By Joe Light / Bloomberg
03DOHA- The United Arab Emirates wants to silence the Al Jazeera Media Network and is running a lobbying campaign in the U.S. to try to hobble the broadcaster.
The push includes using a law firm to meet with dozens of congressional staffers in Washington as well as a separate digital information operation involving U.A.E.-controlled Twitter accounts and websites that are hiding their affiliations.
Al Jazeera -one of the Arab world’s most prominent TV networks -is in the crosshairs in a regional power struggle between Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and their allies, on the other.
Based in Qatar with close ties to the government, the network has courted controversy with broadcasts that some critics, including lawmakers and pro-Israel groups, say give a platform to terrorist groups and anti-Israel propaganda. It’s also won plaudits for bringing attention to anti-authoritarian populist movements.
Its broadcasts are seen by tens of millions of viewers in the Middle East and often address issues that other Arab networks won’t touch, including coverage that’s critical of the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes. The network’s critics say that it rarely levels similar criticism at the Qatari government.
Interviews, public records and an analysis of suspended Twitter accounts show that the campaign, which has been running for more than a year, has targeted Congress, federal agencies and the digital realm.
The goal of the lobbying and Twitter campaigns is to convince lawmakers and regulators to force Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. That would in effect brand it as a government propagandist akin to Russia Today or China Daily, risking press credentials, losing access to some events and potentially requiring the network to disclose contacts.
Law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, which ranks as the largest U.S. lobbying firm by revenue, took in more than $1.9 million from the U.A.E. in the 12 months through June 2019. In public filings for the U.A.E. campaign, the firm listed topics related to Qatar government-owned media as the most prominent advocacy issues.
Between January and June, Akin Gump lobbyists representing the U.A.E. met, called and emailed the staffs of more than 30 members of the House and Senate, according to lobbying disclosures. They also met with Trump officials, journalists, think tanks and pro-Israel groups.
In the meetings, the lobbyists have argued that Al Jazeera promotes anti-Semitism and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. They’ve also said the Qatari royal family controls what Al Jazeera reports — which both Qatar and Al Jazeera dispute.
At one meeting with a Trump administration official, an Akin Gump lobbyist opened a laptop and played a slickly produced video that the lobbyist said showed Al Jazeera giving airtime to terrorist groups. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting, said the presentation had little relation to his usual dealings with foreign governments and that the video was “bizarre,” with dramatic music and an urgent-sounding voiceover. He said he referred the lobbyists to another office and didn’t discuss the issue with them again.
In September, Twitter suspended more than 4,500 accounts that it said were part of a U.A.E.-government-backed information operation. An archive of those accounts released by Twitter shows hundreds of messages attacking Al Jazeera, including some that specifically push for its registration as foreign agent.
In April 2018, for example, an account in Spanish tweeted, “The Trump administration should take measures to stop foreign-funded propaganda outlets that operate in the United States without restrictions such as Al Jazeera of Qatar.”
Far from Washington, Al Jazeera is part of a longstanding power struggle between the Saudi Arabia-U.A.E.-led coalition and Qatar, which the other Arab countries accuse of meddling in their affairs.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt announced an air, sea and land embargo of Qatar, cutting diplomatic ties and issuing a list of demands, including that the country close down Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera, based in Doha, launched in 1996 with a loan of more than $100 million from the Emir of Qatar. It hired an experienced news staff, many from the recently shuttered BBC Arabic channel. After the Sept. 11 attacks, it stood out as the preferred outlet for propaganda tapes released by then-fugitive Osama bin Laden and leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Originally founded by the government, in 2006 the broadcaster became a public utility. Al Jazeera says that the media network is akin to the BBC in the U.K. or National Public Radio in the U.S. — a recipient of government funds but still editorially independent.
The Qatari government funds Al Jazeera but “exerts no editorial influence or control,” said a government spokesman. The government isn’t considering shutting down Al Jazeera to help end the embargo of the country, he said.
“In the face of the misinformation campaign against us, we recognize the importance of telling Al Jazeera’s story and refuting false claims,” an Al Jazeera spokesman said in a statement. “Improper, forced FARA registration amounts to de facto censorship.”
The Al Jazeera spokesman said the media network often runs stories critical of Qatar, such as coverage of worker abuses during the construction of facilities for the 2022 World Cup, which is being held in the country.
“It is hard to understand why Al Jazeera has not already registered under FARA,” said Hal Shapiro, a partner at Akin Gump and counsel to the U.A.E. Embassy. “The statute and precedent are clear: foreign government-owned and-controlled media operating in the United States must register and disclose their ownership and funding.”
Al Jazeera still has six bureaus and nearly 200 full-time employees in the country even after an attempt to establish a U.S.-based network failed in 2016. Americans receive Al Jazeera content through cable and satellite providers as well as its website and AJ+, which publishes content on social media.
As Al Jazeera expanded, other Arab countries accused it of being a tool to project Qatari power. It was one of the only Arab-language channels to broadcast scenes from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which toppled autocratic governments and threatened the stability of others, including that of Saudi Arabia.
If the U.A.E. succeeds in forcing Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent, its future in the U.S. could be bleak. After the U.S. government forced Russia Today to register under FARA in 2017, its editor-in-chief said the network was shut out of events. RT was stripped of press accreditation that let it easily access restricted areas in the U.S. Capitol. It now files with the government budget statements, dozens of DVDs with broadcast recordings, and lists of contacts it makes with Americans, such as invitations to be interviewed on RT programs.
Twitter in September said it had identified state-backed information operations run by the U.A.E. and Egypt, which is also part of the embargo of Qatar. According to Twitter’s disclosure, days before the U.A.E and its partners launched the embargo, someone registered a Twitter account called “qatarileaks.” The account had more than 70,000 followers at the time Twitter suspended the account.
Separate records show that a domain the Twitter account linked to, qatarileaks.com, and corresponding Instagram and Facebook accounts were registered or became active at the same time.
In August 2018, the Twitter account falsely tweeted “The #WhiteHouse has put #AlJazeera network under the guillotine, #US #President subjugated the channel to foreign agents law (#FARA) due to its suspicious activities.” Qatarileaks’s website, Facebook and Instagram accounts are still active and often create posts attacking Al Jazeera and its journalists.
In Washington, at another meeting with a congressional staffer, Akin Gump lobbyists said that the Qatari government exerts complete editorial control over the network, according to the staffer, who asked not to be named discussing a private meeting. The staffer said the lobbyists tried to limit written communication and declined to email documents that they referenced during the meeting, which the person found odd.
Akin Gump’s disclosures also show its lobbyists contacted or met with representatives from the Federal Communications Commission at least nine times in the 12 months through June on behalf of the U.A.E. to discuss foreign-media registration requirements. Critics say that the FCC could require Al Jazeera to register as an agent of a foreign government under a different law, the National Defense Authorization Act. An FCC spokesman declined to comment.
The U.A.E. has found some allies on Capitol Hill. In June, eight lawmakers led by Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley wrote to the Justice Department asking it to investigate whether Al Jazeera should have to register as a foreign agent. U.A.E. lobbyists exchanged calls and emails with a Grassley staffer six times in the five weeks leading up to the letter, public records show. A Grassley spokesman said the Senate Finance Committee, which the senator chairs, was already reviewing Al Jazeera’s activities before being contacted by the U.A.E.