Jordan Cope, Qatari Finance Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of policy education at Stand With Us, spoke to a May 12th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Benjamin Baird, director of MEF Action, an advocacy project of the Middle East Forum. Cope discussed Middle Eastern media conglomerates and how they operate. The following is a summary of Cope's comments:
Media outlets in the region can be classified according to the type of Islamist ideology they endorse: Sunni or Shia. There is an important distinction between outlets established by or backed and sponsored by states, and those outlets supported by non-state actors. Examples of Sunni state-sponsored media outlets are Qatar's network Al Jazeera (AJ) and Turkey's TRT World. Ankara and Doha both support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB); during the "Arab Spring," they supported Libya's GNA government. Shia Iran has its own state-sponsored media outlet, Press TV. State-sponsored media, whether Sunni or Shia, generally share anti-Western and anti-Israel views.
An additional contrast pertains to the realm of language. "Generally, when it comes to state-sponsored networks, they try to influence the outside world and they appeal in foreign languages, Western languages, whether that be English, Spanish, French. We see that with multiple outlets. On the other side with non-state actors, we usually see them appealing in the local language in which terrorist organizations try to assert their control and jurisdiction and consolidate their views, glorify terrorism, and incite violence there and then." Examples of the latter type include the (Shia) Hezbollah-affiliated channel Al-Manar in Lebanon and the (Sunni) Al-Aqsa TV in Gaza.
According to Freedom House rankings, freedom of the press in Qatar and Turkey is rated "very poor" and is non-existent in Iran. Al Jazeera was founded in 1995 by the Emir of Qatar and, since 2018, remains connected to the royal family as the Al Jazeera Media Network. During that same year, Turkey jailed many media professionals from "opposition and independent outlets." The 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan, which some believe was staged, enabled the autocrat to purge his opponents. Currently, opposition media outlets in Turkey face fines and censorship. Journalists in Iran, even those outside the country, face intimidation and threats. Other than in Israel, "freedom of expression in the Middle East is limited."
Even though Al Jazeera is a state-controlled network, its English language programming still enjoys mainstream acceptance among international news outlets. Al Jazeera Arabic's content is quite different from that broadcast by Al Jazeera English. The Arabic channel broadcasts overtly antisemitic material, while Al Jazeera English carefully presents its work as anti-Zionist. Al Jazeera Arabic's reports are designed to undermine the U.S. relationship with such "traditional allies" as Israel and India. Its reportage promotes material that "gets very close to accusing" both U.S. allies of "apartheid, genocide, [and] ethnic cleansing" and regularly levels charges of "settler colonialism" against Israel in particular.
"Oftentimes, Israel is seen as a litmus symbol for one's opinions on the West in the region." Both Israel and India are targets because of "Palestine" and "Kashmir" – causes used to rally the Sunni Islamist world. Al Jazeera glorifies Hamas terrorists and Gaza's Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) members as martyrs and frequently hosts them on its programs.
The network's Beirut office held a birthday party for Samir Kuntar, a "released Hizballah operative later killed." This individual had been jailed for the murder of a four-year-old girl, Einat Haran, after first murdering her father.
Qatar introduced Al Jazeera English in 2003, the same year the Iraq War began, to "change discourse on American initiatives in the region." Al Jazeera America was developed from 2013 to 2016. During the Iraq War, Al Jazeera aired graphic war footage in an attempt to influence viewers to oppose U.S. intervention there. Al Jazeera reporters would appear when U.S. troops were "ambushed," airing the carnage live to emphasize America's "vulnerability" and incite locals to attack American military personnel.
As the "Arab Spring" emerged in 2011, Al Jazeera introduced AJ+, the outlet's slick online media platform, to target Westerners and mold attitudes during this period of political unrest. AJ+ targets a "youthful, progressive audience" in the U.S. with a narrative highlighting anti-American progressives' themes of "racial discrimination [and] police brutality." AJ+'s report on Hamas's recent rocket attacks against Israeli cities erroneously referred to a civilian casualty in Israel's heartland as a "settler" from Israel's disputed territory.
Middle East Eye (MEE), a print media company popular among American Islamists, is similar to Al Jazeera in that it also publishes smears against India and Israel. Noteworthy is that MEE has a "significant conflict of interest" because Al Jazeera's senior editor, Megan O'Toole, is also operating as an MEE editor. Given that MEE's mission aligns with Al Jazeera's "substance," many former Al Jazeera reporters are MEE hires, and O'Toole's dual role suggests that MEE has "ties to the Qatari government by proxy via Al Jazeera."
The impact of foreign media interference in the U.S. was mitigated somewhat under the Trump administration, which required all Middle Eastern media to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). TRT World complied, but AJ+ refused to respond to Justice Department orders to register. Numerous other state-sponsored outlets from the Middle East have escaped U.S. government scrutiny altogether.
Qatar's ongoing efforts to cultivate stronger relations with the West have included hosting the 2022 World Cup, purchasing U.S. military technology, and "sponsoring $5 billion in funding to U.S. universities." Its latest effort, the Qatar America Institute for Culture (QAIC) in Washington, D.C., is Doha's soft power attempt to convince the West that it is a U.S. ally by creating an audience for the country's Islamic art collection. However, the initiative falls short in light of the country's anti-American stance. One need only consider Al Jazeera's hostile rhetoric regarding U.S. interests, and the fact that Qatar harbored Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), however, is showing encouraging signs. Reports that the kingdom is purging its school curricula of "homophobic or antisemitic" material holds promise for reform. Gulf media outlets, such as Al Arabiya, are generally more pro-Western, as indicated by their reports on Qatar's "sponsorship of terrorism" and the dangers Iran poses to the region. The U.S. has also sponsored media networks in the region, such as Radio Sawa (Al Sawa), launched in 2002, an Arabic language "repackaging of Voice of America (VOA)," and the television network Alhurra, launched in 2004.
Poor monitoring of these U.S.-sponsored networks has sometimes resulted in "counterintuitive" missteps. Al Sawa, for example, featured an anti-American militant who advocated violence, and Alhurra employed a Holocaust-denying reporter.
"So, you had these dreadful comments being aired on American-sponsored TV that cost taxpayers, I believe, and I'll double check this . . . something along the lines of $500 million in its earlier years. It was disastrous in that sense, and it didn't really catch on."
Regarding the reporting process, "When you want to try to assess and evaluate the truth, the first way is to go to local sources. Unfortunately, I just don't think many journalists know how to navigate which sources are reliable."
To be effective, journalists need to be first educated to develop an expertise about the region they report on. This reality underscores the need to promote "free media in the Middle East" that advances "truth [and] accuracy."
In Iran, VOA, although influential, pales in comparison to Iran International, which "remains the biggest influence when it comes to opposition in Iran."
As for British efforts, "I would definitely say BBC Arabic's coverage often invokes very much of the same language that you see from those that are anti-Israel, for sure. BBC Arabic definitely is not favorable, and neither is sometimes BBC English."
The only way to counter hostile media organizations in the Middle East while upholding free speech is to develop media outlets that expose "inaccuracies" and are scrupulous about the truth.
Outlets capable of taking full advantage of social media will draw in youthful audiences with "fleeting attention spans" to effect positive change by airing "peaceful talking points" to inculcate "tolerance."
"America could do a better job probably at having media outlets designed in Arabic and Farsi promoting what we believe is the truth here, given that we have such wide access to it."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.