Western silence over the threat to Al Jazeera is just shameful

At risk: Al Jazeera CAMERA PRESS

29 June 2017 | John Simpson | Evening Standard

Imagine the rage if the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, demanded that Theresa May should close down the BBC as part of the Brexit deal. Well, of course it’s not remotely conceivable: that isn’t how modern democratic states do business.

But it’s the way some conservative Arab states are now behaving. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, together with Bahrain and the UAE, have put a stranglehold on the odd-man-out in the Gulf, Qatar; and one condition for lifting it is that Qatar should shut down Al Jazeera, the internationally respected TV news channel which it funds. Within 10 days.

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.

In 21 years, Al Jazeera has become one of the world’s major news channels. It offers a different perspective from the major Western news organisations and it’s highly watchable. It may have been accused of being slanted in favour of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and elsewhere but it employs talented ex-colleagues of mine from the BBC, and I’ve always felt its heart is in the right place.

Back in the days of the ineffectual Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s coverage played an important part in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and President Mubarak in Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s impetuous new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who’s only 31, and Egypt’s angry, resentful president, Field-Marshal al-Sisi, find this impossible to forgive or forget.

The two of them have colluded to shut down Qatar’s independent foreign policy and silence Al Jazeera. Bahrain and the UAE are following because they’ve got no alternative.

In its time, Al Jazeera has annoyed all sorts of foreign governments. The Americans managed to bomb its journalists during the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. There’s anger across the Arab world whenever Al Jazeera invites an Israeli government spokesman to voice the kind of opinions most Arabs wouldn’t otherwise hear.

The tradition in the Middle East has always been that the media should faithfully parrot government opinion. This is particularly true in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Prince Mohammed and President Sisi are determined to silence any alternative Arab voice.

The 10-day ultimatum to Qatar to shut down Al Jazeera is almost over, and it’s still not clear what will  happen. But isn’t it rather shocking that Western governments are staying so quiet about it?

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor.

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