Some US lawmakers are pushing to designate Doha-based news network as 'foreign agent'
The head of Al Jazeera’s investigations unit has accused the Qatari news network of risking its own reputation by suppressing a documentary on the Israeli lobby in Washington.
Clayton Swisher said on Friday that a "series of unexplained delays" in broadcasting the show had left Al Jazeera’s credibility "hanging in the balance" and represented the "most important test yet of Al Jazeera’s independence".
He voiced his grievances in an opinion piece published online by the Forward, a Jewish American magazine.
Earlier in the week, a group of US lawmakers asked the Department of Justice to investigate Al Jazeera and register it as a "foreign agent", apparently over the same documentary.
The documentary was deemed controversial and even "anti-Semitic" for using undercover reporters. The first part of the film aired last year. It exposed some of the tactics of the Israeli lobby in London and was cleared of anti-Semitism charges by Ofcom, the UK's broadcast regulator.
Swisher tied the saga to the ongoing Saudi-led blockade on Qatar, saying that Al Jazeera's refusal to air the report comes at a time when Doha is seeking to offer "its own side of the narrative" at the world stage, including in Washington.
Closing Al Jazeera is among the chief demands of Riyadh and its allies to lift their sanctions against Doha.
Although the documentary hasn't yet aired, some members of Congress have asked the country's attorney general to probe Al Jazeera over reports that the network "infiltrated" American non-profit organisations, an apparent reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
— Clayton Swisher (@claytonswisher) March 9, 2018
AIPAC itself is not registered as a foreign agent despite its deep ties to the Israeli government and direct work to influence US policy.
Swisher said that spiking the report, rather than broadcasting it, would give credence to accusations that the network acts as a foreign agent in the US.
"Indeed, if the documentary doesn’t air soon, it might prove to be the ammunition sought by a group of zealous US politicians who wish to declare Al Jazeera a foreign entity, and label us journalists as 'spies'," he wrote.
Al Jazeera's PR office did not respond to a request for comment outside business hours in Doha.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, along with 18 other members of Congress, including three Democrats, had sent a letter to the Justice Department on Tuesday urging the attorney general to clarify whether Al Jazeera should be listed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Russian network RT had to register under FARA in November 2017 amid accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
FARA was passed ahead of World War II to counter Nazi propaganda. But it has been primarily used to expose foreign governments' lobbying efforts within the US.
The Doha-based news outlet denounced the letter on Friday, accusing its signatories of attempting to "shoot the messenger".
"Al Jazeera views such calls as a direct attempt to curtail media freedom and restrict journalists from carrying out their duties, a right enshrined in the constitution of the United States of America," the network said in a statement.
"This call comes at a time when attacks on journalists and media organizations around the world are at an all-time high."
In their letter, Cruz and his colleagues said Al Jazeera's content "undermines American interests" and provides favourable coverage of groups designated as "terrorist" by the US State Department, including Hezbollah and Hamas.
This is clearly a partisan attempt to prevent the American public from having access to a wide variety of news sources and viewpoints.
-Nihad Awad, CAIR
"Furthermore, Al Jazeera’s record of radical anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel broadcasts warrants scrutiny from regulators to determine whether this network is in violation of US law," the lawmakers wrote.
Last year, Qatar hired former Cruz aide Nick Muzin to open communication channels with American Jewish groups, according to Haaretz. Muzin obtained a "verbal assurance" from Doha that the report will not air, the Israeli newspaper reported in February.
Al Jazeera maintains that it is editorially independent from the State of Qatar.
"Since its establishment in 1996, Al Jazeera has continued to maintain its editorial independence from any governmental institutions, Qatari or otherwise, and it steers away from any political or ideological agenda," the network's statement said.
'Bad example globally'
The Department of Justice has not answered the lawmakers' request.
"We have received the letter and are in the process of responding," a department spokesperson told MEE in an email.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the push against Al Jazeera is an attack on free speech.
"Using Senator Cruz's flawed logic, every international media outlet - such as the BBC, AFP, Deutsche Welle, Xinhua and others - would be forced to register as foreign agents, thereby chilling free speech," CAIR executive director Nihad Awad told MEE in an email.
"This is clearly a partisan attempt to prevent the American public from having access to a wide variety of news sources and viewpoints."
Alexandra Ellerbeck, North America programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based watchdog, said that it is difficult to speculate on what FARA registration would practically mean to media outlets.
RT's work seems to have gone uninterrupted in the US since November.
Parts of the law require labelling material as being funded by a foreign government, Ellerbeck said. But the measure, passed in 1938, does not address web content and social media posts.
"We don't actually have a good sense of what that will mean in practice," Ellerbeck told MEE.
The CPJ coordinator called the push to register Al Jazeera as a foreign agent "troubling".
READ MORE ►
"The calls to use FARA against media companies have been incredibly inconsistent, and we're always uncomfortable with the government being able to decide what is journalism and what is propaganda," she said.
"When you apply that into a context where it seems that policymakers are cherry-picking individual cases - often with little rhyme or reason - I think that's concerning, and it also sets a bad example globally."