On April 24th visitors to the BBC News website’s Middle East page found an article by Lina Sinjab extolling the virtues of Qatari foreign policy. Headlined “Qatar casts size aside with assertive foreign policy“, the report tells readers:
“But Qatar is not satisfied with being just a wealthy country – it wants to be seen as a serious regional power as well.
It is a role it is already carving out for itself, for example having mediated in peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, and having opened offices in Doha for the Afghan Taliban.
And, in sharp contrast to its neighbours, Qatar openly supports both the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Hamas movement. It has hosted Hamas’ political leader Khaled Meshaal since he was kicked out of Damascus for supporting the anti-government protests.
It is a foreign policy principle of Qatar that in the search for peace and stability no-one should be excluded and everyone should be engaged with.” [emphasis added]
Sinjab’s first two supporting arguments for that debatable claim are provided by none other than the leader of Qatar’s protégé terrorist organization Khaled Masha’al and the editor of a newspaper with a vice-chairman and managing director from the Qatari ruling family which, unsurprisingly, takes a pro-government stance.
“It is an example of what Jaber al-Harmi, editor-in-chief of Al Sharq, one of Qatar’s leading papers, sees as an attempt by the emirate to forge a new approach to dealing with the region’s problems.
“Qatar tried to suggest a new attitude in the Arabic sphere and wanted to say that there is another view to what’s prevailing,” he said.
This became apparent at the start of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Qatar’s government publicly supported protests in the region and its leading pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera gave voice to those opinions.
“Qatar believed that it had to side with the Arab streets, the people and their aspirations for reforms and freedoms. What distinguished Qatar is its transparency in its policies,” said Mr Harmi.”
At this point any journalist truly committed to editorial standards of accuracy and impartiality would surely have told audiences about the Qatari regime’s lack of transparency and its disregard for “reforms and freedoms” in its own back yard.
“Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, both print and broadcast media content are influenced by leading families. The top five daily newspapers are privately owned, but their owners and boards include members of the ruling family. In 1996, Hamad permitted the creation of Al-Jazeera, which has achieved global reach. Although it is privately held, the government has reportedly paid for the channel’s operating costs since its inception. As a result, Al-Jazeera generally does not cover Qatari politics. All journalists in Qatar practice a high degree of self-censorship and face possible jail sentences for slander. In October 2013, a 15-year prison sentence was upheld for poet Mohamed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who was convicted in 2012 for insulting the emir through his poetry. Local news outlets were reportedly ordered by a Qatari court to refrain from covering the 2013 trial of two members of the royal family convicted for 19 deaths in a 2012 shopping mall fire.
In 2012, the Advisory Council approved a draft media law that would prevent journalists from being detained by authorities without a court order, and would allow them to protect their sources unless required to reveal them by a court. However, it also would impose fines of up to $275,000 for publishing or broadcasting material that criticizes the Qatari regime or its allies, insults the ruling family, or damages national interests.”
Sinjab’s next interviewee is Al Jazeera’s Director General and her report includes the following – apparently written with a straight face.
“Mr Abou Hilaleh says, contrary to a popular view, Al Jazeera’s coverage is not dictated by Qatar’s foreign policy.
“When I worked for Al Jazeera as a correspondent and now as a director, in both cases, we have nothing to do with Qatar’s foreign policy. But in certain countries, our offices are treated as embassies for Qatar.”
Let’s take a look at what Mohamed Fahmy – one of the Al Jazeera journalists detained and tried in Egypt – recently wrote in the New York Times.
“When Al Jazeera was started in 1996, Qatar was widely praised for its enlightened thinking. […]
Like many young Arabs, I was impressed. Al Jazeera seemed a model of courageous broadcasting in a region not known for upholding freedom of speech. That was still my view when I became Cairo bureau chief in September 2013.
I have since realized how deeply I, like the viewing public, was duped. I came to see how Qatar used Al Jazeera as a pernicious, if effective, tool of its foreign policy. […]
The Doha management also neglected to tell me that it was providing Brotherhood activists in Egypt with video cameras and paying them for footage, which it then broadcast, without explaining its political provenance, on the banned Arabic channel. During my detention, I met a number of prisoners who told me how this worked, and I have seen court documents confirming it.
Al Jazeera’s managers crossed an ethical red line. By attempting to manipulate Egypt’s domestic politics, they were endangering their employees.”
Lina Sinjab’s final ‘character witness’ is, like Khaled Masha’al, apparently also dependent on Qatari generosity.
“Husam al-Hafez, a former Syrian diplomat who defected to Doha, sees Qatar’s policy as pragmatic.”
In other words the BBC’s glowing – but cringingly superficial – portrayal of Qatari foreign policy is based entirely on the testimonies of two journalists from media outlets with links to the Qatari ruling regime and two people dependent upon that regime’s hospitality. No effort is made whatsoever to provide audiences with views which do not adhere to the party line or analysis from contributors not in some way dependent on the Qatari regime.
“One of the things about Qatar’s foreign policy is the extent to which it has been a complete and total failure, almost an uninterrupted series of disasters,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “Except it’s all by proxy, so nothing bad ever happens to Qatar.”
So much for the BBC’s self-awarded title of “the standard-setter for international journalism“.