To set the record straight, I do not think any journalist should call for the closure of a media organization. But we must not accept that objecting to, and seeking to limit, terrorist propaganda is falsely portrayed as a crackdown on professional journalism.
I think including the closure of Al Jazeera as one of the 13 demands by the Anti-Terror Quartet (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt) was not carefully thought through. But this does not mean the Qatari-owned news network should be allowed to get away with inciting murder.
There are a few issues with the ongoing debate about the channel that must be clarified before dwelling further. First, freedom-of-expression advocates must realize that Al Jazeera English (AJE), which many worldwide watch and enjoy, has nothing to do in terms of tone, editorial guidelines or media ethics with its older sister Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA).
The latter can and should, at the very least, be described as a scar on the face of Middle Eastern journalism. There is such a difference between the two channels that the longstanding joke in the Middle East when someone asks to put on Al Jazeera is: “Which one, the beauty or the beast?”
A fetish for terrorist content?
The Anti-Terror Quartet’s demand should have been carefully articulated to outline that the grievance with AJA is not that it criticizes neighboring countries, but that it has long served as a platform for hate-preachers and terrorists.
This is in no way a made-up accusation, nor is it only a Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini or Egyptian one. The channel was dubbed a “terror network” by the administration of former US President George W. Bush, and was criticized extensively, including in 2001 by the New York Times (NYT) for turning late global terrorist Osama bin Laden into “a star.”
The NYT seems to have softened its position, with a recent editorial defending Al Jazeera in light of the recent list of demands, which is admirable coming from a fellow media organization. But limiting criticism of Al Jazeera to saying it “is hardly perfect,” and praising it to the level of saying it enjoys “international journalistic standards,” is an outrageously false claim that is a disservice to NYT readers, unless whoever wrote the editorial is unaware of the channel’s ongoing fetish for terrorist content.
I say “ongoing” because only recently, Al Jazeera became the platform of choice for the notorious Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad Al-Julani — a US-designated terrorist, blacklisted worldwide, who has called Al-Qaeda’s stance “noble.” AJA was also the platform the Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf Qaradawi used to promote anti-Semitism and infamously bless suicide attacks, such as in a 2013 interview.
So to all our colleagues in AJE who participated in the channel’s recent video campaign in response to the Anti-Terror Quartet’s list of demands — particularly Western journalists such as British presenter Felicity Barr, who seems to have been deliberately pushed to the forefront of this video by Al Jazeera’s management — I say the following:
We all agree that “journalism is not a crime.” But what you AJE staffers should do, since you also “have demands,” is take them to your colleagues in your sister Arabic channel and ensure that journalism does not become a crime by giving a platform to those who bless the killing of innocents in both your home countries and mine.
*This article was originally published in Arab News with the title “Al Jazeera can’t whitewash its 'terror network' past”