(September 11, 2019 / JNS) The political turmoil that has recently engulfed the Middle East—pitting Saudi Arabia and the UAE among others against Qatar—has been marked not by violent conflict, but rather by shrewd political maneuvering.
On one hand, the Gulf States have essentially cut Qatar off, putting it on a figurative island surrounded by unfriendly governments. Qatar, for its part, has not simply sat and taken the abuse. Indeed, the wealthy nation has funneled funds to various places to improve its image and spin global and regional discourse. The regime’s deep ties to Al Jazeera have been repeatedly criticized, but Al Jazeera is far from being the only mouthpiece of Qatari government, as a recent case revealed.
In July 2016, news outlet the Middle East Eye (MEE) published a story claiming the UAE and a Palestinian exile had secretly funded the failed coup attempt in Turkey earlier that year. The story was potentially explosive, but unfortunately it was also largely unverified. One damning lawsuit later, it was revealed the MEE had based the report on intel provided directly by Turkish intelligence.
The MEE now faces real questions about its true intentions.
The MEE, originally founded by Guardian veteran David Hearst, is no stranger to controversy. It has been singled out by other publications as having ties to both the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, with an agenda that closely mirrors Qatar’s state-owned media despite its repeated claims of impartiality.
On July 29, 2016, however, the MEE went a step too far when it published a story alleging that the UAE government, aided by Palestinian exile Mohammed Dahlan, had funneled significant sums of money to Turkish coup conspirators.
Among other claims, the article stated that as a result of the failed coup, Dahlan had been exiled from the UAE, where he had become a top political operative. The story made explosive accusations against both Dahlan and the UAE government, but they were quickly refuted by both Dahlan and the Gulf nation. What followed were two separate lawsuits that have brought the MEE’s claims to the ground and exposed a deeper and more concerning issue.
The July 2016 piece was the root of the first case, filed in London, which accused the MEE of false claims and libel. Sources in the United Kingdom were successful in establishing a lack of research and concerning disregard for independent journalism at the MEE.
During the proceedings, it emerged that the MEE report was based on a single, unverified source within Turkish intelligence. The revelation was indicative of poor journalism at best, and of the MEE being a front for Turkish and Qatari propaganda at worst.
The MEE did not even attempt to argue that any of the allegations in the story are actually true, instead referring to their intelligence source. The company even offered to publish a clarification, though it was refused.
MEE has steadfastly refused to disclose the source of its funding, although it has admitted that it uses “startup capital” while aiming to be a global news organization. However, the company’s ties to both Qatar and Al Jazeera run deep.
Indeed, there has been significant cross-pollination of talent, with major names from Al Jazeera playing significant roles in both establishing and operating MEE from the start. Moreover, the MEE frequently uses Al Jazeera journalists as freelancers. Others have accused the company of conveniently excluding Qatar in its many pointed jabs at the Gulf region and the Middle East in general.
These accusations have yet to be proven true, but the paper trail certainly seems to indicate that the MEE is not as impartial as it claims to be. Hearst and his company’s refusal to acknowledge where the funds originated (other than to confirm that it was a “private individual donor”) along with their surprisingly one-sided coverage of Gulf issues opens the publication to serious criticism and claims that it is an unofficial mouthpiece for Qatar.
The MEE’s ties to Qatar have long been a source of speculation and suspicion that the publication’s track record has done little to dispel. The London lawsuit is a harrowing example of what happens when news media is co-opted by state apparatuses. By shifting the blame to the UAE and Dahlan, the MEE was complicit in covering up the real story of the failed coup in Turkey, while at the same time directly attacking a rival of Qatar.
While the MEE refuses to acknowledge any association, and Al Jazeera has claimed a lack of ties, it is increasingly clear that all is not what it seems when it comes to the coverage of the Gulf.
Mikael Virtanen is a Helsinki-based entrepreneur with a focus on chemical manufacturing, commodities trading and crisis management. He leverages his broad commercial and business experience to write about global economic and political affairs.
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