n the conservative autocracies of the middle east, Qatar, a wealthy gas-rich emirate, has built up a reputation as a maverick, epitomised by its ownership of the al-Jazeera satellite television channel, which has often infuriated many Arab leaders. Since the TV station gave voice to the Arab spring, many autocrats no doubt wished it would be taken off air, permanently. Al-Jazeera, which arrived long before the internet in the region, broke the mould by reaching directly into Arab living rooms. Along with social media, al-Jazeera has in recent years stirred public opinion in ways Arab governments could not ignore. But now Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates think they can silence it with a blockade of Qatar that will only be lifted if al-Jazeera is shut down.
This is ridiculous. Qatar’s neighbours want to gag media that raises questions about the way these nations are run. Al-Jazeera is not perfect. Its Arabic outlet has been accused in the past of being antisemitic and partisan. It rarely criticises Qatar’s absolute monarchy. However, Qatar abolished formal censorship two decades ago. By comparison, in 2012 the UAE demanded David Cameron rein in adverse BBC coverage or it would halt lucrative arms deals. Abu Dhabi is a regional media player. The UAE’s deputy prime minister owns Sky News Arabia, along with Rupert Murdoch’s broadcaster. According to observers this station put out fake news about Qatar’s ruler.
The internet has also provided Arab rulers new ways to control the flow of information. Many Gulf states, says Human Rights Watch, are now trying to silence critics after a wave of online activism. Tweeters praising Qatar in Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia face either jail or steep fines. The attack on al-Jazeera is part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world. It should be condemned and resisted.