A Saudi-led bid to close down Al Jazeera is both “shocking” and “disturbing” according to the BBC’s John Simpson, who said the news network offered “one of the most energetic and intelligent voices in world broadcasting”.
Closure of the network, which is based in Qatari capital Doha, is part of a list of 13 demands from four Arab states – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – made to Qatar over allegations the country has been supporting terrorism.
Managing editor Giles Trendle told Press Gazette the demand for its closure represented the greatest threat to Al Jazeera’s existence in its 20-year history.
“What’s being done to Al Jazeera is appalling,” Simpson said. “The idea of closing down one of the most energetic and intelligent voices in world broadcasting is really terrible.
“But it isn’t even that. I think Al Jazeera once or twice has come close to the edge for financial reasons, but to be closed down on for, as it were, ideological reasons is quite shocking and very disturbing for the future.
“We have just got to hope that some kind of compromise can be reached whereby Qatar keeps an independent voice for its broadcasters because without that, it’s a real, serious step backwards for the whole world.”
The BBC’s world affairs editor said he believed Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the main drivers behind the call for Al Jazeera to be shut down, stemming from its on-the-ground coverage of the 2011 Arab Spring.
He said: “I think particularly a lot of this seems to come from the Egyptian president [Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi who saw his mentor Hosni Mubarak pulled down and put on trial as a result of demonstrations against him and he blames Al Jazeera – as far as I can tell – for that and in particular its Arabic service.
“I think the other big figure in this is Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the brand new Saudi crowned prince – who feels that he just doesn’t like the idea of people being able to talk with that kind of freedom on the airwaves.
“Both of those countries, and probably Bahrain and the UAE as well, want the kind of media that is quiet and obedient and does what the government says it should do.”
He said the closure of Al Jazeera would be a “shocking deprivation of freedom of speech”, adding: “It’s the method, the fashion in which it might close which is the most disturbing thing of all.
“Two countries [Saudi Arabia and Egypt] which don’t have anything remotely like a free press are closing down or trying to close down a free press in a third country. I think that’s really disturbing.”
Guardian Middle East correspondent Martin Chulhov said Al Jazeera’s closure would be a “significant loss to journalism”.
But, he said its two news services, English and Arabic, were “quite distinct”.
He said the Arabic service was more closely affiliated with the Qatari government, although it still offered a “plurality” of coverage, including giving a platform to Israeli government spokespeople.
“The tentacles of the state don’t reach too far into the Al Jazeera English coverage,” he said.
“It is an important regional voice with a good reach well beyond the region and I think that it’s broadly seen as providing an important distinctive perspective bringing good production values, sound reporting and useful perspectives to the regional coverage.”
He said Al Jazeera Arabic’s critics argue it has provided a “platform to terror groups”, although its defenders would claim “these organisations are an important part of that story”.
He noted that Al Jazeera Arabic reporters had been “embedded” with Islamic State fighters in the north of Syria in 2013, when the conflict had become too dangerous for western journalists to cover following a number of deaths and kidnappings.
“They have wholeheartedly been offering a jihadi perspective on regional events to the detriment of more moderate coverage,” he said. “At times they have opened themselves up to criticism, but other times it has gone way too far.
“But they have a lot of reach and importance and they have been influential in shaping regional perspectives on some of the more bitterly contested issues such as Saudi Arabia controlling the region and Syria as well.”
He added: “I think the voice they have is contentious, but it’s a voice that the region would miss if it’s gone.
“I think it would be a significant loss for the Arab-speaking world and also for those who follow the English service. It provokes criticism and some of it isn’t without foundation, but the voice that it brings does offer a plurality that other Arabic-languages cable service providers don’t…
“I don’t think it would enhance public discourse if they were to close. It would be a significant loss to journalism. It’s concerning to think that it might shut down.”
Telegraph Middle East correspondent Raf Sanchez also said that Al-Jazeera English and Al-Jazeera Arabic were “different beasts”.
“The English channel is considered in the top tier of television news organisations, up there with the BBC and CNN, and is in general objective and professional,” he said.
“Al-Jazeera Arabic broadcasts from a distinctly Sunni Islamist view point. It was a cheerleader of the Arab Spring uprisings and its coverage has generally been supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood. Commentators on the network regularly talk in ugly sectarian terms about Shias and other non-Sunnis.
“People sometimes make the comparison between Al-Jazeera Arabic and Fox News: both are news channels but they broadcast from a very clear political perspective.
“While Al-Jazeera Arabic’s views clearly mirror the views of Qatar, it is probably still the freest and most free-wheeling television network in the Gulf, especially compared with the staid state media channels in other countries.”
In a statement, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “The current tensions in the Gulf must be allayed for the sake of regional stability. Gulf unity can only be restored when all countries involved are willing to discuss demands that are measured and realistic.
“The UK calls upon the Gulf states to find a way of de-escalating the situation and lifting the current embargo and restrictions, which are having a real impact on the everyday lives of people in the region.”