Riyadh skyline, Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh city skyline. Image Credit: Pixabay

For years, Qatar has been waging a propaganda war against Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain in Arabic and English via its slick 24/7 flagship network Al Jazeera that has permitted the tiny state to indoctrinate young Arab minds with extremist ideologies and to frame its messages to suit Western consumption.

In the early years it achieved popularity with the Arab masses due to its anti-US stances against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed it “Al Qaida’s mouthpiece”.

Its offices in Kabul and Baghdad were struck by US bombs even though the US military had their coordinates. At the time my columns expressed my solidarity with the channel for its exposure of the coalition’s misdeeds.

Unfortunately, the days when Al Jazeera strove to be an independent champion for Arab causes are long gone. Nowadays it reserves its most vitriolic coverage for Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Manama, often tempering its reports in favour of the Qatari government’s new best friends Iran with which it shares an oil pipeline and Turkey set to open a new military base later this year on Qatari soil.

Earlier this year, eight Republican lawmakers, among them Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio wrote to the US Department of Justice to request Al Jazeera’s designation as a foreign agent. They charged Al Jazeera with reflecting the policies of the Qatari leadership, of placing the Muslim Brotherhood in a moderate light, playing host to Hamas head honchos and of supporting anti-American positions. Will they succeed?

Whereas Al Jazeera Arabic openly and unashamedly acts as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups while giving a platform to so-called religious peddlers of hate such as Yousuf Al Qaradawi who encourages suicide bombers, its English-language sister company Al Jazeera English has adopted a more nuanced approach.

Sad to say it has succeeded in suckering viewers, global decision-makers and elements of the mainstream media including its champions the BBC and CNN, into its trap to the extent Lord Haw Haw would be proud.

Quartet’s preconditions

My question is this: Why is there no professional Arab-owned English-language satellite news channel capable of competing with and countering the poison-laced reporting spewed by Al Jazeera English that has gained an entree into over 300 million homes in more than 100 countries?

Surely the problem cannot be financial but if that is the case, what is preventing Saudi, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain from launching one jointly? Yes, Al Jazeera’s closure is one of the Quartet’s 13 preconditions to allowing Qatar back into the fold, but to date there is no sign of that happening. And so Al Jazeera remains free to impugn its neighbours and glorify the Brotherhood virtually unchallenged.

During the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, Al Jazeera went to great lengths to paint the Brotherhood as a benign champion of democracy that was victimised but the broadcaster was caught out airing fake videos including one of Brotherhood ‘corpses’ under white shrouds that wriggled and kicked. Another video of amateur actors under Al Jazeera’s direction placed in stress positions as though they were under attack by security forces was leaked to social media. In 2013, 22 Al Jazeera employees in Egypt resigned due to its biased coverage in favour of the Brotherhood.

Free speech

Remember Al Jazeera English’s long drawn-out ‘Journalism is not a crime’ campaign to gain the freedom of three of its employees arrested and sentenced in Egypt supported by BBC journalists and others with sticky-tape over their mouths! Egyptian-born Canadian national Mohammad Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste entered the country on tourist visas and in collaboration with Baher Mohammad they secretly filed reports out of a Cairo hotel suite.

The prominent Lebanese-British barrister Amal Clooney rushed to the defence of these poor word warriors. She sat in the courtroom exuding glamour during their trials before holding press conferences slandering Egypt’s judicial system and the country’s lack of free speech.

For the Al Jazeera influenced Western media, theirs was a cause celebre; they were hyped as the innocent champions of the truth locked up by an autocratic regime. However, when the truth emerged Amal Clooney and those whipped-up media voices went strangely silent.

Instead of lashing out at Egyptian authorities, Mohammad Fahmy blamed his former employer for his incarceration. He filed a court case in Canada citing Al Jazeera English’s negligence to secure a press accreditation and accused the network of paying anti-government activists to produce anti-Egyptian, pro-Brotherhood footage and of permitting the banned Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr channel to rebroadcast reports made by himself and his colleagues. A leaked email sent by Greste to Fahmy indicates that the award-winning Australian correspondent was also mulling filing suit.

That said Al Jazeera is far from being Qatar’s sole far-reaching propaganda conduit; it is accused of funding Muslim Brotherhood publications, Middle East Eye and others, operating out of the UK. Moreover, Doha invests untold millions on Washington lobbying and public relations firms to curry favour with the powers that be and has pledged $250 billion (Dh917 billion)to cement US-Qatari relations. That strategy appears to have worked. President Trump who once pointed a finger at Qatar for funding terrorism is now bursting with praise for the efforts of the Emir in countering terrorism.

It is beyond time for moderate Arab capitals besieged by fake news and false criticisms created a voice in answer to Qatar’s slurs and the foreign media lemmings that have fallen under its spell.

— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.