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Standing up for Al Jazeera

July 4, 2017

The closure of Al-Jazeera, demanded of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as the price for lifting their embargo, would be a serious setback to freedom of speech in the region.

During my second stint in the Middle East, between 2008 and 2014, it was my news channel of choice after the BBC. No other channel reflected more closely the ethos of my principal home broadcaster, which was not surprising since many of its journalists had been recruited from mainstream broadcasters in the UK.

I am speaking only of the English channel – my language skills are not up to understanding the Arabic version. Many Arab friends tell be that the Arabic channel is very different in tone and editorial policy. And if any of those friends come back to me to say I don’t know what I’m talking about, and do I realise how toxic and subversive the Arabic version is, I would respond by asking how it could be more toxic and subversive than other channels freely available in the area through satellite and the internet that preach hatred, sectarianism and yes, sometimes violence.

That’s not to say that Al-Jazeera is objective. Nor is the BBC. You can be objective in the way you cover a subject, but lack of objectivity can still be found in the choice of subjects. Thus, I learned plenty about the sufferings of the Palestinians, but not so much about the plight of low-paid foreign workers in Qatar and the other Gulf states.

Al-Jazeera is and always has been a concern to countries that feel threatened by media outlets that they do control. I’m not speaking of English-language outlets – it’s not the English-speaking audiences that they worry about, or at least not as much. As an Arabic channel, it is – or was until it was blocked by several neighbouring countries – pervasive, powerful and influential.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, the claims and counter-claims, whatever its biases, and regardless of the extent to which its editorial policy is dictated by the Qatar government, Al Jazeera is unique.

It should not be shut down. It should be replicated, emulated and competed against across the Middle East. Not just so that other stations can offer counter-narratives, though that can only be healthy, even if some of the narratives might be repellent to viewers of its English output.

More than for any other reason, it should be allowed to continue broadcasting because regardless of its editorial policy it is a product of the Arab world that is an advocate for the Arab world. As such it offers a counterweight to the non-Arab media that flood the region.

It also offers non-Arabs a window into the region that few other broadcasters manage to provide. The BBC is an honourable exception, but by and large, none of the other stations – such as CNN – come close to opening the eyes of the West to a region that is far more complex, enlightened and fascinating than the standard portrayals of wars, political oppression and social exploitation suggest.

In fact, I would not swap one Al Jazeera for ten Fox News channels. Its loss would be a heavy blow to a region that is suffering enough already.

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