Accuracy in Media

Al-Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar has given a much-publicized speech heralding the birth of a “New Era” in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera’s approach to journalism emphasizes “re-thinking authority, giving a voice to the voiceless,” he told Time magazine. But what about covering human rights in Qatar, which pays his salary?

Notorious for ignoring human rights problems in Qatar, Al-Jazeera has been forced reluctantly to briefly cover the case of a Qatari blogger imprisoned and possibly being tortured by security forces in that Arab country.

Under the matter-of-fact headline, “Amnesty: Qatari blogger detained,” Al-Jazeera English reports that Amnesty International is calling attention to how Sultan al-Khalaifi, a Qatari blogger and the founder of a human rights organization, was arrested on March 2 and is being detained incommunicado. Amnesty International reported, “He is at risk of torture or other ill-treatment. The reasons for his detention are unknown.”

After presenting comments by Najib al-Nuaimi, al-Khalaifi’s lawyer, Al-Jazeera reported, “The Qatari government could not be contacted for comment.”

What is not revealed in this propaganda piece masquerading as a news report is the fact that Al-Jazeera is an arm of the Qatari government.

As noted by the most recent U.S. State Department human rights report, “Al- Jazeera and the government claimed that the channel was independent and free of government influence, but the government exercised editorial and programmatic control of the channel through funding and selection of the station’s management.”

In other words, the regime and the channel are lying about Al-Jazeera’s supposed “independence.”

How is it possible that a channel based in Qatar and funded by the regime could not obtain a comment from those who pay its bills and pick its personnel? The answer has to be that there is a cover-up underway and Al-Jazeera is part of it. Meanwhile, a courageous blogger in Qatar is possibly being tortured to death.

The fact that the channel has picked up a report from Amnesty International should not detract from this inescapable state of affairs. If any news organization should be able to get a comment from Qatar, it is Al-Jazeera. But it simply reports that the regime “could not be contacted for comment.”

The cover-up is reminiscent of the failure of Al-Jazeera to cover the assault on CBS News correspondent Lara Logan during the riots in Egypt. Al-Jazeera officials lied about that, too, saying the failure to cover the attack stemmed from a respect for Logan’s privacy.

Amnesty International reports, “Sultan al-Khalaifi was arrested in the evening of March 2 by around eight individuals in plain clothes, believed to be members of the security forces. He was leaving his parents’ house at the time. The individuals took him to his own home, which they then searched, seizing CDs and a laptop. His family’s car was also searched. According to information received by Amnesty International, he had told his wife earlier that day that State Security had contacted him, asking him to report to them, but that he did not know why.”

A search of Al-Jazeera’s archives turned up only four stories about the imprisoned blogger, Sultan al-Khalaifi, all of them related to the Amnesty International announcement on March 3 that he had been detained. This means that his human rights activities, up until the point that Amnesty released an announcement about his predicament, had been ignored by the channel in the country in which he was operating.

The State Department alluded to Al-Jazeera’s peculiar methods of reporting by noting that the channel “covered local news when there was an international component,” such as when Al-Jazeera Arabic “televised an investigative documentary titled Foreign Workers in the Gulf” that featured interviews with foreign workers and employers in the country.

So treatment about foreign workers gets minimal coverage while the general lack of freedom in the country for its own citizens gets nothing.

But the treatment of the blogger Sultan al-Khalaifi is not unique. Amnesty International reports, “Incommunicado detention is standard practice by State Security forces in Qatar. Amnesty International has received reports in recent years of dozens of people being detained incommunicado by State Security forces for weeks or months, followed by prolonged arbitrary detention without charge or trial.”

Hence, the record is clear. Al-Jazeera has been engaged in a cover-up of human rights problems inside the country involving Qatari citizens who want to criticize the dictatorial regime. No wonder the Qatari blogger has been a non-entity on Al-Jazeera until now.

“The constitution [of Qatar] does not provide citizens the right to peacefully change their government through elections. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by the emir’s branch of the Al-Thani family,” notes the State Department report. In other words, Qatar is a family-run dictatorship.

It is an authoritarian regime that gets the easy treatment from the channel it sponsors. No real surprise here, except perhaps to those Western voices such as American blogger Jeff Jarvis and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who sing the praises of the Arab government-funded network.

In terms of press freedom in general, Mrs. Clinton’s own State Department human rights report notes that “The government restricted the peaceful expression of views via the Internet and censored the Internet for political, religious, and pornographic content through a proxy server, which monitored and blocked Web sites, e-mail, and chat rooms through the state-owned Internet service provider. For example, the government blocked access to the Arab Times, an Arab-American online newspaper, which at times published articles critical of the government.”

In order to create a favorable impression, however, the monarchy of Qatar runs its own “National Human Rights Committee” (NHRC) which claims that “Since the Accession of his Highness the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, there has been an increased emphasis on liberalizing Qatar, in order to facilitate its social, cultural and economic development.” It goes on, “This is most evident in the support provided to the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera by the State of Qatar.”

Al-Jazeera, which has a history of covering up human rights abuses in Qatar, is being offered as proof of the regime’s commitment to human rights. How’s that for Orwellian double-talk?

A report prepared by this official body, created by the Emir and funded by the Emir, praises the regime’s human rights record with such ludicrous statements as:

“In a remarkable enlightened step of praiseworthy impact, His Highness, the Emir of the State of Qatar issued a document approving Qatar’s accession to the

Convention on Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979…”

Regarding the official activities of this body, the U.S. State Department report notes that “The government-appointed NHRC conducted regular visits to prisons, jails, and detention centers, but it did not visit the state security prison.” This is where the human rights blogger, Sultan al-Khalaifi, is behind held.

Why doesn’t a reporter for Al-Jazeera demand access to the prison? Why not an ambush interview of Qatari officials over the imprisonment and possible torture of the Qatari human rights activist?

With the advent of Al-Jazeera, claims Al-Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar, “suddenly you find people from different political parties and opposition leaders appearing on the screen, speaking to the audiences with their opinions …”

So why has human rights in Qatar been so brazenly ignored? And when, if ever, will that change for the masters of Al-Jazeera?

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