March 31, 2020 | Policy Brief

It Is Time for Al Jazeera to Register Under FARA

March 31, 2020 | Policy Brief

It Is Time for Al Jazeera to Register Under FARA

The Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) registered as a foreign agent this month, after the Department of Justice (DOJ) determined that the network engages in political activities to advance the interests of the Turkish government. Amid growing concern in Congress that U.S.-based foreign broadcasters are evading registration requirements, DOJ’s move sets the precedent for Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned media network, to register as well.

In a twelve-page letter dated August 2019, the DOJ systematically laid out the legal reasoning and evidence for its determination. The letter explains that TRT meets the legal criteria for being a foreign agent, since the Turkish government “exercises direction and control of TRT by regulation and oversight, and by controlling its leadership, budget, and content.” DOJ also found that TRT engages in “political activities” for the purpose of influencing U.S. public opinion and government policy. Despite having been ordered by the DOJ to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) last August, TRT did so only on March 12. In its filing, TRT maintains – despite DOJ’s finding to the contrary – that its activities are “like those performed by other news and broadcast organizations that are not controlled by foreign governments.”

TRT began operations in 1964 as Turkey’s first public broadcaster with constitutionally mandated autonomy. Since then, the outlet gradually lost its journalistic independence, culminating in a July 2018 decree that put TRT under the direct control of the Turkish Presidency, making it a mouthpiece of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even before that, TRT provided extensive and flattering coverage to Erdogan and his party during the 2018 presidential campaign, while marginalizing the opposition. The outlet also came under criticism for inciting violence and peddling anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian conspiracies in the programs it funds and broadcasts.

In 2016, TRT launched TRT World, an English-language station broadcast globally, which Erdogan pledged “will not be the official bulletin of the state.” But TRT World’s partisanship quickly became apparent. After an attempted coup against Erdogan in July 2016, the network sought to direct attention away from Erdogan’s purge of state institutions, which included the arrest of critical journalists. Several foreign staff resigned in protest.

TRT World shares many similarities with Al Jazeera. The Qatari network, which broadcasts in Arabic, English, and other languages, launched in 1996 with seed funding from Qatar’s ruler and continues to be owned by the Qatari royal family. The network’s top brass are all royal family members, and while exact figures are hard to come by since the station does not publish financial statements, Qatar’s ruling family reportedly continues to fund Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera’s coverage hews closely to the Qatari government’s official line. The network lambasts Doha’s rivals while portraying the emirate’s allies in a positive light. It hardly ventures into coverage of Qatar itself, a dictatorship that turns a blind eye to terror finance while offering refuge to Hamas commanders. Increasingly, Qatar acts in concert with Ankara to promote their shared interests.

Like the Qatari government, Al Jazeera promotes the Islamist authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Arab Spring, the network amplified Islamist voices as Doha threw its weight behind Brotherhood-aligned governments in Egypt and elsewhere. Al Jazeera punished one anchor for not being sympathetic enough to the Brotherhood, and even continued to broadcast illegally in Egypt after having been ordered to close.

As an entity that is owned and funded by a foreign government and seeks to influence politics and policy on its behalf, Al Jazeera clearly meets the standards for registration under FARA. DOJ should apply the same scrutiny to Al Jazeera that it has to TRT. If, even after the department’s review, Al Jazeera refuses to register, then DOJ should not hesitate to take the matter to court to compel the network to do so.

The American public has a right to know where its news comes from. It is time for Al Jazeera to register under FARA.

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she focuses on the Gulf. For more analysis from Varsha and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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