Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

ABC and SBS: Latest lawsuit against Al Jazeera shows once again that it is no normal news network

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AIJAC has previously written about and continues to highlight the anti-Israel biases of Qatari-owned news outlet al-Jazeera, which become particularly problematic as the taxpayer-funded ABC and SBS continue to use stories from the network as part of their own radio and TV news programming.

Al-Jazeera has time and again faced allegations of anti-Israel and pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, in line with the foreign policy of the Qatari government. Indeed, al-Jazeera was created precisely to serve the interests of that authoritarian and undemocratic regime, and is bankrolled for that purpose by the Doha government and the ruling al-Thani family. (For more on AIJAC’s commentary on al-Jazeera, see here, here, here, and here.)

Now, new evidence has surfaced from al-Jazeera America that further undermines the legitimacy and reliability of al-Jazeera, and arguably raises doubts as to whether ABC and SBS should treat al-Jazeera as a news source as credible as the BBC, for example, or Deutsche Welle.  

Shannon High-Bassalik, the former head of al-Jazeera America’s documentary unit, is suing the news network, claiming discriminatory treatment of women and non-Arabs, as well as highlighting efforts by high-level management to “abandon all pretense of neutrality” in order to “please ‘Doha’.”

According to al-Jazeera America’s website, the organisation seeks to “maintain credibility through impartial, accurate and comprehensive representation of the story.” However, High-Bassalik’s lawsuit contends that “the truth…paints a much darker and bleaker picture, one where truth and objectivity are set aside to cater to the Company’s pro-Arabic prejudices.”

Here are a few key allegations made in court documents for High-Bassalik’s lawsuit:

"...In a meeting with news producers, Al Jazeera's corporate management in Qatar outrageously stated that many in the Arab world believed that the attacks on American [sic] on September 11, 2001 were staged by the CIA to allow America to wage an unjust war on the Arabic world. Incredibly, this was held out as the type of editorial viewpoint the Company should take guidance from...also following this directive, employees made inflammatory statements such as ‘Israelis are like Hitler,' and ‘Anyone who supports Israel should die a fiery death.'"

“From Ms. High-Bassalik's point of view, …the Company's abandonment of journalistic objectivity was not merely done to advance a particular political viewpoint, but to discriminate on the basis of race/ethnicity and to advance a pro-Arabic/Middle Eastern agenda, often at the expense of Jewish people…By way of example only, during and shortly after the Israel/Gaza conflict in 2014, the news and programming department was explicitly instructed to favor the Middle Eastern point of view and cast Israel as the villain, creating taglines such as ‘Gaza under Fire,’ and airing films called ‘Shujayea: Massacre at Dawn’ and ‘The Day Israel Attacked America.’”

“Individuals who had no more experience than managing a local Sunglass Hut were promoted to key leadership positions, while more qualified non-Arabic, American, and female employees consistently saw their performance undermined and their professional responsibilities taken away from them.”

“Defendant Al Shihabi [former Chief Executive Officer of Al Jazeera America] in particular targeted Al Jazeera’s female employees for discriminatory treatment…For example, Defendant Al Shihabi would undermine the performance of female employees by giving them inconsistent instructions, as well as unreasonably short deadlines, and then publicly yell at them when they were not able to comply with these unfair expectations…[He] would also refuse to acknowledge the work performed by female employees, including Ms. High-Bassalik, even going so far as to outright leave meetings where female employees were giving presentations and stating that he would only return when such employees had stopped speaking.”

This is not the first discrimination lawsuit al-Jazeera America has been hit with. Earlier this year, in April, former al-Jazeera America director of media and archive management Matthew Luke slapped the network with a lawsuit, which, among other allegations, accused network employees of sexism and antisemitism. (AIJAC previously covered this lawsuit here.)

Further adding to allegations of al-Jazeera mistreatment is Mohamed Fahmy, former Cairo bureau chief of al-Jazeera English. In December 2013, Fahmy and two other al-Jazeera English journalists (including Australian Peter Greste) were arrested and charged with membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt designated as a terrorist organisation and banned in 2013. In an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month, Fahmy writes of al-Jazeera’s reckless actions during the journalists’ incarceration, which, to achieve Qatari political objectives, jeopardised the safety and security of its employees:

“The network knowingly antagonized the Egyptian authorities by defying a court-ordered ban on its Arabic-language service. Behind that, I believe, was the desire of the Qatari royal family to meddle in Egypt’s internal affairs. While Al Jazeera’s Doha executives used the Cairo bureau of Al Jazeera English to give their scheme a veneer of international respectability, they made us unwitting pawns in Qatar’s geopolitical game.

Midway through our first trial, last year, Al Jazeera undermined our defense when it sued Egypt for $150 million in compensation for business losses in Egypt. The network’s own lawyer in our case criticized the lawsuit and quit the case. ‘Al Jazeera is using my clients,’ he told the court, according to Agence France-Presse. ‘I have emails from (the channel) telling me they don’t care about the defendants and care about insulting Egypt.’

...The Doha management also neglected to tell me that it was providing Brotherhood activists in Egypt with video cameras and paying them for footage, which it then broadcast, without explaining its political provenance, on the banned Arabic channel. During my detention, I met a number of prisoners who told me how this worked, and I have seen court documents confirming it.

Al Jazeera's managers crossed an ethical red line. By attempting to manipulate Egypt's domestic politics, they were endangering their employees..."

(For more on this aspect of al-Jazeera’s behaviour, see Ahron Shapiro’s post on June 12, 2014.)

If taxpayer-funded Australian news outlets—with their obligations to be objective and impartial—are inclined to continue using al-Jazeera as a source, they must recognise and cite it for what it truly is: a mouthpiece of the Qatari government. Many of the other international sources ABC and SBS use, including Germany’s Deutche Welle, the United States’ PBS Newshour, (both used on SBS), and the United Kingdom’s BBC (on ABC), originate in liberal democracies with freedom of the press; the same cannot be said for Qatar and al-Jazeera. Ultimately, using Australian taxpayer dollars to normalise ABC’s and SBS’ use of state-controlled al-Jazeera (especially given the recent onslaught of bias allegations) appears to be extremely problematic.

Miriam Smallman

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