Erdoğan and the attempt to silence Al Jazeera

Erdoğan and the attempt to silence Al Jazeera

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has thrown his full weight behind Qatar and is now declaring the 13-point ultimatum that the Saudi-led coalition laid against that country to be “illegal.”

The second demand listed in the ultimatum is that Qatar “immediately shuts down the Turkish military base, which is currently under construction, and halts military cooperation with Turkey inside of Qatar.”

This is the point that Erdoğan clearly objects to the most. There can be no mistake which camp his statements on the topic put Ankara in. 

It also shows how Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoğlu’s recent attempts to mediate in this crisis are no more than a palliative exercise in futility. Obviously, any mediator has to be impartial and acceptable to both sides.
 That is clearly not the case in this instance.

But the real point to be made here is that Erdoğan has declared all 13 demands against Qatar to be “unlawful.” This includes demand number 11, which calls on Doha to “shut down all news outlets funded directly and indirectly by Qatar, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed, Mekameleen and Middle East Eye, etc.”

This demand is not only unlawful, as Erdoğan says, it also goes against international norms regarding freedom of the media and the individual’s right to be informed. 

Nevertheless, Riyadh and its regional supporters want to silence a global news outlet whose factual reporting has been the bane of their lives, especially since 2011, when the now long-dead “Arab Spring” first erupted.

However, looking at what’s happening in Turkey, silencing Al Jazeera should actually be close to Erdoğan’s heart, given his strong desire to control the press at home and prevent unfavorable, albeit factual, reporting. 

In other words, Erdoğan and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman are not as far apart on this point as Erdoğan’s rejection of the Saudi-sponsored demands from Qatar may suggest. 

Erdoğan is also not too far in this regard from the position of one of his regional arch enemies, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also supporting Riyadh against Doha. Al-Sisi has similarly been going after the free press, including Al Jazeera, because of the unpleasant truths it reveals regarding the situation in Egypt.

Erdoğan’s dilemma is clearly that he is likely to be happy about what Al Jazeera has revealed so far about al-Sisi’s government. But he has not come out to defend Al Jazeera openly, probably because it also uncovers unsavory facts about Turkey. 

Al Jazeera recently attempted to open a Turkish station, but ultimately it failed because Ankara could not get the assurances it demanded from the group on the way it would report in and on Turkey.

Many argue that what is driving Erdoğan’s Qatar policy is the fear that his administration is next in line to be put in the cross-hairs of global powers. The government-friendly Turkish media has also plugged this line, not least because Ankara has policies similar to Doha regarding Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara has also been accused of supporting radical Islamic groups.

So it is evident – based on what is happening in Turkey - that under normal circumstances Erdoğan would not have objected to pressures on Qatar to shut down Al Jazeera. After all, the truth is the last thing that leaders in a region that has little to do with democratic values want to see. Instead, they want to be able to determine what the truth is.

However, in this age of mass communication that appears to be an impossible task. The need for a free media in this part of the world, on the other hand, is only set to grow at a time when millions of lives have been disrupted due to the adventurism and seemingly insatiable political ambitions of its leaders.

So it is unlikely that Al Jazeera will be snuffed out the way Riyadh and its supporters want. Put another way, the truth conveyed by independent media outlets is going to remain the bane of autocrats and strongmen in the Middle East, whether they like it or not.