DUBAI: Some of the biggest names in Arab sport have signed a petition to protest against the “politicization” of World Cup coverage by Qatar-owned broadcaster BeIN.
The petition has already attracted more than 58,000 signatures, including those of some of the Arab world’s most prominent athletes and media personalities — with all calling for an end to the politically-driven comments carried by some of BeIN Sports’ hosts and pundits.
The website sports4everyone.org created the petition and invited fans around the world to urge FIFA President Gianni Infantino to investigate the coverage by the Qatari broadcaster’s Arabic channel.
Prominent sports figures, players, commentators and referees have all signed in protest after BeIN’s presenters and pundits were found to be intentionally making political comments in live coverage during and after the World Cup matches.
Among the signatories are Egyptian national football player Ahmed Hassan, Al Arabiya’s Sports Editor Battal Al-Goos, and former Saudi national team captain Yousif Althunaian.
BeIN Sports holds the rights to broadcast World Cup games across the Middle East and North Africa, although its channels are not available in Saudi Arabia, one of four Arab nations locked in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar over the latter’s alleged ties to terror groups. Doha denies the charges.
“Sport rises above politics. FIFA tried to keep politics away from game. As fans, we are saddened by BeIN using its permission to telecast sports to transmit its political agenda, violating FIFA rules,” the petition read.
“BeIN exploited its rights to aggravate (the) dispute between Qatar and Saudi, insulting our nations during the opening match,” it added.
The petition website includes nine clips from BeIN Sports featuring pundits and presenters politicizing the World Cup’s opening match between Saudi Arabia and the host nation, Russia. The petition is available in Arabic, English, German, French and Spanish.
In one of the station’s broadcasts, a commentator accused Saudi Arabia of “selling out the Palestinian cause,” while in another the host suggested the Kingdom’s top sporting officials will become “prisoners at the Ritz-Carlton,” a reference to the detentions in Riyadh during last year’s anti-corruption drive.
Egyptian media analyst Abdellatif El-Menawy said BeIN had “distorted the global football event” by using it as a political tool against Saudi Arabia.
“This is an infringement of the rules and standards of professional media,” El-Menawy told Arab News on Saturday.
“BeIN Sports has abandoned neutrality and professionalism,” he added, saying the network’s coverage after Saudi Arabia’s 5-0 defeat by Russia was “gloating” and “sarcastic.”
Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri, a Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar, said the political differences between BeIN Sports’ Arabic and English services were similar to those between Al Jazeera’s news channels.
The news service’s Arabic channel has “unprofessional and unethical” commentary that is not seen on the English station, Al-Shehri said at the weekend.
Another commentator called the disparity between BeIN Sports’ Arabic and English offerings “Al Jazeera syndrome” — in reference to the different political stances held by the news network’s two main channels.
Lawyers contacted by Arab News at the weekend called on FIFA to investigate the matter saying the international football governing body “will have to look into and should take very seriously.”
BeIN Sports could not be reached for comment. FIFA had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.
BeIN broadcasts World Cup games across multiple countries, and it is not yet clear whether it has breached any regulations in any of those countries.
But the UK communications body OFCOM said that, while it does not regulate BeIN Sports, there are strict rules covering impartiality concerning the broadcasters it does cover.
“With regards to those broadcasters we do regulate (including the BBC and ITV), we have strict rules in place regarding due impartiality and due accuracy, and undue prominence of views and opinions,” OFCOM told Arab News.
Global football commentators and sports journalists said that it was not right for broadcasters such as BeIN to mix football and politics.
“Personally I don't make any remarks on politics or religion or whatever situation is going on. I only focus on football, mostly on analytic. This is my way. But I'm commentating in English - whatever is happening in Arabic I don't know,” said Pedro Correia, a freelance football commentator for Abu Dhabi Sports
"I keep it separate, I don't mention any kind of politics. It's my personal way of doing things. I just don't want to bring any politic or religious references into my work … I'm strictly about analysis, the football and what is going on on the pitch. I don't go political."
Journalist Lev Savari of Russia Today agreed, telling Arab News: “The World Cup should be free from people trying to use it to get some political benefit or say something negative about another country. Just enjoy the football.”
Sohail Sarwa, a journalist at The Daily Ittefaq in Bangladesh, said that there was “no reason” to mix sport and politics.
“This is the World Cup and while we know that sports and politics can't be kept apart, we should try do as much as we can to keep the World Cup special,” Sarwa told Arab News.