In Depth

Al Jazeera: Free speech or a voice for extremists?

Saudi Arabia wants the Qatari-funded news agency closed, but critics say they are simply trying to silence an opponent

Gulf leaders have given Qatar a new deadline to respond to their demands to solve the Middle East diplomatic crisis, but have come under fire for calling for Al Jazeera and its sister stations to be closed.

A coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia accuse Doha of harbouring groups they consider terrorist organisations and giving them a platform on its state-funded broadcaster.

In a list of 13 demands handed to Qatar as an ultimatum for lifting sanctions imposed earlier this month, the closure of Al Jazeera was among the most discussed in the media.

"Gulf countries and Egypt have long accused the broadcaster of providing a platform for Islamist movements and encouraging dissent", says the BBC, while The Guardian says the threats are an affront to a free press.

"Before al-Jazeera started broadcasting, Arab television news was totalitarian drivel," it says.

But is the news agency a threat - and will it be closed down?

A chequered past

Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 but rose to global prominence by airing video messages from Osama Bin Laden after 9/11. Since then, it has rarely seen a moment of peace.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Qatar after the agency broadcast coverage deemed critical of its royal family - a recall that would last until 2007.

Following that, the Iraq war saw tensions increase considerably between Al Jazeera and the US government under George W Bush, with defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld describing its coverage of civilian casualties during the Battle of Fallujah as "outrageous nonsense", reports CNN.

The broadcaster's political independence was further questioned in 2010, when its director of news intervened to ensure coverage of the debate on Syrian intervention on its English-language channel was led by a speech by Qatar's emir to the UN. The Guardian describes the dispute as leaving a "bitter taste among staff", due to the network's insistence that it operates independent of its Qatari ownership.

Following the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera was seen by Egypt as a platform for the Muslim Brotherhood and their rise to power in the region, reports the New York Times. In 2014, three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to ten years in jail by an Egyptian court for aiding a "terrorist organisation" - a reference to the group.

"Al Jazeera's image as champion of the underdog changed over the course of the Arab Spring," writes Reuters. "Its coverage drew charges from some viewers that the network was supporting the Brotherhood over other opposition groups working to topple authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya."

However, Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut says: "The coverage [of the Arab Spring] on Jazeera was so deep and wide and ongoing that it helped to trigger a sense among ordinary people all over the Arab world that they had shared grievances and they could do something about them."

What do Al Jazeera's critics say?

Hours after the Saudis cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar at the beginning of June, it shut down the Al Jazeera bureau in Riyadh and revoked its operational license. The Saudi Press Agency said: "The move comes after Al Jazeera promoted the plots of terrorist groups, supported the Houthi militias in Yemen, and tried to break internal ranks with Saudi Arabia and harming its sovereignty," reports Saudi news network Al Arabiya

This was followed by the Saudis insisting the entire network be shut down, including Al Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar.

Although Saudi Arabia's rhetoric against the network has surprised many, the move may have been a long time coming. Al Jazeera describes itself as a bastion of "freedom of expression" in a region fraught with media censorship and overreaching state control, but in its alleged quest for editorial independence, it's ruffled a few feathers along the way, says CNN.

"It made enemies from Riyadh to Cairo with its criticism of Arab governments and coverage of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsy," it says. "Many Arab governments would prefer Al Jazeera to simply disappear."

Why now?

Until now, Al Jazeera has never faced the threat of closure, despite the years of criticism, and it has been claimed the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council are using the clampdown on Qatar as an excuse to shut the network down.

Hugh Miles in The Guardian says the broadcaster is caught in the crossfire of the diplomatic dispute because "it is such a powerful symbol of Qatar and the most visible manifestation of Qatari policymaking", even though the broadcaster insists that editorially, it is independent of Doha.

What will the response be?

Doha has yet to publicly comment at length on the coalition demand, but Al Jazeera published an open letter criticising the call that it ceases operations.

"To those who demand that Al Jazeera be shut down and that people's right to the truth be suppressed, we too have demands," it said. "We demand journalists be able to do their jobs free from intimidation and threat. We demand diversity of thought and opinion be cherished, not feared."

Index on Censorship, a campaign group calling for freedom of expression, tweeted in agreement:

The decision may not be as clear-cut as the network and its supporters suggest, however. There are concerns Qatar may consider closing Al Jazeera in order to mitigate the damage of Saudi Arabia's harsher sanctions.

"Qatar's Emir first gesture of good will likely be the shutting of Al Jazeera TV network entirely, which could happen in months if not weeks," Sultan Al Qassemi, a prominent regional commentator said of the situation, reports CNN

Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, suggests that if Al Jazeera is not shut down, it may result in severe restrictions on future reporting. "If Al Jazeera isn't shut down, then there will be serious clauses about what it can and can't cover," he said.

All eyes will now be on Doha for an official statement rather than its news agencies. However, whatever it says, Stephens's warning to readers of the New York Times over the future of Qatar and Al Jazeera is stark: "I am very concerned that there is absolutely no way to de-escalate this."

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