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Anti-Qatar lobby erodes US press freedom with AJ+ ruling Open in fullscreen

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Anti-Qatar lobby erodes US press freedom with AJ+ ruling

The DOJ has ordered AJ+ to register as a foreign agent [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 September, 2020

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Comment: Forcing AJ+ to register as a foreign agent raises serious questions about foreign influence on US politics, and is a worrying attack on free speech, writes Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.
The decision by the Department of Justice that AJ+, a Washington DC-based online news and current affairs channel operated by the Al Jazeera Media Network, must register as a foreign agent in the United States, represents a blow to free speech in the run up to the US presidential election on November 3.

In addition, the ruling, under the 1930s-era Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) has raised eyebrows among analysts as it is consistent with the pressure placed on Al Jazeera and other Qatari-owned or linked media organisations throughout the 40-month blockade of Qatar by four regional states.

Ever since the start of the attempt to isolate Qatar in June 2017, the desire to silence Al Jazeera has been a key demand of the so-called "Anti-Terror Quartet" of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.

The demand to close Al Jazeera, its affiliated stations, and other Qatari media outlets was one of the 
13 demands made of Qatar by the blockading states in a list hastily drawn-up 18 days into the blockade in response to frustration from the US government as to what lay behind the blockade.

Indeed, the FARA designation followed months of lobbying by Akin Gump, a law firm that has registered in the US to lobby on behalf of the UAE and which, along with other lobbyists has reportedly earned $56 million doing so.

The timing of the letter to AJ+ from the Department of Justice, the day before the UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accord on normalisation at the White House, caused 
additional speculation about the reasons behind the FARA designation, although there is as yet no evidence to support such rumours.

Ever since the start of the attempt to isolate Qatar in June 2017, the desire to silence Al Jazeera has been a key demand of the so-called 'Anti-Terror Quartet'

The UAE has long disliked Al Jazeera for the way the network offered a narrative of regional events to the Arab and Islamic world that exposed audiences to a point of view that differed markedly from the messaging the Emiratis increasingly sought to impose on the region after the Arab Spring in 2011.

Moreover, Al Jazeera as an entity, a global brand, has become so synonymous with Qatar that, in the eyes of Qatar's regional detractors, any setback to Al Jazeera cannot but be portrayed as a blow to Qatar itself.

In 2017, the inclusion of the demand that Al Jazeera be closed down backfired on the blockading states, as it recast the action against Qatar as part of a regionwide campaign to silence free speech and dissenting narratives, in ways that resonated with western audiences and media outlets.

Thus, the Editorial Board of the New York Times 
stated that "by attacking Al Jazeera, the Saudis and their neighbours are trying to eliminate a voice that could lead citizens to question their rulers." In London, an editorial in the Guardian adopted a similar tone as it observed that "the attack on Al Jazeera is part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world. It should be condemned and resisted."

Read more: Qatar rules out normalisation with Israel until Palestinian state is established: official

Regardless of the extent to which the FARA designation reflected the depth (or not) of UAE influence in US politics, the ruling is troubling in several ways, not least of which is the suggestion that the ongoing blockade of Qatar has now had tangible effects in a key western capital thousands of miles distant.

Questions about the process by which the FARA determination was reached have 
raised concerns about the targeting of news outlets for political reasons which, in a media environment characterised by such polarisation and so little trust or common ground, may be a worrying portend of things to come. If it is Al Jazeera today, then could it be the BBC or other foreign-state-funded media networks tomorrow?

The apparently successful outcome of the lobbying push to designate AJ+ also raises concerns about the extent of foreign influence in domestic US affairs from multiple directions and across many areas of public and political life. From June 2017 on, it was recognised by all parties to the dispute that Washington, DC was the place where the competing narratives over the blockade of Qatar would result in the success or otherwise of the move, especially when the target audience was the most unconventional presidential administration to assume office in living memory.

Questions about the process by which the FARA determination was reached have raised concerns about the targeting of news outlets for political reasons

In any "normal" presidency, neither the blockade of a close US partner in the Middle East nor the lobbying blitz against a global media network would have stood much chance, if at all, of succeeding. But such has been the unorthodox and often transactional style of the Trump White House that it has encouraged foreign actors - partners and adversaries alike - to seek advantage of an administration seemingly shorn of fixed positions on most issues or attachment to settled US interests or values.

As befits a blockade that began with a hacking of the Qatar News Agency in May 2017 and the implanting of a "fake news" story in the opening months of the Trump presidency, it is perhaps unsurprising that the first real international crisis of the "alternative facts" era should result in such action against Al Jazeera as the administration's term of office draws to a close.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, PhD, is a Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Follow him on Twitter at @Dr_Ulrichsen.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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