely peculiar demands stand out among the rest: shutter Qatar’s main news station, Al Jazeera, and sever any state funding to international news organizations (which will affect stations such as the London-based news network Middle East Eye). The question of the hour is, of course, why go after a news network? How is stunting the flow of information in the Persian Gulf supposed to help resolve this political crisis?

To provide some context, Al Jazeera has long been known as one of the freest presses in the region, in spite of the fact that their coverage is often contentious and unsupported by some democratic governments. Prior to the Arab Spring, it was more or less alone in its criticisms of strongmen dictatorships such as Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. It provided unique coverage of U.S. military operations in the 2000’s and offered almost unbridled criticisms of extremely powerful regional leaders. Furthermore, Al Jazeera prided itself on presenting even the most unpopular of sides, such as those of Israel and Iran, which few Arab news stations dared to broadcast at the start of the millennium. Like all free presses, they certainly made enemies; most notably, three Egyptian journalists were jailed in Egypt on false charges of reporting fake news that was ‘damaging to national security’. Earlier, in 2001, it received criticism from Western nations for airing videos made by Osama bin Laden soon after 9/11. In recent years, their Arabic branch has started offering less balanced coverage after the Qatari emirate largely threw its voice in with the Islamists post-Arab Spring, which has led to a distinct drop in ratings.

Yet, criticism withstanding, Al Jazeera has still provided the most balanced and unrestricted news in the Middle East throughout its time on the air. It was Al Jazeera English that covered the brutal Saudi crackdown on protests in Bahrain in 2011. It was Al Jazeera that broadcasted chaos and dissidence in Syria at the start of the rebellion. It was Al Jazeera that truly offered a voice to the voiceless, even when they were the voices that state governments didn’t want anybody to hear. Nobody is claiming that the station is perfect; in fact, the criticisms levied against its Arabic branch in particular are more than fair. This does not change the fact that the relative freedom of their press far outstrips that of, say, Saudi Arabia’s principal station, Al Arabiya, which is hardly more than a state pawn. It is the free reigns Al Jazeera holds over its own news that make it such an invaluable resource to the revolution; and it is those same free reigns that makes the station so popular among those desperate to break the silence enforced by authoritarian regimes.

If there is one thing that strongman dictators do not like, it’s a popular media outlet offering balanced criticism that could potentially inflame tensions, particularly when those tensions support Islamist or left-wing groups at opposition with the state. And, to put it simply, that’s what Al Jazeera does best. The demand that Qatar shutter Al Jazeera is not simply a business decision. This is a bona fide battle for the airways -- an operation that, should it succeed, would surrender the Middle East’s access to the most undeniably liberated press it has known in the past two decades. This attack is misguided at best, and malicious at worst. It has already caused Saudi Arabia and Jordan to shutter the news station’s regional satellite offices in Amman and Riyadh. Even the United Nations has declared Saudi Arabia’s closure demand a threat to international free speech. This cannot be stated clearly enough; Al Jazeera must not fall. It is not a perfect station, nor will it ever be. But it remains a critical bastion of defense against the growing power of nationally biased and government-influenced media. If you support the right to free news, support Al Jazeera.

Here are ways that author Leo Hochberg suggests for you to get involved: If you want to support Al Jazeera directly, they don’t have any donation portal, so the best way to do that is to read their news! Stay educated on what they have to say, open yourself to diverse opinions, and share on social media. Happy reading!

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