A forced climb-down

K Raveendran

Qatar has done remarkably well to hold out against the diplomatic and economic blockade enforced by its powerful neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The tiny Gulf nation, a description most detested by Doha, but done to death by all others, has even teased its  tormentors saying  it can go on forever and manage to live with  the embargo. Initially, there were signs of panic, particularly about supply of food and other essentials in view of the land, air and sea blockade, but with generous help from Turkey and Iran, the situation has stabilized and Qataris have got themselves accustomed to the change. Not only that, Qatar has notified the boycott group about its intention to sue them under international laws for causing big losses to its business entities.
Qatar’s tenacity, coupled with international diplomatic pressure, particularly the US bid to broker a settlement, has forced a climb down by the Saudi-led group, which has in a way replaced the 13-point ultimatum with a set of six new principles. Apparently, the points of the earlier ultimatum have now become tools, while the new set of principles will set the overall guidelines.  Observers have concluded that the new principles are less stringent than the original requirements and perhaps open a honourable exit route for both sides, although Qatar has turned down the second one as well and, therefore, though no early breakthrough may be in sight. But the most important departure is that the new demands do not envisage any action against Al Jazeera television channel, which was probably the biggest irritant for the Saudis and Emiratis.
While it is true that the maverick channel accommodated the views of Islamists and the Brotherhood forces, giving them a powerful platform to give political expression to their abhorrent stances, it also did some good work by bringing about a refreshing change in the Arabic opinion landscape, which until Al Jazeera’s entry was used to echoing only propaganda to prop up the tyranny of Arabia’s undemocratic regimes. The channel was a huge embarrassment to the Saudi-led group as it exposed the misdemeanors of the members of their royal families, who attribute their authority to rule as ordained from above. Al Jazeera has been maintaining that it places people at the heart of every story and rooted in the approach that everyone has a story worth hearing.
Al Jazeera launched its own campaign against the demand of the boycott group by raising the issue of press freedom globally, which seems to have succeeded in embarrassing those who sought to block its airways and closed down its offices.  In response to the demand of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt for the closure of all its outlets including broadcast channels and websites, the network made an effective call for solidarity in the pursuit of press freedom. It invoked the importance of ‘preserving the rights of people to have a voice and be heard, wherever they are and whoever they might be’.
The channel likened the demand to close down as an attempt to suppress the basic human right to free speech. Acting Managing Director of Al Jazeera English, Giles Trendle, was quoted in the open letter as saying,” It is a blatant bid to muzzle the media and prevent access to unbiased news reporting and storytelling. Where would we be if governments, politicians and people in power around the world dictated the news we read, listened to or watched? After Al Jazeera, who might be next? We demand journalists be able to do their jobs free from intimidation and threat; that the public have access to unbiased information; and that the profession of journalism and those who serve it are not criminalised in the line of duty. Ultimately, our demand is about honouring the freedom of the press --  in the first instance for Al Jazeera, but also for every news provider and journalist, wherever they may be."
Trendle added, "We remain committed to reporting freely, frankly and fairly. We refuse to be intimidated or bullied, censored or silenced."
Al Jazeera said it remained resolute in its commitment to storytelling, to balanced journalism, and to finding and covering stories. “We have given a voice to the voiceless. We have shone a spotlight on the people and stories that would otherwise have remained in the dark and we've always done so with responsibility and integrity. This is what we live by at Al Jazeera and it is the reason why we demand lifting restrictions and government control of media worldwide," the open letter said.
Several international journalistic entities such as the National Union of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders expressed their support for Al Jazeera and balked at demands of its shutdown. Many media peers also supported this regionally and internationally.
While Al Jazeera is at the centre of a political storm, it is also the recipient of many prestigious awards for its groundbreaking work in telling authentic stories. Its journalists have not only been attacked, imprisoned and killed; but also celebrated, respected and honoured. For their independent journalism, Al Jazeera has been awarded Peabody, Emmy, Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University, and Edward R. Murrow awards.
“Defying the odds, Al Jazeera remains dedicated to its undertaking of journalistic excellence, affirming its steadfast dedication to act as a voice for the unrepresented while continuing to cover events with balance and objectivity. The current list of demands is a call to both the public and its peers -- a call to continue this movement to ensure the world collectively supports freedom of the press,” the channel averred.
The climb down by the Saudis and Emiratis, by striking off the most stringent condition from their original list of demands, is a clear vindication of whatever Al Jazeera has said and done. (IPA)

Friday, 28 July, 2017