Pressure grows for Al Jazeera to register as foreign agent in US

Pressure grows for Al Jazeera to register as foreign agent in US
A general view shows the newsroom at the headquarters of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English-language channel in Doha. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 07 April 2020

Pressure grows for Al Jazeera to register as foreign agent in US

Pressure grows for Al Jazeera to register as foreign agent in US
  • Calls follow TRT’s registration, amid accusations that both networks are state propaganda tools

WASHINGTON: The US branch of the Turkish Radio and Television Corp. (TRT) has finally registered with the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), after evading such a requirement for a year. 

A DOJ review had established that the network meets the legal criteria for being a foreign agent, as it acts on behalf of the Turkish government, which exercises direct control over its leadership, finances and news content, for the purpose of influencing US public opinion and government policy. 

Designed to promote transparency with the American public, Congress passed FARA in 1938 to detect Nazi propaganda and other foreign interferences in US policy. 

The law was updated in 1966 to provide the DOJ with more tools to investigate violations and penalties for failure to register as a foreign agent. 

TRT’s registration, giving the public greater visibility into its funding and activities, has sparked the question: Why has Al Jazeera, a network owned and funded by the Qatari government, not done the same? 

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan policy institute based in Washington DC, brought the issue into the limelight, in an article that calls on the DOJ to apply the same scrutiny to Al Jazeera that it has to TRT, and to take the matter to court should the Qatari network refuse to comply. 

Why the DOJ has not done so yet is the great question everyone is asking, according to senior analyst Varsha Koduvayur, who wrote the policy brief.   

“In many ways, TRT and Al Jazeera are a tandem network in the way that they hew to their government lines,” she told Arab News. 

“Then there’s the issue of the growing alliance between Turkey and Qatar, which have come to backstop each other’s destabilizing policies in the region. They’ve really come to form an axis of their own, working together to cleave the Sunni world apart,” she said. 

“TRT is being mandated by the DOJ to register. It follows as a natural consequence that Al Jazeera should be asked to register also,” she added. 

“First, Americans deserve transparency about where their news sources come from. Second, these foreign US-based media are owned by countries that aren’t particularly friendly to Washington.”

The Trump administration and Congress have ramped up pressure on media outlets they consider as tools of foreign governments to register under FARA. 

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires US-based foreign media to register with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent US government agency overseen by Congress, and responsible for implementing and enforcing America’s communications law and regulations. 

NDAA requires foreign outlets to provide the FCC with a bi-annual report on its relations with its foreign principals. “If foreign-owned media outlets aren’t doing this, then they’re flouting US law,” said Koduvayur.

Congress has already demanded an explanation as to why the DOJ has not required Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent.  

In a detailed letter to the DOJ, a bipartisan coalition of senators led by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) address what they call the “Justice Department’s lax and selective enforcement of FARA,” and call for Al Jazeera’s compliance with the registration requirement.  

“When the available evidence is taken as a whole, it appears that Aljazeera’s broadcasts, including AJ+, mirror the policies and preferences of the Qatari government, which, together with the state funding … demonstrate that Aljazeera and its media subsidiaries act as alter egos of the Qatari government in ensuring dissemination of the government’s viewpoints,” the lawmakers wrote.

Abdel Rahim Foukara, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief, maintains that the network’s independent editorial philosophy remains as intact as it has been since the channel’s inception.

“The Qataris do fund Al Jazeera. Over the years, they pumped a lot of money into the network,” he told Arab News. 

“But as editorial staff, we deal with stories on their own merit. The idea that someone from anywhere outside the station would call in and force us to decide which stories to produce: That has never been the case,” he added.

“So for anyone to simplify the situation and say our coverage aligns with the interests of the Qatari government, they either don’t know how our internal editorial process works, or they don’t want to understand it.”

Al Jazeera was born in 1996. In its early days, the channel was “a breath of fresh air in the Arab world,” said Koduvayur. 

“It was really a provocative, ground-breaking channel, coming to life in a region that was long used to a very stultifying media landscape,” she added. 

“Al Jazeera was renowned for its willingness to tackle controversial or taboo topics head-on.”

But then the Arab Spring happened. Qatar and Al Jazeera first supported the uprisings, but then shifted gears and threw their weight behind Muslim Brotherhood-aligned regimes that came to power in some states. 
“There have always been red lines that Al Jazeera would never overrun when it comes to Qatar’s domestic policies,” said Koduvayur.

“But the Arab Spring was the network’s most visible turning point. Al Jazeera lost that freedom of expression and came to parrot Doha’s foreign policy lines.” 

The channel kept pushing for a sectarian, pro-Brotherhood agenda, and a series of events have ruined its reputation in the West: Ahmed Mansour, a pro-Brotherhood primetime anchor, called interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour a Jew with a Zionist agenda; Faisal Kassem hosted a debate on whether Syrian Alawites deserved genocide; an Iraqi editor cheered for the massacre of 1,500 Shiites by Daesh in Tikrit; and an anchor was immediately removed from the air for not expressing sympathy with a Brotherhood rally in Egypt. 

“I neither support nor criticize what other colleagues do because when they make the decisions, I’m not with them on the scene,” Foukara said, responding to those incidents.

“What I can say is, every now and then, we find ourselves in a difficult situation because of something that aired on Al Jazeera on one show or another,” he added. 

“We found ourselves in a difficult situation in the US because of our coverage of Afghanistan, our coverage of the invasion of Iraq, and the emphasis Al Jazeera puts on civilian casualties in various conflicts.”

But the difficult situation the network finds itself in today lies in a tarnished reputation, the fruit of its ever-increasing subjection to “a dictatorship that turns a blind eye to terror finance,” as Koduvayur put it.