A United Nations media rights expert has rejected the demand of a Saudi-led group of countries to close Al Jazeera, saying it would be “a major blow to media pluralism”.
David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said in a statement that the demand “represents a serious threat to media freedom if states, under the pretext of a diplomatic crisis, take measures to force the dismantling of Al Jazeera”.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt gave Qatar 10 days to comply with 13 demands to end a major diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, insisting, among other things, that Doha shut down Al Jazeera, close a Turkish military base and scale down ties with Iran.
The demands also included the closure of all news outlets that Qatar allegedly funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed, Mekameleen and Middle East Eye.
Kaye called on “the international community to urge these governments not to pursue this demand against Qatar, to resist taking steps to censor media in their own territory and regionally, and to encourage support for independent media in the Middle East”.
Al Jazeera has described the Saudi-led campaign as “nothing but an attempt to silence the freedom of expression in the region and to suppress people’s right to information and the right to be heard”.
Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al Jazeera’s English-language service, also denounced the demands by the Arab states as an attempt to suppress free expression.
“We are stunned by the demand to close Al Jazeera,” Trendle said. “Of course, there has been talk about it in the past, but it is still a great shock and surprise to actually see it in writing. It’s as absurd as it would be for Germany to demand Britain to close the BBC.”
He added that Al Jazeera is going to continue its “editorial mission of covering the world news in a fair and balanced way”.
Growing list of support
Kaye joins the growing list of individuals and organisations that have expressed their support for Al Jazeera.
On Monday, a trade association representing more than 80 media companies voiced its support for Al Jazeera amid the Saudi-led campaign to have the network shut down.
“It is vital we value and protect the independence of media organisations and journalists around the world. Any effort to silence journalists or use news organisations as a bargaining chip is an affront to freedom,” a statement by the Digital Content Next association said.
Last week, The Guardian newspaper said in an editorial that the demand by the Saudi-led bloc was “wrong”.
“The attack on Al Jazeera is part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world. It should be condemned and resisted,” the editorial published by The Guardian on Friday said.
Media watchdogs, human rights groups and prominent commentators have also condemned the demand to close Al Jazeera as “outrageous”, “absurd” and “worrying”.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, has said that Al Jazeera Media Network is an “internal affair” and there will be no discussion about the fate of the Doha-based broadcaster during the diplomatic crisis.
He was responding to a question about whether the demand to close Al Jazeera was reasonable.
“We do not promote the idea of press freedom. What we talk about is responsibility in speech,” he said.