A group of influential US lawmakers has urged the Trump administration to get Al Jazeera listed as a "foreign agent", saying the state-owned media company of Qatar has "inherently engaged" in political activities and sought to influence public opinion in America.
The US requires all agencies, individuals and organisations controlled or funded by international governments to be registered with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) which aims to restrict the spread of propaganda inside America.
In a letter to the justice department, nine powerful Republican Senators sought information on any steps taken to determine whether the popular television news network from the Middle East should be registered as a "foreign agent".
In the past, China's state-run Xinhua news agency and Russian television Russia Today (RT) have been asked to register as an agent of foreign government by the justice department.
International media outlets registered in the US as agents of foreign governments include RT, China Daily, NHK Cosmomedia, and KBS Korean Broadcasting System.
"Qatar's officials have said that government-controlled media is a form of 'soft power'. As such, one can reasonably infer that Al Jazeera is a messaging tool for the Qatari government and on its behalf has engaged in inherently political activities and sought to influence public opinion in the United States," the lawmakers wrote.
"When the available evidence is taken as a whole, it appears that Al Jazeera's broadcasts, including AJ+, mirror the policies and preferences of the Qatari government, which, together with the state funding and other indicia of agency, demonstrate that Al Jazeera and its media subsidiaries act as alter egos of the Qatari government in ensuring dissemination of the government's viewpoints," they said.
The signatories include Senators Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, John Cornyn, Todd Young, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and Representatives Mike Johnson and Lee Zeldin.
The justice department recently required international broadcasters of Russian-owned RTTV America to register under the law as well as Chinese government-owned media outlets Xinhua and China Global Television Network. Congress did not renew the Congressional press pass of reporters from these networks.
The lawmakers alleged that news articles have reported activities in which Al Jazeera Media Network is engaged that raise legitimate questions about whether it should register as a foreign agent.
Al Jazeera is a global organisation spanning dozens of countries, including the United States, and reaches hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In 2016, its off-shoot Al Jazeera America, was closed. However, Al Jazeera expanded its digital presence via Al Jazeera Plus (AJ+), its online news channel which is headquartered in the United States.
As of May 2019, AJ+ had 11.1 million cumulative followers and subscribers on Facebook. In that same month, AJ+ was the fortieth ranked "overall creator" of content cross-platform.
By comparison, in May 2019 the Washington Post had 6.3 million cumulative followers and subscribers on Facebook and was the one-hundredth ranked "overall creator" of content cross-platform. Clearly, Al Jazeera has established and is building a significant reach within the US, they said.
Founded by the Qatari charter in 1996, the letter said that it is a state-owned enterprise, and the Qatari government has provided the majority of its funding.
Al Jazeera's videos on YouTube are stamped with the disclaimer, "Al Jazeera is funded in whole or in part by the Qatari government." Thus, Al Jazeera is not only a foreign principal but it is also owned by a foreign principal - the government of Qatar, the letter said.
Given that members of the ruling family are in charge of managing the media network, it is more likely than not that the government can and will assert editorial control over media content, they said.
"There is evidence that this is the case. The network frequently features content promoting the apparent policy priorities of its owner," the lawmakers alleged.
For example, the Qatari government reportedly supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Jazeera has reportedly featured that the organisation in a moderate light and described it as one that can "foster regional stability," they alleged.
In addition, Qatar has not only allowed the US-designated terrorist organisations such as Hamas to operate within the country but also has regularly hosted Hamas supporters and its leaders on Al Jazeera, they claimed.
News articles have reported that Al Jazeera "conducted a months-long spy operation on a slew of American pro-Israel officials" for a documentary on alleged Jewish influence on the US government, the lawmakers alleged.
According to the Congressmen, Al Jazeera seemingly operating as an agent of the Qatari government, its potential obligation to register under FARA may be triggered by two other provisions in the statute.
First, because it produces and distributes content and secures access within the United States, it has arguably "engage[d] directly or indirectly in the... dissemination of... broadcasts," and therefore may have served as a "publicity agent".
Second, because its programming concerned "conditions" of a foreign government or "foreign country," including but not limited to Qatar, Al Jazeera may have served as an "information-service employee" by "furnishing, disseminating, or publishing" its programs, they added.