When truth is the first casualty
There is a symbiotic relationship between media in Iran and Qatar. They not only spread the narratives of their governments and paymasters, but they support each other’s arguments.
It is clear that Iran’s stated-owned media outlets, such as Kayhan, Hamshahri or Etala’at, strongly support Qatar’s position in the current Gulf crisis. Scant attention has been devoted, however, to the stance of Qatari media on the Iranian regime. Do they promote a specific narrative? To answer that question, let us examine the conduct of the major Qatar-funded network, Al Jazeera.
On the one hand, Al Jazeera claims to be an independent news organization that seeks the truth and promotes freedom of the press and of expression. It says it gives freedom to its journalists. But in relation to its reporting of the Arab world and the West, these claims appear to have already been debunked through formidable evidence and statements from former staff. Some describe Al Jazeera as practicing “politics, not journalism,” having a clear bias, being a “propaganda broadcaster” or orchestrating a specific agenda. Several former employees say they left Al Jazeera to retain their dignity.
Many have criticized Al Jazeera’s attempts to change the direction of politics in other countries in favor of Doha rather than the ordinary people of those nations. Its methods include leaning toward the Muslim Brotherhood, supporting Libya’s armed revolt and using softer language about terrorist groups such as Daesh, among others. In addition, according to the American Journalism Review, critics have pointed to Al Jazeera’s “anti-Semitic, anti-American bias in the channel’s news content.”
On Iran, Al Jazeera appears to tilt toward favoring the ruling clerical establishment rather than reporting the truth about the theocratic political establishment and the suffering of ordinary people. Al Jazeera backs the Iranian leaders’ arguments by supporting the nuclear deal and depicting it as “good for Middle East peace.” In fact, the deal encouraged the military adventurism of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the region, and it has made Tehran’s regime more belligerent.
Qatari media, including Al Jazeera, frequently invites commentators from Iran and around the world to promote the Iranian regime’s propaganda, while posing as “experts.” On Iran’s domestic politics, Al Jazeera has underreported discrimination and inequality. Of the Iranian people’s aspirations for freedom, liberty and social justice, Al Jazeera has yet to provide genuine and adequate reporting. It refrained from reporting this year on Iran’s largest gathering of opposition groups, “Free Iran,” while many other outlets extensively covered the issue.
The network also appears to play into the Iranian leaders’ narrative that there is a significant difference between Iran’s so-called moderates and hard-liners. It has projected President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election as a victory for Iranians and the world. Some criticize it for continuing to provide a platform for Iran’s militias, proxies and designated terrorist groups and their leaders, such as Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah.
Media outlets in Qatar and Iran publish all the news that’s fit to print — provided it furthers their countries’ agenda.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
It is worth noting that giving a platform to Iran’s proxies and reporting in favor of Iran’s ruling clerics promotes extremist ideologies, radicalization and militarization, and destabilizes the region by facilitating recruitment for these groups.
As Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, has pointed out: “Freedom of expression cannot be used to justify and shield the promotion of extremist narratives.”
Why do Qatari state-owned media, specifically Al Jazeera, lean toward the Iranian regime? Partially, as I have written before, Doha views Tehran as a major geopolitical and ideological ally. Since Qatar’s foreign policy is in favor of Iran’s ruling clerics, its media appear to follow the same footsteps.
As the former Al Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy told Bloomberg: “The more the network coordinates and takes directions from the government, the more it becomes a mouthpiece for Qatari intelligence. There are many channels that are biased, but this is past bias. Now Al Jazeera is a voice for terrorists. It has breached the true meaning of press freedom that I advocate and respect. If Al Jazeera continues to do that, they are directly responsible for many of these lone wolves, many of these youth who are brainwashed.”
It is incumbent on the international community to take concrete action through the application of international law to counter Iran and Qatar media, particularly Al Jazeera, which appear to operate under the cover of freedom of expression.
As Dr. Gargash wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “While the protection of the right of freedom of expression is of fundamental importance, this protection is not absolute, and restrictions on the right are permitted under international law to protect national security and public order.”
Iran and Qatar media, specifically Al Jazeera, should halt their attempts to buttress arguments and narratives that the Qatari leaders, the Iranian regime and its agents promote. Al Jazeera could have used its large audience to report on the truth independently, and change the world in a positive direction. Instead, unfortunately, similar to the Iranian regime’s media outlets, it appears to have chosen to be another state-owned media corporation that tries to satisfy the demands of its paymasters. It helps to achieve Qatar’s and Iran’s foreign policy objectives rather than assist ordinary people to acquire the truth.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh