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Sept. 16, 2020, 1:11 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   September 16, 2020

There’s state-supported media, and then there’s state-supported media. And without getting too Potter Stewart on you, you tend to know the difference when you see it.

Virtually every country in the world spends public money on some form of broadcast media — directly or indirectly, through taxes or fees, with editorial control or editorial independence in its journalism. Broadcast technology grew up in parallel with the modern nation-state itself, and the key constraint of the electromagnetic spectrumsomeone had to decide which station got to be on which frequency — made radio and television a subject of state influence in ways printed media had not been.

In the United Kingdom — which gave the BBC a legal monopoly over the airwaves in the early decades of both radio and TV — the result is a news service that remains by far the nation’s most trusted. The United States, in contrast, favored commercial broadcasters from the start, only developed national public broadcasting in the 1960s and 1970s, and still provides only a sliver of public funds — but NPR and PBS both rank among the most trusted mainstream news sources for Democrats and Republicans. In countries with lower levels of press freedom, though, it’s common for state-supported media to be state-controlled media, where programming serves as a propaganda channel for the government in power.

On top of that add the rise of international state-supported broadcasting, in which one country’s network is designed to target another country’s audience. These, too, can range from soft-power tools that aspire to journalistic balance to outright propaganda. And your opinion on which is which may not be shared by someone around the world.

For as long as it has been in operation, there has been debate about where Qatar’s Al Jazeera fits on this spectrum. That’s true both within the Middle East — where Qatar’s rivals in particular have considered it a tool to advance its national interests — and in countries like the United States, where it was accused of anti-American bias and attachments to radical Islamist groups, especially during America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is Al Jazeera closer to something like RT America — which American intelligence considers “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” — or to something like NHK World, a largely noncontroversial international voice for Japan?

These are often political judgments as much as journalistic ones, and the Trump administration has made a new one: Al Jazeera’s social-friendly digital service AJ+ must now register as a foreign agent in the United States — meaning it is closer to RT America in the federal government’s eyes.

Here’s Dan Friedman, who broke the story for Mother Jones:

The US Justice Department on Monday declared that the Al Jazeera Media Network—the international news organization based in Doha — “is an agent of the Government of Qatar.” The DOJ has ordered the network’s US-based social media division, AJ+, to register as a foreign agent, a step the news outlet says will hobble its journalism.

AJ+ acts “at the direction and control” of Qatar’s rulers, Jay Bratt, chief of the DOJ’s counterintelligence and export control section, wrote in a September 14 letter obtained by Mother Jones. “Despite assertions of editorial independence and freedom of expression, Al Jazeera Media Network and its affiliates are controlled and funded by the Government of Qatar,” Bratt stated.

The designation follows a years-long push by lobbyists hired by the autocratic government of the United Arab Emirates, which has long resented the critical coverage it receives from Al Jazeera. That effort has been led by Akin Gump, a large law firm and a registered foreign agent for the UAE. Its employees, including former House Foreign Relations Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, amped up their work related to Al Jazeera this year, issuing a lengthy report in July and contacting scores of lawmakers and legislative aides, according to Akin Gump’s federal filings.”

The New York Times’ Marc Tracy and Lara Jakes quote from the letter sent to AJ+:

In a letter dated Monday that was obtained by The New York Times, the Justice Department said that AJ+, a network that primarily produces short videos for social media in English as well as Arabic, French and Spanish, engages in “political activities” on behalf of Qatar’s government and should therefore be subject to the Foreign Agents Registration Act…

“Journalism designed to influence American perceptions of a domestic policy issue or a foreign nation’s activities or its leadership qualifies as ‘political activities’ under the statutory definition,” said the letter, which was signed by Jay I. Bratt, the chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division, “even,” the letter added, “if it views itself as ‘balanced.’”

“Journalism designed to influence American perceptions of a domestic policy issue or a foreign nation’s activities” is a pretty malleable standard. Surely all substantive journalism can “influence” “perceptions” of an “issue.” And the geopolitical context here is rich: UAE has imposed a blockade on Qatar, its regional rival, since 2017 and has made the shutdown of Al Jazeera a condition for lifting it. UAE just agreed to a peace deal with Israel that the Trump administration hopes will improve the president’s foreign policy credentials. Registering international news outlets as foreign agents has been something of a focus of the administration, including its ongoing back-and-forth with China. Friedman:

Bratt’s letter focuses on Al Jazeera’s funding and structure, asserting that the Qatari government “could and may withdraw or limit funding at any time” and stating that the Emir of Qatar controls the network by appointing its board. Al Jazeera says that the same criteria would dictate that other state-funded news organizations, such as the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, would have to register under FARA. Those outlets are not currently required to register, but the DOJ has required several others — including Russia’s RT and Sputnik, Turkish public broadcaster TRT, and five Chinese media outlets — to do so.

Al Jazeera’s U.S.-specific network didn’t last long, but with AJ+ it found a footing in social video, with 11 million followers on Facebook, 1.1 million on Twitter, 900,000 on YouTube, and 519,000 on Instagram. It describes itself as a “unique digital news and storytelling project promoting human rights and equality, holding power to account, and amplifying the voices of the powerless,” and its audience is in the same young, progressive vein as NowThis.

There are, conservatively, a gazillion ironies behind an emirate monarchy — where homosexual acts can be punished by death and a small native elite rules over hundreds of thousands of foreigners who work in what some describe as slave-like conditions — funding a Facebook-friendly brand for “human rights” and “amplifying the voices of the powerless.” But it’s also true that Al Jazeera journalists have done outstanding work representing views that can sometimes go unheard in other mainstream Western media.

AJ+ staffers said their mission won’t change; critics said the move was appropriate.

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