Al Jazeera America was shut down earlier this year amid low ratings and a spate of resignations. But the Qatari royal family, which rules the country and owns Al Jazeera, continues to vie for influence in the American market with an Al Jazeera offshoot called AJ+.
In a superficial sense, AJ+ is different than its siblings. While the original, Arabic-language Al Jazeera was a go-to broadcaster for Al Qaeda’s propaganda videos, and Al Jazeera English looks to compete globally with BBC and CNN, the online-only AJ+ appears to target the Buzzfeed audience. Describing itself as “a global news community for the connected generation,” it alternates between empty calories (think goat beauty contests and Kanye West) and what might be called easy-listening progressivism, one-minute video clips meant to demonstrate AJ+’s enlightened values by, for example, opposing racism and sexism.
As is the case with Al Jazeera Media Network’s other Western-facing units, though, AJ+’s hypocrisy is striking. It feels disingenuous that Qatar’s media organization would post repeatedly on women’s rights (one video clip concludes with the phrase “girl power!” splashed on the screen) when, back at home in the Gulf emirate, women are second class citizens. “Legal, institutional, and cultural discrimination against women limited their participation in society,” a State Department human rights report on Qatar notes. “In some cases,” it says, “a woman’s testimony is deemed half of a man’s, and in some cases a female witness is not accepted at all.”
It comes across as less than serious for AJ+ to preach about “domestic abusers” in America while, back in Qatar, spousal rape is legal. The organization’s ostensible concern for the LGBT community also rings hollow in light of that fact that homosexuality in Qatar is illegal and punishable by years in prison.
Beyond the hypocrisy, there is the dishonesty. As we’ve noted in the past, there has been no shortage of unflattering things said about Al Jazeera, whether because employees have thrown an on-air party for a terrorist convicted of brutally murdering a small Israeli child, or because employees have resigned alleged bias in the broadcaster’s coverage of Egypt, or simply because the media giant is seen as a political tool of a filthy rich absolute monarchy.
In another recent video, AJ+ suggested that Israel, either without cause or in retaliation for Palestinian non-cooperation with Israeli attempts to repair the water infrastructure, had cut off water to Palestinians during Ramadan. In fact, an increased summer demand for water coupled with a depleting aquifer forced Israel’s water carrier to reduce its supply of water to all communities in the West Bank, Palestinian and Jewish alike. And still, the water carrier actually increased the supply to major Palestinian cities during Ramadan, and ensured an increase in supply during the evening hours, when Muslims fasting for Ramadan are permitted to drink water.
Also telling is AJ+ and Al Jazeera’s reliance on extremist David Sheen for commentary on Israel. Although Sheen describes himself as a “journalist,” a councilman from Germany’s Left party more pointedly dubbed him a “well-known antisemitic journalist.” And to Germany’s largest newspaper, he is merely a “lunatic Israel-hater.”
Whatever the best title, Sheen is certainly a fabulist. Exploiting his audience’s incomprehension of Hebrew, he consistently misquotes and misrepresents Israelis. For example, when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced during the 2014 Ebola scare that the country was “preparing to stop, as much as possible, the entry of people with Ebola into its borders,” including by making it difficult for migrants from Africa to illegally cross into Israel, Sheen claimed that, like the Nazis, “Netanyahu compare[d] non-Jewish Africans to Ebola.”
It was a brazen lie.
In another ridiculous claim, Sheen insisted on Twitter, “2nd most popular name for Israeli boys this past year was the Hebrew term the army used for killing 500+ kids in Gaza.”
In fact, Eitan, a Hebrew word for “strong,” was part of the name of Israel’s military operation to stop Palestinian rockets launched at Israeli civilians: Tzuk Eitan or Strong Cliff. In light of its association with the effort to protect towns and cities from
deadly rockets, Israelis might be forgiven for suddenly making the word a popular name. But they didn’t. In fact, Eitan (in English, Ethan) has always been an extremely popular name. A year earlier, for example, it was roughly the 10th most popular boys name in Israel — in US terms, that would be like the names Daniel or Benjamin.
It is hardly controversial that a country would seek to prevent the spread of Ebola, or that an already popular name would become slightly more popular after being associated with a war of defense against terrorism. But Sheen’s dishonest spin seeks to turn these into damning things.
A Producer’s Terrorism Apologia
Why would AJ+ turn to such an extremist? And why would it manipulate its audience when discussing the Temple Mount and the West Bank’s water shortage? Part of the reason may be because Dena Takruri, a producer at AJ+ involved in the broadcaster’s Israel-related content, is herself an extreme anti-Israel activist who has seemed to justify anti-Israel terrorism.
Takruri, for example, rationalized the 2014 murder of three Israeli teenagers and other Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, writing in relation to that attack that “resistance is not terrorism.”
Takruri’s reports about Israel are something of a junkyard of inaccurate statements that have been corrected by more responsible media organizations. She repeatedly refers to Israel’s presence in the West Bank as an “illegal” occupation, a characterization rejected by international legal experts, including some who are not particularly sympathetic to Israel. The New York Times published two corrections over the past year after publishing similar statements.
Likewise, Takruri devoted promoted a discredited, mislabeled, and misleading graphic purporting to show maps of a “disappearing Palestine.” After broadcasting the graphic, MSNBC reporters apologized and acknowledged the images were “not factually accurate.” Similarly, publisher McGraw-Hill withdrew a textbook containing the maps because, as a statement by the publisher explained, an internal review “determined that the map did not meet our academic standards.” AJ+ standards are another matter.
Surely, Takruri’s influence contributes to AJ+’s bias and misinformation. But the problem is bigger than her. “Al-Jazeera’s ability to influence public opinion is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish,” a Qatari government official once noted. Indeed, Al Jazeera’s various properties are ultimately a project of the Qatari royal family. And if it seems strange that the rulers of an ultra-conservative country would preach to the Western world about women’s rights and gay rights — imagine France protesting that Pakistan drinks too much wine! — it might be helpful to think of its content as branding for a monarchy, or even as a loss-leader: Come for the women’s rights, stay for the anti-Israel propaganda.
And unlike women’s rights, Qatar’s might believe anti-Israel rhetoric is in the country’s national interest. It does, after, all, shelter Hamas leaders and funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the Gaza-based terrorist group — which, by the way, is not only virulently antisemitic but also regressive in its treatment of women.