ALEXIS CRUZ WRITES – More than 100 days of diplomatic crisis have taken their toll on Qatar.
While fighting has yet to break out, proxy shots have most certainly been fired in the press and on the airwaves between Qatar and the quartet of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt lined up against it in an air, sea and land blockade.
Recently, Saudi news networks have reported that the terrorist group ISIS supported Qatar in the Gulf Crisis. Qatar’s neighbors have accused Qatar of covertly endorsing terrorists. However, The New York Times debunked the report and Al Jazeera, Qatar’s best known news network, quickly set out to highlight several instances of “fake news” coming from the Arab quartet and the misinformation hitting Qatar.
The New York Times’ story gave Qatar some support, but it’s not seen as infallible. Each country’s press attacks the other side over every issue. The Hajj pilgrimage season, an important tenet of Islam, occurred during the crisis. Saudi Arabia is home to the holy city of Mecca and offered plane rides on Saudi Arabian Airlines for Qataris pilgrims. Yet, The Gulf Times in Qatar admonished Saudi Arabia for curbing transportation options and politicizing the Hajj. UAE newspaper, The National, came to Saudi Arabia’s defense, reporting that Qatar was blocking the planes and politicizing the pilgrimage. Each side is accusing the other of prolonging the crisis, but it was only Saudi Arabia that was willing to reopen its borders with Qatar.
In early September, Qatar held a symposium marking a hundred days of the Gulf Crisis. Qatari academics and journalists praised Qatar for an unbiased media and maintaining international support. They referred to the crisis as a “siege” and “blockade.” This terminology was previously used by Qatari press. On the other side, Saudi network, Al Arabiya, used an Arab Federation for Human Rights report as ammo against Qatar. The report accused Qatar of repressing information and violating basic human rights and international law. With the backing of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, the report “described the crisis as a ‘boycott,’” arguing that the quartet only broke off political and economic ties as a defensive measure.
Nevertheless, neither side has a reputation for freedom of the press. The civil liberties watchdog, Freedom House, ranks the press in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE as “0% free,” blaming the lack of freedom on each country’s strict governments that often censor content on social media and tightly control news outlets. The one with the cleanest hands is Qatar’s Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera freely criticizes authorities and air-dissenting opinions; however, it is laughably biased towards extremism. It is this dichotomy that has motivated Arab countries to squash Al Jazeera, as reported here, at Asia Media International.
It’s worth noting that Al Jazeera English is largely free of the biases that plague its Arab counterparts.
The Middle East is not a region where freedom of the press is a human right and there are no democratic checks and balances. What often appears in the press is government opinion, and when leaders aren’t speaking to resolve the crisis, the newspapers are starting their own war on media in the background.