WASHINGTON ― Several Arab nations’ severing of ties with Qatar sparked speculation that the wealthy Gulf state will scale back or close its prized news outlet, Al Jazeera, as the price of reconciliation with its neighbors.
That Al Jazeera reported a massive cyberattack on its systems Thursday is only likely to buttress perceptions that the network is one of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other regional governments’ chief grievances with Qatar. Saudi Arabia effectively shut off Al Jazeera’s broadcasts in the kingdom, while the United Arab Emirates removed the company’s subsidiary beIN Sports from its airwaves.
The developments since the Qatar diplomatic crisis began Sunday have spooked some longtime Al Jazeera employees in Washington, D.C., where the network’s North and South American operations are based.
Four employees at Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the matter. I know all four from my stint as a segment producer at the now-defunct channel, Al Jazeera America, which operated out of the same offices.
In the D.C. newsroom, “everyone’s obviously talking about” the Qatar crisis’ potential impact on Al Jazeera, one employee told HuffPost.
The chatter is based not on any information from Al Jazeera’s management, but “media reports suggesting the best bargaining chip for Qatar would be to close the network especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Personally, it freaks me out.” If Qatar starts to take a “big time hit financially,” the nation is liable to begin cutting the network’s funding, he added.
Recent actions by management have only heightened employees’ anxiety. In April, the network announced a restructuring aimed at reallocating resources to its digital news operations. Amjad Atallah, who ran Al Jazeera English’s American operations from the Washington bureau, was among those laid off in the first round of terminations. Last Friday, in a second round of terminations, the bureau laid off about 10 other other employees, including several video editors, the director of human resources and finance staff for Al Jazeera Arabic.
“Since April, a lot of people have made their peace with the fact that there are gonna be changes we don’t know about,” said a second employee at the D.C. bureau. Now, since the Qatari diplomatic crisis hit, “people started talking about Al Jazeera disappearing as a network.”
Al Jazeera Media Network, the parent company of Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic and other, smaller news channels, denied that Qatar’s dispute with Arab nations would affect its future.
“In the past, we have had restrictions imposed upon us: our channels have been blocked in certain countries or regions; access to our digital platforms has been cut; we have had our offices closed down in some places; we have had licences revoked; and down through the years we have had tough experiences with some of our journalists being either killed, detained, imprisoned or threatened,” the network said in a statement.
“The current crisis represents a new challenge and new circumstances,” the statement continued. “But Al Jazeera remains committed to continue its pioneering and courageous journalism around the world in a professional, balanced and objective manner.”
Qatar changed the face of media in the Middle East when it created Al Jazeera Arabic in 1996. The channel earned a reputation for critical coverage that was unprecedented in the largely state-controlled Arab media landscape.
Ten years later, the network inaugurated Al Jazeera English, which won a loyal English-speaking audience across the world with its comprehensive global coverage and willingness to challenge Western biases.
The outlet reached new fame during the Arab Spring uprisings, with its unsparing, on-the-ground coverage of the revolutions sweeping the Middle East in 2011.
Qatar had supported the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in post-revolutionary Egypt, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE backed the military coup that removed the democratically elected, Brotherhood-affiliated government from power in July 2013.
Soon after Egyptian coup General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi became president, he and his Saudi and Emirati backers accused Qatar of using Al Jazeera to promote the Brotherhood, which they deemed a terrorist organization. Al Jazeera argued that it was merely covering popular opposition to the coup and the victims of the government’s repression. And the network’s English-language coverage of Egypt continued to earn high marks from industry watchers.
As part of its efforts to reconcile with Egypt and its Gulf neighbors, Al Jazeera shuttered its Arabic-language Egyptian channel Mubasher Misr in December 2014. Egypt released the prisoners over the course of the following year.
As Sunday’s rupture demonstrates, however, Egypt and its powerful Gulf state sponsors remain angry about Qatar’s support for Islamist groups, including Hamas, a militant Palestinian Brotherhood affiliate whose political leadership has enjoyed a safe haven in Doha. And Saudi Arabia and UAE’s subsequent moves to limit Al Jazeera broadcasts suggest they continue to view the network in general, and Al Jazeera Arabic in particular, as a vehicle for that agenda.
Given the geopolitical wrangling that Al Jazeera is subject to, it is easy to wonder why Western journalists would choose to work there. But veterans of the Washington bureau say they are attracted to the higher-than-normal pay, decent working conditions and opportunity to work on substantive journalism.
“Whatever happens politically, that’s the Qatari government. We just do our jobs as journalists. We produce very good journalistic products worldwide,” a third employee said.
Working for a Qatari-funded outlet, with the risks it implies, is merely an unfortunate byproduct, according to the staff members.
“Everyone here sort of has qualms about who they work for and they realize, especially in the last few years, that geopolitics affects the company they work for,” the first employee said.
The political system of Qatar is an absolute monarchy and the country’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is head of state. Employees say they sometimes see traces of authoritarianism in the leadership’s opaque communication style with staff. Layoffs, which have become a virtually annual occurrence in recent years, are typically sudden, swift and inscrutable.
“It’s always been kind of the culture here; Doha dictates and then all of this stuff happens out of the blue,” a fourth employee said, in reference to management in Al Jazeera’s headquarters in the Qatari capital. “We get the last shockwave from whatever is happening up in Doha.”
One advantage to working under that kind of management is that employees are constantly prepared for the worst and eyeing their next job, several of the staff members said.
Not even President Donald Trump’s initial expression of support for the Arab nations’ break with Qatar is enough to faze the employees who spoke to HuffPost. (He has since walked back his comments and offered to mediate the dispute.)
“He’s just so bizarre you don’t know what he’s going to say or do next,” the fourth employee said.