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'Unacceptable': UN slams Saudi demand to shut Al Jazeera and media outlets

'The demand ... is, in our view, an unacceptable attack on the right to freedom of expression and opinion'
Last week, Saudi Arabia and three allied countries gave Qatar 10 days to close down Al Jazeera (AFP)

A demand by Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations for Qatar to close down its Al Jazeera TV channel is an "unacceptable attack" on the right to freedoms of expression and opinion, the United Nations human rights chief said on Friday.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a boycott on Qatar three weeks ago, accusing it of backing militants, then issued an ultimatum, including demands it shut down a Turkish military base in Doha, shutting Al Jazeera and curbing ties with Iran.

UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein is "extremely concerned by the demand that Qatar close down the Al Jazeera network, as well as other affiliated media outlets", his spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

"Whether or not you watch it, like it, or agree with its editorial standpoints, Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels are legitimate, and have many millions of viewers. The demand that they be summarily closed down is, in our view, an unacceptable attack on the right to freedom of expression and opinion," Colville said. 

Colville stressed that countries that take issue with items broadcast on other countries' television channels, "are at liberty to publicly debate and dispute them."

To insist that such channels be shut down is extraordinary, unprecedented and clearly unreasonable

- UN High Commissioner's spokesperson

"To insist that such channels be shut down is extraordinary, unprecedented and clearly unreasonable," he said.

He warned that if Qatar goes ahead and shutters Al Jazeera, "it would open a Pandora's Box of powerful individual states or groups of states seriously undermining the right to freedom of expression and opinion in other states, as well as in their own."

The media organisations the Saudi petition claims are "supported" by Qatar include Arabi21, al-Araby al-Jadeed, Sharq and the London-based Middle East Eye. 

David Hearst, Middle East Eye's editor-in-chief, has said his organisation is not funded by Qatar - or any other state or group - and is here to stay.

"Middle East Eye is independent of any government or movement and is not funded by Qatar," he said.

"Maybe the fate of Al Jazeera will depend on talks between the government of Qatar and its neighbours. But Middle East Eye is here to stay.

"MEE covers the area without fear or favour.”

Earlier this week, in an attempt to justify the Emirati demand that Al Jazeera closes down, the UAE ambassador to Russia said that his country “does not claim to have press freedom. We do not promote the idea of press freedom.”

Writing in the Evening Standard on Thursday, the BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson wrote that the Saudi demand that Qatar close down Al Jazeera was being overlooked by the West. 

"I seem to have missed the huge wave of anger about this. President Trump, who is doing various deals with the Saudis, hasn’t tweeted anything. Theresa May, in her desperate effort to find new markets for Britain, can’t afford to upset them. Everyone else seems to be looking away."

The Committee to Protect Journalists this week said the demand "shows clear contempt for the principle of press freedom and to your countries' treaty commitments to the rights to free expression and to freely receive and impart information."

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