In a withering attack on Al Jazeera and Qatar, the pro-government Daily Sabah slammed Al Jazeera English for being critical of Turkey's foreign policy and demanded that it "weed out" journalists.
Turkey, which Amnesty International calls "the world's largest prison for journalists," appears to be using its media to try to order Qatar to muzzle Al Jazeera in English. The lead editorial at Daily Sabah calls the network a "threat against the Turkey-Qatar alliance."
The editorial begins by noting that Turkey and Qatar are "strategic partners" and accuses Israel and other countries of "ganging up" on Qatar. But the Turkish newspaper accuses Al Jazeera English, "Qatar's flagship news channel," of "spreading anti-Turkey propaganda under the pretext of independent and objective journalism." Turkey's pro-government media now accuses Qatar's media of "jumping on the Western media's Turkey-bashing bandwagon" and "smearing last month's Turkish operation into northeastern Syria."
The US State Department slammed Turkey on Saturday as one of the "worst offenders" in crimes against journalists. Amnesty International says Turkey has arrested hundreds of people for being critical of Turkey's invasion of Syria.
The Daily Sabah article now reflects Turkey's demands that regional media of other authoritarian states abide by Turkey's demands and control critical journalists. There can be no critique of Turkey's military operation, either in Turkish media or abroad.
The editorial claims Qatar uses the "PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] terrorist organization's talking points." It notes that Al Jazeera is "funded by Qatar's government" and that the network has traditionally presented an "alternative view of the world." However, the editorial argues that "a small group of people within Al Jazeera English are deliberately dismantling the network's own legacy and undermining the Turkey-Qatar partnership in an attempt to dictate the Gulf nation's foreign policy."
Basically, Turkey's pro-government paper, likely representing the views of Ankara, is asserting that any article in Al Jazeera represents the views of Qatar and is designed to dictate Qatar's foreign policy. Therefore, an article critical of Turkey is alleged to represent Doha's views and undermine Qatar's relationship with Turkey.
Ankara thinks Al Jazeera should present only the official views of Qatar.
Daily Sabah also alleges that Turkey is seeking to reverse the "de-Arabization of Syria's border towns" by "bringing Syrian refugees home" to eastern Syria. Kurds in the area – where 200,000 have been forced to flee since Turkey's operation began – have alleged that Arab Syrian rebel groups backed by Turkey have carried out human rights abuses over the last month.
"But Al Jazeera English, like Western outlets where some of its employees used to serve," has been critical of the operation, Turkey argues. "It reproduced the talking points of certain Western governments and the terrorist group they sponsor, on-air." This is harsh criticism in Turkey of Qatar which would only be permitted if it were Ankara's views. It is not only anti-Western, but accuses the West and Qatari media of pushing "terrorist" propaganda.
This gives a window into Turkey's own worldview of how media is supposed to work with the state. Turkey already has some media that is backed by the state, including TRT or Anadolu, while Daily Sabah is ostensibly merely pro-government. Its editorial argues that Al Jazeera has become "virtually indistinguishable from Al Arabiya and other gulf mouthpieces." This argument asserts that most media in the Gulf basically repackages the government views. Therefore, Al Jazeera's critique of Turkey undermines the alliance with Turkey.
"Without reciprocity, any relationship is at risk of falling apart. In light of Al Jazeera English's complicity in the smear campaign against Turkey, the Turkish people cannot be expected to support Qatar against countries, with which Turkey could easily join forces." This logic foresees Turkey working with Qatar's enemies merely due to a few critical media takes on Turkish foreign policy. Either Qatar should control its media and forbid critique of Turkey, or Turkey might end its alliance with Qatar.
Already Turkey has its public broadcaster, TRT, attack Qatar over the treatment of migrant workers. For apparently the first time, Turkey's government media critiqued Qatar. This reveals the degree to which government media has become a tool of foreign policy, with no pretense of journalistic independence. Qatar was beyond critique due to some mutual understanding, and now it is being critiqued to get back at Qatar for Al Jazeera's reports.
"The Turkish government must consider Al Jazeera English a hostile outlet."
With the Turkey-Qatar alliance at stake, Daily Sabah suggests Qatar deal with journalists the way Turkey deals with dissidents and critics. "Al Jazeera needs to weed out all individuals seeking to poison that alliance behind the smokescreen of independent journalism. Until the network takes the necessary steps, the Turkish government must consider Al Jazeera English a hostile outlet." And not just the network: Qatar could be burning bridges, the editorial says. It claims that this key ally has jeopardized itself "so that a handful of second-tier activists and washed-up Westerners can feel important." There is no reason for Turkey to "have Doha's back," the article concludes.
This is harsh language with serious ramifications, basically ordering Qatar to remove by "weeding out" any journalist critical of Turkey. If that doesn't happen and Qatar doesn't toe the line, Turkey-Qatar relations might suffer.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.