DOJ orders Al Jazeera Plus to register as a foreign agent of Qatar
The Justice Department concluded that U.S.-based Al Jazeera Plus, a part of the broader Al Jazeera network, is working on behalf of the government of Qatar and ordered it to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
“Based upon a review of your multiple letters and document productions, open source information, and AJ+’s programming, we have determined that AJ+ is obligated to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” said a Justice Department letter sent to AJ+ on Monday and obtained by the Washington Examiner. “AJ+’s obligation arises because it has engaged and is still engaged in political activities within the United States and has acted and continues to act as a publicity agent within the United States, on behalf of the Government of Qatar and Al Jazeera Media Network.”
The letter was first reported by Mother Jones.
Jay Bratt, the chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence within DOJ’s National Security Division, authored the 11-page letter, which was sent the same day as the U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue was hosted in Washington, D.C., and attended by Secretary Mike Pompeo and Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, among other key officials from both nations, and one day before the Tuesday signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and Bahrain as well as between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a Qatari rival.
“Despite assertions of editorial independence and freedom of expression, Al Jazeera Media Network and its affiliates are controlled and funded by the Government of Qatar. The Al Jazeera brands operate in a centralized structure with decision-making power located in AJMN. Because the Government of Qatar has ultimate authority through its control of AJMN’s Board of Directors and AJMN’s budget, it exercises ultimate control of AJMN and all other subsidiary branches,” the DOJ letter said. “AJ+, since its inception, has been a U.S. operating arm of AJMN… AJ+ is an agent of these two foreign principals because it acts at their direction and control.”
Al Jazeera, the state-funded media company based in the capital of the oil-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, reaches hundreds of millions of people worldwide through its websites, Arab-language stations, satellite channel, and digital efforts. Although Al Jazeera America shut down in 2016, the network’s most ambitious recent endeavor, AJ+, features online articles and viral videos on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. AJ+ is headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“Journalism designed to influence American perceptions of a domestic policy issue or a foreign nation’s activities or its leadership qualifies as ‘political activities’ under the statutory definition, even if it views itself as ‘balanced’,” the DOJ letter said, adding, “AJ+ pieces … invite questioning by its audience as to what conduct constitutes terrorism; demonstrate a disdain for the term ‘Islamist Terror;’ adopt a positive view of Iran; show support for the Palestinian cause and question US support for Israel; reflect a critical position on the war in Yemen; and a Qatari-sympathetic view of the Saudi Arabian-led embargo against Qatar.”
The Justice Department argued that “it is apparent that the Government of Qatar considers the Al Jazeera brand to be a means with which to project soft power.” DOJ’s FARA Unit began this inquiry in June 2018, and said AJ+ now has thirty days to register.
An Al Jazeera spokesman told the Washington Examiner that it was “deeply disappointed” with DOJ’s decision which “runs counter to the extensive factual record.” Al Jazeera claimed that “the UAE has confirmed it presented the United States with preconditions prior to announcing the Abraham Accords, and we received DOJ’s letter the day before the UAE signed the Accords” and that “hobbling Al Jazeera was one of the top conditions of the UAE’s blockade against Qatar, and the Justice Department just gave the UAE what it wanted.”
Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador the the U.S., told the New York Times that the UAE had not called for AJ+’s FARA registration as part of the deal, brokered by the U.S., with Israel.
“At no point in our discussions was Al Jazeera or even Qatar raised,” al-Otaiba claimed, adding of Al Jazeera, “They’re really not as important as they think they are.”
A Saudi Arabia-led coalition, including the UAE, cut off relations with Qatar and implemented a blockade beginning in 2017. Qatar, which has close ties to Iran and is currently hosting peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, ruled out normalizing relations with Israel.
“While I cannot confirm or deny the existence of such a letter, I can say that the FARA Unit’s enforcement activities are based on following the facts where they lead and the applicable law,” DOJ spokesperson Marc Raimondi told the Washington Examiner. The Justice Department’s letter stressed that registration would not force AJ+ to alter any content, but would provide transparency about the source of that content.
Kremlin-backed outlets like Russia Today, Sputnik, and RM Broadcasting were forced to register under FARA in recent years. The Justice Department also determined that Turkish Radio and Television Corporation as well as the Qatar-America Institute must register under FARA. In February, the State Department designated five Chinese state-run media outlets operating inside the U.S. (Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation, and Hai Tian Development USA) as “foreign missions” of the Chinese Communist Party.
Al Jazeera Media Network told the Washington Examiner last year that Al Jazeera “is not owned by Qatar” and “its reporting is not directed or controlled by the Qatari government nor does it reflect any government viewpoint.”
Last month, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas and seven GOP congressmen including Reps. Lee Zeldin of New York and Liz Cheney of Wyoming urged the Justice Department to force AJ+ to register under FARA, arguing that it “disseminates information in the United States that advance the interests of Qatar” and “has long operated as a publicity agent of … the Qatari ruling family.” Republican lawmakers sent similar letters in March 2018 and June 2019.
Joel Gehrke contributed to this report.