The international media conglomerate Al Jazeera has long operated as a Qatari publicity agent, producing content that consistently reflects the emirate's pro-Islamist, anti-American outlook. But when the U.S. Justice Department, spurred on by Russian election interference, began cracking down on foreign propaganda machines, Qatar responded soon after by dumping Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani's controlling stake in Al Jazeera. By all appearances, this restructuring represents nothing more than a clumsy ploy, and the emir may have ceded control of the media giant purely to flout American laws governing foreign agents.
In practice, Al Jazeera continues to act as Qatar's alter ego, zealously advancing the emirate's pro-Islamist agenda. While Doha serves as a safe haven for jihadist field commanders from the Taliban and Hamas, Al Jazeera English programming is replete with Jewish-power conspiracies and terrorism apologias. AJ Plus, the network's slick online video content platform, produces the same anti-American and anti-Semitic subject matter but with a militantly progressive slant.
Al Jazeera continues to act as Qatar's alter ego, zealously advancing the emirate's pro-Islamist agenda.
Confidential U.S. diplomatic cables from 2009 referred to the network as a "useful tool for Qatari political masters." More recently, the media watchdog NewsGuard noted that AJE's coverage of Qatar's rivals "consistently skews towards unflattering stories."
Following the 2016 election, the DOJ began scrutinizing foreign media such as RT (formerly Russia Today), which U.S. intelligence referred to as "the Kremlin's principal international propaganda outlet." This increased attention eventually required RT to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a rarely enforced disclosure statute originally established to counter Nazi propaganda efforts.
In addition, Congress included an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, which requires foreign-owned media not covered by FARA laws to register with the Federal Communications Commission.
Multiple foreign news agencies have recently been required to register under FARA, but not Al Jazeera.
FARA was written to target publicity agents working on behalf of a foreign principal, and although the act explicitly excludes "any news or press service," this exemption does not apply to foreign-owned media outlets operating under the direction of foreign governments. Consequently, multiple news agencies have recently been required to register under FARA, including China Daily, South Korea's KBS America, and Japan's NHK Cosmomedia.
To avoid this fate, Qatari officials may have sought to muddy the waters when it comes to its control over Al Jazeera. According to U.K. financial filings, the emir of the State of Qatar liquidated his controlling stake in Al Jazeera International Limited, transferring the balance of 50,000 shares on March 10, 2018, to a dormant shell company. In doing so, the emir handed over "significant control" of AJE to its parent company, Al Jazeera Media Network.
However, even if the head of state technically divested himself of financial interest in Al Jazeera International, Qatar remains firmly in control of its English-language news services. A member of the Qatari ruling family, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, is AJMN's chairman of the board, and "his purview encompasses all of the channels under the Al Jazeera umbrella." Moreover, Thani has openly been involved in negotiations with foreign nations on Qatar's behalf. Even more, the Qatar Media Corporation, which oversees AJMN's state funding, is run by another royal family elite, Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Hamad bin Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Even if U.S. officials were to accept Qatar's thinly veiled attempt to mask its ownership of Al Jazeera, the outlet would still run afoul of FARA's disclosure requirements. The media exemption only applies to companies that are 80% owned by U.S. citizens, including their boards of directors, and cannot be supervised or directed by a foreign entity.
Moreover, even foreign media that are exempt from FARA because they are majority-owned by U.S. citizens are not exempt from the FCC rules, which make them disclose the "legal structure" of their relationship to foreign principals, as well as "any funding" provided by an overseas entity.
So far, the FCC has failed to enforce these reporting requirements meaningfully, and only two companies have registered. One of them, MHz Networks, admitted in its filing that it was only registering out of "an abundance of caution," because it happened to carry AJE and other foreign programming in one of its markets. AJE itself, which multiple satellite and cable television providers distribute, has now missed three consecutive FCC filing deadlines.
These moves follow other attempts to disguise the network's loyalty to the Thani regime. In 2011, Al Jazeera was restructured from a "public institution" to a "private institution of public utility." Khalid Al Sayed, then-editor in chief of the Qatar-based Peninsula newspaper, argued at the time that the change was "to avoid being questioned in [the] future about its finances by an elected parliament." Qatari officials insist that Al Jazeera does not meet the standards for disclosure under U.S. law.
Following a renewed push in June 2019 by members of Congress asking the Justice Department to investigate Al Jazeera's role as "a messaging tool of the Qatari government," the network was unwavering: "AJMN is a Private Foundation for Public Benefit under Qatari law; it is not owned by Qatar, and its reporting is not directed or controlled by the Qatari government nor does it reflect any government viewpoint. Therefore, FARA registration is not required."
Qatar's flimsy attempts to conceal its ownership and editorial control of Al Jazeera contemptuously disrespect American laws.
The emirate's flimsy attempts to conceal its ownership and editorial control of Al Jazeera represent a contemptuous disrespect for American laws. The Thani family's administrative and supervisory control over the media conglomerate is a matter of public knowledge. And yet by offloading the emir's shares of Al Jazeera International to a shell company, Doha continues to defy attempts to compel it to register under FARA or even FCC rules.
Congress and the White House can take action against this mouthpiece for the Qatari regime. Al Jazeera can and should be stripped of its congressional press credentials, uninvited from official government events, and forced to disclose its foreign ties to the American public.
Benjamin Baird (@benjibaird) is the Islamism in Politics project coordinator at the Middle East Forum. Cliff Smith (@CliffSmithZBRDZ) is the Washington Project director of the Middle East Forum.