Strangulating Al-Jazeera

4 July, 2017 / By Murtaza Shibli, The News

The unending siege of Qatar, which started in the middle of the holy month of Ramazan, continues unabated sans any hope for an easy and early settlement. The powerful blocs of the Gulf kingdoms have displayed scant regard the much-hyped Arab or Muslim camaraderie. They have even blocked food and essential supplies amid a row that has broken families as the feuding countries have extended their battles to target the unsuspecting citizenry because their spouses have suddenly turned into enemies for belonging to the brawling states.

Had it not been for the strong and principled support from the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed by hundreds of the Turkish cargo flights of food, Qatar would have kneeled down in submission, forced to abandon everything – from its independence to its pride which has been heightened by the unprecedented success of Al-Jazeera, the leading international news channel.

The official rationale from the Arab states that provoked the continued and disastrous cordon sounds comical at best. It blamed Qatar for supporting terrorism, conflating organic socio-political Islamist movements – such as Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon and Hamas – with terrorism and setting a dangerous precedent to ignore and criminalise public organisations of a political nature. This arbitrary and oppressive mindset has the potential to create a fertile ground for underground and terrorist organisations – something that the region cannot afford as millions of people in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Mali continue to suffer the terrible consequences of terrorism rooted in the denial of political rights.

There is no denying the fact that the actual target of this sabre-rattling is Al-Jazeera, the news channel that has brought enlightenment to millions of Arab households that were otherwise relegated to eternal darkness under the command and stranglehold of authoritarianism and dogma that rarely allowed any dissent or debate. Since it was launched in 1996, Al-Jazeera has redefined journalism through its brave and bold coverage of the events in the Middle East. It has offered a vibrant platform for debate and discussion that is simultaneously therapeutic and exciting for the Arab youth who had otherwise remained removed and insulated from any consideration on matters concerning society, politics and beyond.

It is the nature of its programming and commitment to open debate that has made Al-Jazeera popular among the Arab audiences. Prior to Al-Jazeera, Arabs in general were used to being treated to a demure display of official gibberish or the so-called protocol news that lacked any substance or character. The only motivation of these programmes was to add more drivel to the heap with the solemn aim of keeping a tight lid on information and thinking. It is because of this enlightening news coverage and its massive public reception that Al-Jazeera, from the very start, has been considered a threat to the status quo espoused by the regional ruling families.

The recent WikiLeaks revelations that some regional powers lobbied the US political and military authorities to bomb the network offices on at least two occasions should, therefore, not invoke any surprise. That the US obliged these demands by bombing the Al-Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad should not be seen as anything uncanny. The US is deeply involved in keeping the people of the Middle East under a tight leash to preserve the prevalent political architecture much to the detriment of free-thinking, pluralism and a democratic system of governance.   The WikiLeaks exposé has added another layer of intrigue to the current crisis amid the renewed demands to close down Al-Jazeera. The ultimatum should be seen as a continuum of hostility and disdain for free media that promotes expansive debates and new ideas. The blockade and the hostility against Qatar took place soon after US President Donald Trump’s visit to the region and assume significance in light of these revelations.

It is clear that the new US administration wants to preserve the regressive forces of the status quo because offering political agency to the people is seen as much too dangerous to the regional order that was fixed by the Western powers almost a century ago. Although the dangers of the Arab Spring have receded, news coverage and commentary as well as the debates on Al-Jazeera keep the hopes for a better political order alive, nourishing millions of dreams for a change that is in line with the aspirations of the Arab youth. Therefore, to preserve the timeworn and mildewed order, the regional old guard – in collusion with Israel – want Al-Jazeera to be snuffed out of existence to remove any credible and powerful public voice on matters of politics that can have a bearing on millions of lives.

The Al-Jazeera network has offered visibility and attention to millions of otherwise voiceless people beyond the Middle East – particularly communities like Muslims, Africans, people of Central America and even minorities within the Western countries. The launch of Al-Jazeera English offered new and refreshed perspectives on issues that were long discarded by the Western media or produced in a manner that can, at best, be described as skewed. Al-Jazeera’s Africa coverage sought to look at the continent beyond the standard Western news template whereby the region was seen from the perspective of tribal violence, internecine battles, famine, coups and large-scale depravation.

Globally, Al-Jazeera sought to dispel the myths about Arabs and Islam and brought a greater understanding of Arabs to the outside world – something that assumes greater significance amid growing Islamophobia and the rise of far-right extremism across the West. Its position as a news institution of global import remains vital for the balance of global news production and dissemination – a fact that cannot be overlooked.

While the Western capitals have displayed a studied silence against the relentless attacks on Al-Jazeera, David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, has issued a terse and much-needed statement to show support for the beleaguered news channel. He termed the demands for the closure of Al-Jazeera as “a major blow against media pluralism in a region already suffering from severe restrictions on reporting and media of all kinds”.

Kaye stated that the ultimatum represented “a serious threat to the media freedom” and called on the international community to urge the gulf governments “to resist taking steps to censor media in their territory and regionally, and to encourage support for independent media in the Middle East”. Al-Jazeera must be allowed to thrive for its refreshing perspectives and ability to cultivate so many hopes around the world.



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