THE CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS of Al Jazeera appears to have blocked an article critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record from viewers outside the United States. The news network, which is funded by the government of Qatar, told local press that it did not intend to offend Saudi Arabia or any other state ally, and would remove the piece.
The op-ed, written by Georgetown University professor and lawyer Arjun Sethi and titled, “Saudi Arabia Uses Terrorism as an Excuse for Human Rights Abuses,” ran on the website of Al Jazeera America, the network’s U.S. outlet. It comments on reports of 50 people recently sentenced to death for alleged terrorist activity and criticizes the U.S. government’s silence on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
The article ran on December 3, and is still available in the United States, but people attempting to view the link in other countries were given an error or “not found” page. (For international readers, we’ve reprinted the full text of the article here.)
When asked by The Intercept about the article, Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha said in a statement, “After hearing from users from different locations across the world that several of our web pages were unavailable, we have begun investigating what the source of the problem may be and we hope to have it resolved shortly.”
Last week, the Saudi Arabian newspaper Okaz quoted a director of Al Jazeera apologizing for the article and saying that it would be removed. Another news story, from a Bahraini website, shows a tweet from Al Jazeera America’s account with the article’s headline. That tweet appears to have been deleted. A spokesperson for Al Jazeera America would not comment on the tweet or on the discrepancy between the parent company’s statement to The Intercept and the comments in Okaz.
The criticisms of Saudi Arabia in Sethi’s piece are by no means unusual. He notes a steep rise in executions in Saudi Arabia this year, with Amnesty International reporting over 150 people killed, including adolescents; the sentencing of poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for “apostasy”; and allegations by international humanitarian groups that Saudi Arabian airstrikes in Yemen kill civilians indiscriminately. The reports Sethi cites have been widely covered in the media (including The Intercept.) Sethi, who has written several articles for Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera English, the network’s international franchise, told The Intercept that Al Jazeera America had solicited the op-ed from him.
A few days after publication, Sethi’s Twitter feed was flooded with attacks from pro-Saudi accounts. David Johnson, senior opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, retweeted many of the attacks. (He declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
“The trolling seemed like an organized concerted effort to intimidate me,” Sethi said. “I will not submit to this act of censorship. Human rights are universal and I will continue to litigate and write about violations wherever they occur.”
Qatar is a monarchy tightly ruled by the emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The tiny, oil rich country has allied with Saudi Arabia against the government of Syria in that country’s civil war, and is part of Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, contributing to the devastating air war and deploying more than 1,000 ground troops this fall. Qatar is also part of the 34-nation Islamic alliance against terrorism that Saudi Arabia announced this week.
The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions about whether it had discussed the article with Al Jazeera or the Qatari government.
While Al Jazeera’s international coverage has been praised — particularly in the years after the 9/11 attacks — this is not the first time that the network has appeared to cater to the interests of Qatar and its Gulf allies. (Disclosure: prior to joining The Intercept, I wrote an article for Al Jazeera America as a freelancer.)
It has been criticized for lack of coverage of protests against the government of Bahrain, for example, and in 2012, several journalists complained that they had to edit coverage of Syria to feature the emir of Qatar’s position. In 2013, staffers in Egypt resigned in protest of the network’s bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood after the military deposed the president, Mohamed Morsi. (The Egyptian government subsequently jailed three Al Jazeera journalists for alleged collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood in a widely denounced trial. The last of the reporters were freed in September.)
Al Jazeera America was founded in 2013 as the U.S. face of the network. It has struggled to gain a large audience and was roiled by drama this year, with the departure of several top executives amid allegations of sexism and workplace dysfunction. Qatar’s emir also announced cutbacks in government support for the news network overall this year.
The apparent censorship of the Sethi article seems to be unprecedented, however. Several Al Jazeera America staffers said that they were unaware of another instance in which the parent company had blocked an article in this way.