How Middle East Eye is fake-news central
In the world of political media, ownership is an important issue that implies editorial influence. This in itself is harmless as it grants a level of transparency to an outlet: We know that Al Jazeera belongs to Qatar’s royal family (yet it denies having editorial influence), Al Arabiya to the MBC Group, Fox News to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and CNN to AT&T.
Media ownership is a fact of the business world and is not inherently negative, but public awareness of this ownership is essential to understand perspective and influence, whether cultural or geopolitical.
As the Arab Spring was starting to phase out post-2013, Al Jazeera’s success in giving a platform to Islamists was beginning to wane. At the time, an outlet called Middle East Eye (MEE) began to form in London, with job listings posted and staff carefully selected.
It brands itself as independent, yet MEE has had many Al Jazeera journalists freelancing for or joining its content production team, causing red flags to be raised regarding its financing. David Hearst, MEE’s editor-in-chief and a former foreign correspondent for The Guardian, refused to give details about the outlet’s finances, attributing its existence to “individual private donors” who he claimed were “interested in democracy in the Middle East.”
Hearst and others in MEE weaponize their stories by propagating fake news with anonymous sources, thereby misleading human rights organizations and other news outlets
As MEE began to publish articles, it mirrored Al Jazeera’s editorial policy, highlighting human rights issues throughout the Middle East except when it came to Qatar’s domestic or foreign policies. What is alarming is that many human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, use MEE’s articles as a point of reference, as do the New York Times, the Washington Post and Germany’s Deutsche Welle.
MEE claims to report on the Middle East, but there are no articles discussing Qatar’s imprisonment of members of its royal family, such as Sheikh Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Thani, or the abuses faced by his wife and children. Yet it pumps out articles containing rumors and fabrications against Qatar’s state enemies, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
These articles are displayed as fact with obscure sources and hard-hitting headlines, reinforcing stereotypes of enemy states. This is reflected in Hearst’s articles during his time at The Guardian, claiming absurdly that the 2014 Gaza War was backed by Saudi Arabia. He repeated this claim in 2018 but with a slight adjustment, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was pushing a war with Gaza.
Hearst also famously claimed that the Saudis were supporting the Houthis in Yemen as a means of stopping an Islamist takeover. Yet Saudi Arabia went to war against the Houthis in 2015, two years after his dubious claims. Hearst seems to be informed mainly by Islamist propaganda.
He is surrounded by former Al Jazeera staff, including news editors Arwa Ibrahim and Jacob Powell, and senior editors Graeme Baker and Larry Johnson.
It comes as no surprise that reviews on Glassdoor, where current and former employees can review their place of employment, center around MEE’s obscure funding. Two of the three available reviews on the website highlight MEE’s “secret nature of funding,” while one accuses the outlet of pushing stories with anonymous sources onto its reporters. These sources seem to be too secretive even for MEE’s own journalists.
From royal family dramas to weaponizing the Palestinian cause by accusing Qatar’s enemies of doing secret deals with Israel, MEE’s “exclusive” content tends to center on attacking countries by using anonymous sources. This clearly illustrates that its purpose is not to report, but to propagate a pro-Qatar narrative in the West, where Al Jazeera has failed to penetrate effectively. MEE’s “exclusives” are exclusive in their creativity, not their reliability.
It is an instrument in creating an illusion of reliability and diverse news sources for the pro-Qatar narrative. MEE functions as an extension to Al Jazeera without having to be accused of being a state-owned outlet. Media is arguably the only tool in Qatar’s diplomacy, other than cash incentives to its clients worldwide. Diversification of platforms is a new goal in Doha’s media strategy, but there should be no room for ownership or funding to be hidden.
Hearst and others in MEE weaponize their stories by propagating fake news with anonymous sources, thereby misleading human rights organizations and other news outlets. The response to this must be demands for transparency regarding financial and news sources.
• Ibrahim Alkhamis is an expert in media and Gulf politics with a special emphasis on fake news.