Al-Jazeera gave Arab youth a voice. Gulf regimes must not silence it

Many states at different times have tried to contain al-Jazeera or force it to tone down its coverage. But with last week’s call to shut the network down, the Saudis and Emiratis have surpassed themselves.

The demand, one of a list of conditions put forward by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies as the price for ending their embargo of Qatar, which funds the broadcaster, is an attempt to suffocate the Middle East and to kill off the last hope for a stable, democratic future.

Al-Jazeera, where I served as director general from 2006 to 2011, has never been loved by the leaders of the so-called free world. Its bureaux have been bombed twice by US forces, once during the Afghanistan war and the second time during the Iraq war, when a correspondent in Baghdad was killed and others injured. More than 20 journalists working for the network have been arrested in Iraq by coalition forces. At one point in the Iraq war, George Bush and Tony Blair reportedly disagreed over whether to bomb the headquarters in Doha.

But the most consistent attacks on al-Jazeera have come from authoritarian Arab regimes. Al-Jazeera’s bureaux have been shut down, journalists arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges, and the signal has been jammed.

Every attempt has been made to smear and defame the network – even mutually contradictory ones: we were told that al-Jazeera was not only the creation of Israel’s Mossad but also the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden. It can’t be both. Of course, all this backfired. The more al-Jazeera was attacked by venal and vicious Arab rulers, the more it was valued by their people as a source of news.

The network also acted as a bridge to the western media world, with al-Jazeera English providing a fresh perspective. It connected people at the perceived periphery of the world to the decision-makers at its centre. And – so far – it has never responded to intimidation. You may love al-Jazeera or hate it, but you can’t deny that it has changed the media landscape in the Arab world.

While both the Saudis and the Emiratis have launched channels to rival al-Jazeera, it has continued to be the most trusted source of news in the Arab world because of an editorial spirit nurtured by a qualified team of journalists in a region saturated with poorly presented government-sponsored propaganda.

The current demand to shut down al-Jazeera is best understood as a punishment for the network’s role in the Arab spring. The countries led by Saudi Arabia, that supported the counter-revolution, would feel more secure if it was closed down.

Their mistake is their failure to understand that it was not because of al-Jazeera that young people marched for freedom and democracy in the streets of Tunis and Cairo. On the contrary, it was because of the absence of more al-Jazeeras. If the region’s youth had more independent platforms on which to express their views , they would have found ways to reform their societies without the need to revolt. Shutting down the network, imprisoning those who dare to express their opinions through social media, are exactly the kind of actions most likely to provoke a new, violent version of the Arab spring.

Yes, I am the first to admit that there is and always has been an element of advocacy about al-Jazeera’s role. Its reporting opened the minds of a generation of Arab young people. It told them their voices matter and gave them freedom and hope. For the first time, through al-Jazeera, that generation felt connected to the rest of the world. Those young, open-minded and non-sectarian people were the heart of the Arab spring, which was the brightest moment in recent Arab history.

The demand to shut down the network, to turn off this light, is nothing less than a declaration of war against the future of the region. This is a deadly serious fight. The ancien regime of absolute monarchs and military dictators is making its last stand against the forces of democracy and freedom, spearheaded by a generation that has thrown off the shackles of corrupt, clientielist regimes.

Imagine an Arab world without al-Jazeera. It would be a darker, more grim, and above all more silent place.

This article was first published by The Guardian 

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