Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Free the Al-Jazeera journalists, but what about Qatar?

There is no doubt that it reprehensible for the Egyptian government to prosecute English language journalists of Al-Jazeera for "terrorism".  The campaign #journalismisnotacrime is quite right in what it calls for. As much as I support the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood autocracy that appeared to have the view that democracy means "one vote once" in its drive to create a theocracy, it does not justify the new regime suppressing free journalism.  The response to criticism should be rebuttal, not to throw people in prison.

However, looking a little bit further behind the campaign some big questions deserve to be asked...

1.  What press freedom does Al Jazeera's owners offer in its home country?  The answer is very little. Reporters Without Borders ranks Qatar as 113th in press freedom globally.  Of course, if you're Al Jazeera journalists who dare to report critically about Qatar, you at best wont last in your job long, at worst you'll end up in prison too.  This is a country where there is a proposed crime to spread "false news".  Qatar itself gets a "not free" ranking by Freedom House, which notes that:

"Al-Jazeera generally does not cover Qatari politics and focuses instead on regional issues."

2. What about journalists arrested in many other countries?  Reporters Without Borders notes that 170 journalists have been imprisoned in over 30 other countries this year.   That includes 32 in China, 28 in the largely ignored Eritrea (the north Korea of Africa), 21 in Iran and 16 in Syria.  Why pick on Egypt?  Is it because, unlike the others, it gets US backing, rather than because journalists per se mater?

3.  Why is international attention paid to Al Jazeera journalists working for Al Jazeera English, but not when those who work for Al Jazeera Arabic are arrested?  Doesn't this feed the concern of the Anglo-centric bias of so much of the mainstream media?  Few of the journalists imprisoned in other countries work predominantly in English.  Why should that matter?  

4.  How do people working for broadcasters, owned by dictatorships that intervene in other countries, expect to be treated in those countries?  I don't doubt that many journalists who work for Al-Jazeera are professional in their outlook, and wouldn't want to act as mouthpieces for their owners, but when your employer's owners are directly funding and arming the authoritarian opposition (and former government) in a country, and you're in the country reporting on it, don't you think it raises some issues about independence?

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