US congressional group asks Justice Department to investigate Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera, founded in 1996, is fully funded by the Qatari government, which claims not to interfere in its editorial decisions.
Sunday 18/03/2018
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a hearing on the Justice Department on Capitol Hill in Washington, last October.(Reuters)
Requested to act. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a hearing on the Justice Department on Capitol Hill in Washington, last October.(Reuters)

WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of US congressmen has written to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking that the US Justice Department investigate the Qatar-funded television network Al Jazeera to determine whether it should be required to register as a “foreign agent.”

The US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), enacted in 1938, is a disclosure statute that requires “persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal.”

FARA does not cover official diplomatic actions by foreign nations or their embassies but does cover foreign-directed propaganda or public relations efforts as well as US lobbyists who represent foreign entities, public or private. The purpose of FARA is to ensure that the American people know which foreign entities are trying to influence the US government.

Entities covered by FARA must file quarterly reports to the Justice Department detailing their activities in the United States as well as expenses incurred.

The letter to Sessions was signed by 18 members of the House of Representatives — 15 Republicans and three Democrats — and Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. It asks the attorney general to investigate whether “Qatar’s Al Jazeera, which the US State Department has indicated is state-controlled,” should be required to register under FARA.

The letter noted that, in August 2017, the Justice Department determined that RTTV America, a news outlet owned by the Russian government, was required to register under FARA.

The congressmen quoted Joseph LeBaron, who was US ambassador to Qatar from 2008-11, who said in 2009 that Al Jazeera was “one of Qatar’s most valuable political and diplomatic tools” that was “used as a chip” to shape Qatar’s relations with other countries.

Al Jazeera, founded in 1996 amid the so-called Arab satellite TV revolution, is fully funded by the Qatari government, which claims not to interfere in its editorial decisions.

Arab countries regularly accuse Al Jazeera of interfering in their domestic affairs, as was the case with its lending support to the Islamist regime of Muhammad Morsi in Egypt.

The congressional letter accused Al Jazeera of producing programming that “often directly undermines American interests with favourable coverage of State Department-designated foreign terrorist organisations, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.”

It charges the Qatari-owned television broadcaster with having a “record of radical anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel broadcasts,” which “warrants scrutiny from regulators to determine whether this network is in violation of US law.

“Such an investigation should cover the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States, including reports that it infiltrated American… non-profit organisations.”

The Justice Department has not officially commented on the letter or on whether Al Jazeera was being investigated for possible inclusion under FARA.

The next step would be for Sessions to order a Justice Department investigation, which could take months to conclude. Al Jazeera, which has claimed to be an impartial news source that is not influenced by Doha, would presumably challenge the letter’s accusations but would have no ability to appeal the Justice Department’s final decision.

Denouncing Al Jazeera’s promotion of extremist agendas was among the grievances of a Saudi led-quartet of Arab countries that has been at odds with Doha since June 2017.

Mark Habeeb is East-West Editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.

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