The UN human rights chief has called the demand by a Saudi-led bloc to close Al Jazeera an “unacceptable attack on the right to freedom of expression and opinion”.
UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein “is extremely concerned by the demand that Qatar close down the Al Jazeera network, as well as other affiliated media outlets”, Hussein’s spokesman Rupert Colville said on Friday.
“Whether or not you watch it, like it, or agree with its editorial standpoints, Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels are legitimate, and have many millions of viewers,” Colville added.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed sanctions on the country on June 5, accusing it of supporting “terrorism”, an allegation Doha has rejected as “baseless”.
Last week, the Saudi-led bloc gave Qatar 10 days to comply with 13 demands to end a major diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, insisting, among other things, that Doha shut down Al Jazeera, close a Turkish military base and scale down ties with Iran.
The demands also included the closure of all news outlets that Qatar allegedly funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed, Mekameleen and Middle East Eye.
Colville said that “if states have an issue with items broadcast on other countries’ television channels, they are at liberty to publicly debate and dispute them”, adding that “to insist that such channels be shut down is extraordinary, unprecedented and clearly unreasonable.”
He also said that if a closure were to happen, “it would open a Pandora’s Box of powerful individual states or groups of states seriously undermining the right to freedom of expression and opinion in other states, as well as in their own”.
Al Jazeera has described the Saudi-led campaign as “nothing but an attempt to silence the freedom of expression in the region and to suppress people’s right to information and the right to be heard”.
Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al Jazeera’s English-language service, also denounced the demands by the Arab states as an attempt to suppress free expression.
“We are stunned by the demand to close Al Jazeera,” Trendle said. “Of course, there has been talk about it in the past, but it is still a great shock and surprise to actually see it in writing. It’s as absurd as it would be for Germany to demand Britain to close the BBC.”
He added that Al Jazeera is going to continue its “editorial mission of covering the world news in a fair and balanced way”.
Growing list of support
Hussein joins the growing list of individuals and organisations that have expressed their support for Al Jazeera.
On Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the Saudi-led bloc to drop its demand to shut down Qatar-funded media outlets.
In a letter directed to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, the CPJ stressed it was not taking sides in the diplomatic dispute in the Gulf.
The CPJ, an independent organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide, said the demand to close the outlets, including Al Jazeera, showed “clear contempt for the principle of press freedom”.
On Monday, a trade association representing more than 80 media companies voiced its support for Al Jazeera amid the Saudi-led campaign to have the network shut down.
“It is vital we value and protect the independence of media organisations and journalists around the world. Any effort to silence journalists or use news organisations as a bargaining chip is an affront to freedom,” a statement by the Digital Content Next association said.
Last week, The Guardian newspaper said in an editorial that the demand by the Saudi-led bloc was “wrong”.
“The attack on Al Jazeera is part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world. It should be condemned and resisted,” the editorial published by The Guardian on Friday said.
Media watchdogs, human rights groups and prominent commentators have also condemned the demand to close Al Jazeera as “outrageous”, “absurd” and “worrying”.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, has said that Al Jazeera Media Network is an “internal affair” and there will be no discussion about the fate of the Doha-based broadcaster during the diplomatic crisis.
He was responding to a question about whether the demand to close Al Jazeera was reasonable.
“We do not promote the idea of press freedom. What we talk about is responsibility in speech,” he said.