The rising tension in the Gulf is only matched by an incredible surge in fake news. Take the recent false story of the 15-year jail term and $135,000 fine for anyone seen wearing a Qatar Airways-sponsored FC Barcelona jersey.
It is shocking that so many people believed this, particularly as it is well known that Qatar Airways is no longer the shirt sponsors of the Catalans since the rights have moved to Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten. Furthermore, a simple Google search would have shown that there is not a single credible source to support the claim on any of the media outlets that carried the story.
As most of these outlets were of the journalistic caliber of Britain’s Daily Mirror, The Sun and Daily Mail, it is no surprise that none of them bothered to fact-check with the authorities in the UAE, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia (since these tabloids could not get their story straight on which of the three Gulf countries imposed this fake ban).
When you dig deeper, you notice that the origin of the story was a tweet by an Arabic speaker, who seems to be Qatari, by the name of Raed Al-Emadi. Call me old-school, but as a journalist I would be very wary of quoting an unknown, unverified Twitter user who on his own handle says his account is “fictitious” and “any similarities with real life were an unintended coincidence.”
I would also be very cautious before citing as the basis of my story a tweet containing what may be a photo-shopped image of a shop window — in what the tweet says is in an undisclosed Gulf country — carrying an FC Barcelona poster with a censored Qatar logo.
A cheap shot by the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera was insinuating that there was a contradiction between the positions of Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over Doha, when both clearly acknowledged that it is a terror-financer.
Faisal J. Abbas
Yet not everybody in journalism today is old-school, particularly not the English-speaking, Qatari-owned New Arab, which has made the unsupported assumption that the shop was in the UAE, citing only the above-mentioned tweet.
The New Arab then linked this to a recent law that Abu Dhabi passed criminalizing expressing sympathy for Qatar in the current Gulf crisis — which saw a number of Arab and Muslim countries take strict measures against Doha for its support of terror groups — to create the perfect fake, emotional news story for football fans to share.
Another Qatari media cheap shot was insinuating — as the state-owned Al Jazeera did — that there was a contradiction between the positions of US President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over Doha.
The television channel, which made its name by disgracefully airing Osama bin Laden video messages in the early 2000s, ignored the fact that Trump and Tillerson both acknowledged that Qatar is a terror financer, and both demanded it ends this ASAP.
Rather, Al Jazeera hyped the fact that Tillerson urged Gulf countries to ease the blockade, and underplayed his outright accusations against Qatar. The reality — as any junior political analyst would tell you — is that any US position short of a clear call for an immediate lifting of sanctions would be an indirect endorsement of them. Given that Secretary Tillerson only asked for the blockade to be eased (not lifted), and that President Trump said nothing about the topic, one can only assume that Washington accepts that this may be a tough measure, but it is necessary.
As such, audiences can only be advised to take Qatari news with a pinch of salt, even though some of it is quite humorous, such as the incredibly popular story about Harrods — the famous London department store owned by Qatar’s royal family — banning Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis in retaliation for the blockade on Doha.
I am not sure how anyone could not tell that this was fake news, not just because of the anti-discrimination laws the UK is renowned for, but because the story was published on the Pan-Arabia Enquirer, a satire website known to be the Middle Eastern equivalent of The Onion. Furthermore, I am not sure how those who read it and believed it did not notice that it dates back to 2014!
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. He can be reached on Twitter @FaisalJAbbas