Just hours after Saudi Arabia and three other Arabian Peninsula countries announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar on 5 June, Saudi Arabia closed the Al Jazeera bureau in Riyadh and withdrew its operating licence.
The state-owned Saudi Press Agency accused Al Jazeera of promoting the propaganda of terrorist groups, backing the Houthi rebel militias in Yemen and trying to create divisions within Saudi Arabia.
Following the Saudi lead on Qatar, the Jordanian government later also announced its intention to close the Al Jazeera bureau in Amman and to withdraw the Qatari-owned TV broadcaster’s licence to operate in Jordan.
Egypt, another member of the group of countries severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, already forced Al Jazeera to pull out in 2013 after seizing its production equipment and transmitters. More recently, Gen. Sisi’s government blocked the Al Jazeera website at the same time as 20 other news websites accused of bias in favour of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. A similar measure was taken by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, which blocked the Al Jazeera website on 23 May.
“Closing Al Jazeera’s bureaux is a political decision that amounts to censoring this TV broadcaster,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “In Saudi Arabia, this violation of the freedom to inform compounds the country’s already very bad record on free speech and media freedom, We urge the Saudi authorities to rescind this decision and to let Al Jazeera resume operating.”
For the time being, RSF has no information about the current state of Al Jazeera’s employees in Riyadh or whether they are affected by the order given to Qatari citizens to leave the country within 14 days.
When reached by RSF, Al Jazeera condemned the Saudi government decision and said in a statement: “This is not the first time that Saudi authorities have imposed such restrictions on Al Jazeera's operations (...) We firmly believe these are unjustified measures by the authorities in the Kingdom against the Network and its operations (...) We call upon the government to respect the freedom of press and allow journalists to continue do their job free of intimidation and threats.”
Al Jazeera also operates in Libya and Mauritania, two other members of the group of countries which – like Bahrain and United Arab Emirates – announced that they were breaking off relations with Qatar.
The diplomatic crisis with Qatar and the targeting of Al Jazeera are having repercussions throughout the region, including in Jerusalem.
Individuals led by Israeli far-right activist Baruch Marzel stormed into the building that houses the Al Jazeera bureau in East Jerusalem yesterday evening brandishing posters, accusing the broadcaster of being allied to Islamic State and demanding its closure. After their arrival outside the Al Jazeera bureau’s entrance, the Israeli police had to intervene twice to get them to leave.
Launched in 1996, Al Jazeera revolutionized the Arab world’s media landscape by making room for the broadest range of viewpoints, from the most moderate to the most radical. It distinguished itself above all during its coverage of the Arab Spring but enraged many of the region’s governments, which regard it as a Qatari foreign policy tool.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 168th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Egypt, Jordan and Qatar are ranked 161st, 138th and 123th respectively.