The National Defense Authorization Act signed this week could put a spotlight on Al Jazeera's ties to the government of Qatar. The Middle East Forum congratulated US President Donald Trump for signing the law.
"This legislation includes language supported by MEF compelling greater transparency by foreign-owned media outlets operating in the United States," the think tank said in a statement.
The NDAA is the major defense-spending bill signed annually by the president. This year's bill included a small section relating to foreign-owned media. Concerns about such media transmitting in the US have increased since the 2016 election. The Russia Today TV network registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act under pressure in 2017. Other international media have also registered under FARA, including those in Korea and China.
In March, Sen. Ted Cruz and Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Lee Zeldin called on Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to investigate Al Jazeera's connections to the Qatari government. "Qatar's Al Jazeera, which the State Department has indicated is state-controlled, produces content that is anti-American, antisemitic and anti-Israel, while promoting positive coverage of terrorist organizations," the bipartisan letter said. Along with 19 other members of Congress who signed, Gottheimer claimed in the letter that Qatar was using Al Jazeera as a "state-controlled propaganda arm."
Now Congress has sought another way to potentially force Al Jazeera's connections to Qatar out into the open. Section 722 of the NDAA is titled "Disclosure requirements for the United States-based foreign media outlets." It calls on the Federal Communications Commission to transmit to Congress every six months details about content, and a description of the relationship of the media outlet to the foreign government, as well as the legal structure of the media entity.
Congress sought to use this section to provide greater transparency. But the senators and representatives were not clear on which country was the target of the bill. Discussions referenced Russia and China but not Qatar, and noted that the bill was only supposed to apply to foreign-based media companies that are under the "direct control of governments in our media landscape."
The language here is more opaque than directing the FCC to look into Qatar or Al Jazeera. However, supporters of the legislation are optimistic. One person familiar with the issue said that control over Al Jazeera is confusing. "It seems the editorial bent is in line with the emir, and in reports it seems they are controlled, like RT [Russia Today] is." The source said he hoped the bill would help expose Al Jazeera and that the legislation was a step in the right direction.
"With more transparency, we will learn more about the Qatari government's intentions," Gregg Roman at MEF said on August 13. Qatar's diplomats asserted earlier this year that Al Jazeera's journalists were independent of government control.
The move comes as Qatar is struggling against Saudi Arabia after Riyadh and several allies broke relations with Doha in 2017. Doha's adversaries have called for it to close Al Jazeera, accusing the channel of fomenting extremism and protests.
Qatar is at the center of several embarrassing incidents in the US that revealed its attempts to find favor with lobbyists and pro-Israel activists over the last few months. In addition, Doha has worked hard to encourage a more strategic relationship with the Trump administration, even as it is accused by Riyadh of drifting toward closer relations with Iran and Turkey. Qatar is also home to a large US Air Force base.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He has covered the wars on Islamic State in Iraq and reported from Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, west Africa and Eastern Europe.