Marco Rubio, Brian Mast Urge DOJ to Make Al Jazeera Register as a Foreign Agent

At the end of last week, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-NY, led a group of congressional Republicans in urging the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to require Qatari-owned media company Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent.

In their letter to DOJ, the lawmakers noted examples of Al Jazeera’s activities that align closely with the priorities of the Qatari government. The letter also notes that other foreign state-owned media organizations with similar fact patterns and reach into the United States have recently been required to register as foreign agents.

Additional co-signers include U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. and Ted Cruz, R-Tex. as well as U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., Brian Mast, R-Fla., Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, Peter King, R-NY, Jack Bergman, R-Mich. and Ann Wagner, R-Mo.

The full text of the letter is below.

Dear Attorney General Barr,

Since 2017, many in Congress have engaged the Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) on Qatari-owned media company Al Jazeera. This includes a letter sent last year requesting the Department explain what steps it had taken to determine whether Al Jazeera should register as a foreign agent. Recently, we have seen determinations by DOJ to require organizations to register such as Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) and Qatar-America Institute. We appreciate these actions that ensure FARA is rigorously enforced to protect U.S. national interests from the undue influence of foreign nations. In order to ensure this law is robustly enforced, we request that DOJ require Al Jazeera, the media network owned and funded by the state of Qatar, to register under FARA for the below reasons.

In August 2019, the Department determined that TRT meets the legal criteria of a foreign agent, and must register under FARA. The Department stated that the Turkish government “exercises direction and control of TRT by regulation and oversight, and by controlling its leadership, budget, and content,” and that TRT engaged in “political activities” for the purpose of influencing U.S. public opinion and government policy. Al Jazeera also engages in political activities and disseminates information in the United States that advance the interests of Qatar. Al Jazeera has long operated as a publicity agent of Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and the rest of the Qatari ruling family. Corporate documents filed in the United Kingdom show that Al Jazeera International (AJI) was controlled by the Emir of Qatar until 2018, after which the person of significant control was changed from the Emir of Qatar to Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN). The board of AJMN is chaired by Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, a relative of the Emir, and includes other Qatari royal family members.

Congress has responded to foreign interference in American politics by strengthening U.S. laws governing foreign agents. In 2018, Congress passed Section 722 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which required that foreign-owned and controlled media file a report with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Under Section 722, U.S.-based foreign media outlets must submit reports to the FCC about their relationship with their foreign principles, and the Commission must make these reports publicly available. This was done largely to close loopholes that exempted many foreign media organizations from having to register under the more stringent standard in FARA.

As a media outlet funded and directed by a foreign sovereign, Al Jazeera is undeniably subject to this FCC registration requirement. Yet Al Jazeera has missed three consecutive FCC filing deadlines, in addition to openly defying FARA requirements, claiming without evidence that it is completely independent of the state.

A cursory scan of Al Jazeera’s coverage will produce more than sufficient evidence to refute Al Jazeera’s frequent claims of editorial independence. Mohammad Fahmy, who previously served as the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, explicitly stated that Al Jazeera “coordinated and takes directions from the [Qatar] government,” and acts, at least in part, as “a mouthpiece for Qatari intelligence.” Indeed, Fahmy found himself imprisoned in Egypt’s infamous Scorpion prison due to Al Jazeera’s negligent and unethical practices, which included concealing from Fahmy that the network had lost its license to operate in Egypt just days before the network hired him.

Al Jazeera claims to promote democracy and free speech. But the network is functionally muzzled when it comes to coverage of domestic news and hardly ventures into coverage of Qatar itself, a dictatorship that turns a blind eye to terror finance while offering refuge to Hamas commanders. According to a new law issued by the Emir of Qatar in January 2020, Al Jazeera, along with all Qatari media, is forbidden from publishing any “false or biased rumors, statements, or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state,” with threat of imprisonment.

These practices are indicative of a media network that is completely editorially controlled by its foreign sovereign. If the DOJ has found that TRT is subject to FARA registration due to the government of Turkey exercising “direction and control of TRT by regulation and oversight,” as well as “by controlling its leadership, budget, and content,” then the same is true of Al Jazeera. If engaging in “political activities” that sought to influence U.S. public opinion and government policy merited TRT’s registration, then Al Jazeera – with its clearly biased coverage and its attempts to prop up Qatar’s favored actors throughout the region – must also be held to that standard. Furthermore, on May 29, 2020, Qatar-America Institute (QAI), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, registered under FARA as an agent of Qatar after DOJ requested further information on the Institute’s political activity. This is another example of an organization owned and funded by Qatar that has been engaging in political activities in the United States to influence U.S. public opinion without registering under FARA.

At a minimum, Al Jazeera should be compelled to register with the FCC under Section 722 of the 2018 NDAA. The American people have a right to know where their information is coming from, particularly if it is from a foreign government. As such, we request the DOJ to immediately review and issue a determination letter requiring Al Jazeera to register under FARA. Additionally, to help us understand why this has not yet happened, we would request the answer to the following questions:

1.Why has the DOJ not issued a determination for Al Jazeera to register under FARA?

2. What analysis, information, or assessment has the DOJ undertaken thus far regarding a potential determination of Al Jazeera as a foreign agent?

3. If the DOJ has not considered any kind of determination relating to Al Jazeera, why has it not done so?

4. Regarding Section 722 registration, are there actions the DOJ can take to compel Al Jazeera to comply with the FCC registration requirement?

5. Is there any additional legislation from Congress that the DOJ believes is needed to ensure that it can enforce the law as it relates to Al Jazeera, and similarly situated media companies?

Thank you for your attention to this important issue. We look forward to your prompt response.

Al Jazeera Media Network emailed the following response to Florida Daily:

“The content of the letter aligns with the same tired, false narratives pushed by the UAE in its ongoing, aggressive lobbying campaign to silence Al Jazeera, which is one of the objectives of the ongoing blockade against Qatar. Foreign agents of the UAE are getting paid tens of millions of dollars to accomplish the objectives of the blockade through other means, including improperly weaponizing U.S. laws such as FARA.

“The most telling evidence of this foreign interference is the letter’s reliance upon statements about Al Jazeera made by Mohamed Fahmy, an individual who, according to the New York Times, received $250,000 from the UAE to launch a spurious litigation against Al Jazeera which was subsequently withdrawn by him.

“Al Jazeera Media Network, its channels and its platforms operate with editorial independence while receiving public funding and, in this respect, are similar to most global media organizations, including the BBC, CBC, and Deutsche Welle. AJMN is a Private Foundation for Public Benefit under Qatari law; it is not owned by Qatar, and its reporting is not directed or controlled by the Qatari government nor does it reflect any government viewpoint. Therefore, FARA registration is not required. FCC registration also does not apply to Al Jazeera, despite persistent, erroneous claims to the contrary.

“Al Jazeera’s content clearly demonstrates the network’s editorial independence. Al Jazeera channels and platforms have broadcast or published numerous examples of content that has run counter to the laws and societal norms of Qatar, and has been explicitly or implicitly critical of Qatar. Ironically, while the letter claims Qatar’s so-called ‘fake news’ law supports its case, the network’s critical coverage of that law clearly demonstrates its independence. Al Jazeera critically covered the fake news law earlier this year in line with the coverage of other respected international media outlets such as The Economist. There are dozens of other examples, including a June article that explored the plight of migrant workers in Qatar during the coronavirus pandemic, stories about alleged labor abuses in Qatar, particularly those connected to construction projects underway for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and alleged discrimination faced by pregnant employees of Qatar Airways. More critical content examples are included below.

“Furthermore, Al Jazeera Media Network, its channels and its platforms have garnered international recognition for their commitment to presenting diverse perspectives and giving voice to the voiceless, from capital cities to some of the most unreported places on the planet. Indeed, journalists, academics and world leaders have spoken out about the quality and independence of Al Jazeera’s journalism and its important role in the Middle East region. They have also defended Al Jazeera when critics have sought to silence Al Jazeera journalists and stifle their work.

“In October 2018, the National Press Club declared its support for Al Jazeera and called on lawmakers to drop their calls for the network or its channels to register as a foreign agent. ‘[T]he job of every news organization is to tell the truth, even if it makes people uncomfortable,’ said former National Press Club President Andrea Edney in a press release. ‘We believe it would be wrong and counter-productive to censor a news organization whose work has won wide praise from the international journalism community.’ Former National Press Club Journalism Institute President Barbara Cochran has also said, ‘News organizations supported by public money can and do produce independent journalism. The accolades received by Al Jazeera from respected American professional organizations attest to the quality of their news coverage.’ Other organizations and individuals, including Reporters Without Borders, the UN Women for Peace Association and former Assistant Secretary of State PJ Crowley, have also spoken out about the importance of Al Jazeera’s work.

“In addition to numerous statements of support for Al Jazeera, the network’s news, programming and digital content have won the respect and recognition of its peers in journalism. Since 2011, the network, its channels and its platforms have won more than 400 awards and recognitions, including five Peabody awards, three International Emmy Awards, the Overseas Press Club’s prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in 2019, and the New York Festivals Broadcaster of the Year for four consecutive years, to name but a few.”

 

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