IN newsrooms and on assignment around the world, journalists with Al Jazeera are trying to set aside worries that each story they cover could be their last.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain have demanded that Qatar close the TV station as one of their main conditions for lifting a month-long blockade of the tiny, gas-rich kingdom, making journalists pawns in a bitter regional fight.

Just hours before Wednesday’s deadline for Qatar to formally respond to the demands, a senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English, Jamal Elshayyal, said most journalists at the station were well prepared for working under the heaviest political pressure.

“Without wanting to sound too dramatic, this isn’t the first time we have come under threat,” said Elshayyal.

Over two decades, the Doha-based channel has transformed the media environment in the Gulf, at some point angering almost every power in a region with very few democracies and no tradition of independent media.

“We are used to being under the cosh, because of the unique nature of Al Jazeera as the first independent media organisation in a region filled with propaganda channels,” said Elshayyal.

His channel, award-winning and internationally recognised, is not the main target of the blockade. Its sister channel, Al Jazeera Arabic, which reaches far wider audiences and has more controversial coverage, is widely believed to be the real focus.

It was launched with a swath of staff from BBC Arabic in 1996 after Saudi partners connected to the ruling family forced the closure of the channel after a row about content.

“They took the spirit of the BBC with them to Al Jazeera,” said Ian Richardson, the last managing editor of BBC Arabic, who added he had kept in touch with staff after moving on. About two-thirds of BBC staff joined Al Jazeera, he said, and the dispute is likely to bring back painful memories of the previous turmoil they endured.

Richardson said: “I think they will be very distressed and very uncertain because I am certain those who work in the newsrooms will wonder whether they will pay the price — losing their jobs and seeing something they are immensely proud of destroyed.”

In recent years the Arabic channel has been criticised for both anti-Semitism and extreme sectarianism, including a programme that discussed massacring the Alawite sect of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

But the Gulf states targeting Al Jazeera are not focused on broadcasting standards and sectarian tensions but the Qataris’ support for the uprisings of the Arab spring and Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Regional strongmen and hereditary monarchs see those groups, pushing for regime change, as an existential threat.

“There seems to be rather a smear campaign,” said Giles Trendle, managing editor of Al Jazeera English. “I would trace it back to 2011 when we had the so-called Arab spring.

“There was talk of democracy and getting rid of all these autocratic regimes. I think obviously some of those regimes are still in place or have reappeared in one guise or another and are concerned that there is an organisation like Al Jazeera.”

That makes the demand to shutter the station a political attack on the media, said Tim Dawson, president of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.

He said: “Al Jazeera as an editorial product and an employer is by no means above criticism, but that does not make the call for its closure any less monstrous. Everyone who cares about free speech and a free press should rally to its cause.”

It is also potentially devastating for individual journalists and their families. Some could be left without a home, if they come from countries that have criticised Al Jazeera.

Dawson added: “Were Qatar to comply with Saudi Arabia’s outrageous demand that it shuts Al Jazeera, the station’s staff would obviously be devastated. Those in the UK would lose their jobs, most of those based in Qatar would lose their homes as well.”

Although the channel was set up and is still funded by the Qatari state, Al Jazeera journalists said they had not been given any insight into how negotiations were going, or whether the government would stand firm.

“Tomorrow we will see what the foreign minister has come up with. We don’t know what Qatar’s response has been and we don’t know what the response to that response will be. It’s very difficult to predict,” said Trendle.

Journalists at the channel had been heartened by “uplifting and encouraging” support from other media organisations, which have condemned the demand to close the channel.

The Economist described it as “an extraordinary, extraterritorial assault on free speech. It is as if China had ordered Britain to abolish the BBC.” In Times, columnist Hugo Rifkind had an even sharper warning: “Grandiose as it might sound, this could be the greatest assault on press freedom in the past 50 years.”

The journalists were more frustrated by what Elshayyal described as only half-hearted support from western governments.

But for now he is focused mostly on a professional frustration. Saudi and Emirates officials have refused countless requests to come on air and explain why they want the station gone; he has resorted to tweeting interview requests.

“That’s how committed we are to neutrality, we are keen to give them a platform to explain why they don’t want us to exist.”

By arrangement with The Guardian

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2017

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