Doha: Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded television station whose reporting of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings won it millions of viewers in the Middle East, is defiant following a backlash by Arab governments that accuse it of supporting Islamists.
On June 23, three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced by an Egyptian court for up to 10 years in jail for aiding a “terrorist organisation” — a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood that helped sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 only to be ousted itself last year in an army-backed coup.
The journalists denied the Egyptian charge and the verdict was denounced by press freedom advocates. Al Jazeera said there wasn’t “a shred of evidence” against its staff and they had been convicted for “defending people’s right to know what is going on in their world.” The channel says it provides objective coverage of all opposition groups.
“Al Jazeera’s editorial policy is not a subject to be bargained about or compromised on and we’ll never do this now and there’s no discussion about this,” Mostefa Souag, the network’s acting director general, told Reuters.
The channel, Souag said in an interview, is under pressure from authorities in several places because “it is the most transparent, balanced and unbiased of all Arab channels”.
Founded in 1996, Al Jazeera has often adopted the role of supporter of the dispossessed.
Al Jazeera’s troubles came to a head in Egypt, after army chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi toppled Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood following protests against his rule last year.
Souag said the network’s offices were frequently attacked by “thugs” and authorities eventually forced them to shut in July 2013 after Mursi was ousted. Sisi was elected president in May.
Despite the closure and arrests, the channel’s sister “Live” and “Egypt” stations have continued to beam live streams of Brotherhood protests and broadcast call-in shows whose participants inevitably back ousted president Mursi.
“The Brotherhood is a force inside and outside Egypt and can’t be ignored by the media,” he said.
Even before the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera was making enemies.
Its journalists have not escaped unscathed: Sami Al Hajj, a Sudanese national, was detained while in transit to Afghanistan in 2001 and held in Guantánamo Bay until 2008. Held on suspicion of having ties with Al Qaeda, he was released without charge. In 2005, reporter Tayseer Allouni was sentenced by a Spanish court to seven years in prison for being a financial courier for Al Qaeda. Allouni denied the charges.
In addition to Egypt, there have been bureau closures in Iraq in 2004, in Bahrain in 2010, and in Syria in the first months of what started out as a popular revolt against President Bashar Al Assad. It had to freeze operations in Saudi Arabia after Riyadh withdrew its envoy in March.
Qatar is planning to open a London-based news channel called Al Araby, industry sources have said. A source involved in the project said the outlet will give voice to “all those who support the Arab Spring revolutions”.
Al Araby channel will be managed by Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian who runs a think tank in Qatar.Reuters