Arab countries have called British broadcast regulator Ofcom to investigate whether the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera media network infringes domestic or European broadcasting laws through its broadcast of “inflammatory” material.
A joint letter from the Saudi, Egyptian, UAE and Bahraini ambassadors to the United Kingdom accused Ofcom of granting “global credibility” to Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain make up the quartet leading a boycott against Qatar.
The quartet warned that Ofcom’s licensing of Al Jazeera English provided the media company’s wider network, particularly Al Jazeera Arabic, with a false sense of legitimacy.
“Al Jazeera Arabic benefits from Al Jazeera English’s credibility by associations, despite the fact that Al Jazeera Arabic is not licensed or currently regulated in the United Kingdom or any European Union member state,” said the letter, which was also signed by Arab journalist associations.
“Al Jazeera Media Network’s repeated statements seek to give the impression or, at least gave the misleading impression, that all of its channels are licensed and regulated by Ofcom or that they comply with the standards of the Ofcom Code.”
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code explicitly bans content that is “likely to encourage or incite the commission of crime or to lead to disorder,” including direct or indirect calls to criminal action or disorder, material promoting or encouraging engagement in terrorism or any form of crime or disorder and “hate speech,” which is likely to encourage criminal activity or lead to disorder.
Ofcom said that it could not consider allegations against Al Jazeera Arabic, given that the channel is registered abroad. “Al Jazeera Arabic is not licensed in the UK, so is not subject to our broadcasting rules but we have passed this letter of complaint to the media regulator in Italy, where the channel holds a licence, for urgent consideration,” an Ofcom spokeswoman said.
Ofcom is reviewing an Al Jazeera English documentary broadcast this year looking into the influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups in the United Kingdom.
“We are investigating whether this programme complied with our rules on due impartiality and offence and whether it materially misled the audience,” Ofcom said in March.
The quartet rejected claims that Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic pursued different editorial lines, saying the Al Jazeera brand as a whole was at fault.
“Al Jazeera Media Networks’ Acting Director-General Mostefa Souag made a number of statements claiming that Al Jazeera English’s and Al Jazeera Arabic’s editorial line is the same,” the letter said.
The letter also included instances in which Al Jazeera Arabic coverage would have failed to meet European broadcast regulations.
The quartet explicitly accused Al Jazeera of providing “positive or sympathetic” coverage of the Islamic State (ISIS), including an editorial tone that depicted the group as an “organisation” rather than a terrorist group.
It accused the channel of broadcasting unfiltered ISIS propaganda in news reports and documentaries, including the unedited broadcast of a 15-second message from an ISIS spokesman.
“This statement called for attacks to be carried out against non- Muslims and called on individuals to isolate Americans, the French or their allies and ‘hit his head with a stone, or slaughter him with a knife or run over him with a car or throw him from a high building” if they were “unable to obtain a [bomb] or bullet,” the quartet said.
The letter mentioned the broadcast of the death of an Egyptian soldier killed by ISIS in Sinai. “Al Jazeera Arabic also chose to broadcast the moment of death of an Egyptian soldier shot by an ISIS sniper and filmed by ISIS and say that ‘the organisation [ISIS] considered their targets easy.’”
This is the second time in four months that Al Jazeera has faced criticism of its journalistic ethics. Former Al Jazeera employees Mohamed Fahmy and Mohamed Fawzy started “Al Jazeera On Trial” website in June, which they said would document a multimillion-dollar lawsuit they filed against Al Jazeera.
“Just as we expect governments to abide by basic human rights, we also expect news outlets like Al Jazeera to respect the ethics of journalism, stop endangering the lives of its staff and refrain from sponsoring groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, [Jabhat] al-Nusra — an affiliate of al-Qaeda — and other terrorist groups,” Fahmy said in June.
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.