Al Jazeera denies Qatari emir censored Israel lobby film

Al Jazeera director general Mostefa Souag spoke at the National Press Club. (C-SPAN)

Al Jazeera last week denied that Qatar’s ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has censored its documentary, The Lobby – USA.

More than two years after filming began, the four-part documentary has never been aired. But details have leaked out, with The Electronic Intifada and the Grayzone Project releasing clips.

“The emir never contacted us, or anybody from his office, to tell us what to do, or not to do” about the film, Al Jazeera’s director general Mostefa Souag said, at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington on 2 October.

Al Jazeera in April denied the film had been censored, following a claim by the Zionist Organization of Ameri that it had persuaded the emir to cancel the film during a private audience in the capital Doha.

But Al Jazeera’s statement at the time pointedly failed to mention the emir.

The director general’s comments represent the first time the Qatari satellite channel has directly addressed claims that the emir agreed to demands by Israel lobby figures that the film be suppressed.

While not naming Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein, Souag said that although he has “no direct knowledge of what happened between the emir and the person who claims he talked to the emir about it,” the decision was made by the channel alone.

“The decision about this documentary was done long before that visit,” he claimed.

Souag asserted that it was probably a misunderstanding by Klein, saying that in Arab countries “people are sometimes polite. If you ask them something, they don’t tell you no. They’ll say we’ll look into it. We’ll look into it means: please, you know, don’t ask more. But that’s it.”

Still no air date

Asked at the luncheon if the film had been “suppressed by the Qatari government after pressure from Israel,” Souag denied it, claiming it “has never been canceled. It is delayed. And pending.”

But the fact remains that the film has still not been aired by the channel, and has no scheduled date of broadcast – a year after the filmmakers first acknowledged the film’s existence and said it would be released “very soon.”

A source briefed by a high-level individual in Qatar told The Electronic Intifada in June that the film has been delayed indefinitely as “a matter of national security” for the small Gulf emirate.

Qatar’s rulers were said to be anxious of an invasion by its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia, or the withdrawal of the massive US air base, Al Udeid. Qatari leaders apparently feared that getting on the wrong side of Israel and its lobby, which are closely allied with Saudi Arabia, could hurt their cause in Washington.

Souag claimed last week that the film is “just delayed to make sure that what we are doing is right.” He claimed that there are some “editorial and legal” issues to deal with before the film can be scheduled for broadcast.

But he gave no indication of when this would happen.

The Electronic Intifada and the Grayzone Project in August began releasing extracts of the film, and other outlets have also seen parts or all of the film.

The Electronic Intifada was the first to publish details from the film, in March of this year.

The four-part series shows evidence of a network of pro-Israel organizations spying on US citizens on behalf of Israel.

The evidence in the film raises questions about whether Israel lobby groups in the US are breaking the law by acting as unregistered agents of a foreign state.

Unexplained delays

The Al Jazeera director general’s account is unconvincing for at least two reasons.

First, the undercover film was shot in 2016 – beginning more than two years ago.

Any “editorial and legal” issues the film supposedly had could have been resolved months ago – if not a year ago, when the film was finished.

Secondly, Souag’s claim of remaining editorial and legal issues flatly contradicts the account of his own journalists – those who actually made the film.

The head of Al Jazeera’s investigative unit Clayton Swisher wrote in March that since October 2017, “we’ve faced a series of unexplained delays in broadcasting our project, the likes of which I’ve never experienced. I was repeatedly told by everyone I asked to ‘wait,’ and was assured our documentary would eventually see the light of day.”

Souag’s claim that the film is still “pending” sounds very much like a continuation of that same request to “wait.”

It stretches credulity that Al Jazeera, which invested considerable resources in the project, would sit so long on a highly newsworthy film, especially when other outlets are starting to leak it. Any news outlet operating without constraints would be rushing to resolve any outstanding issues and get the film to the public.

The documentary is a sequel to The Lobby, an undercover film about pro-Israel groups in the UK, which was broadcast in January 2017. Both undercover reporters – “Robin” in the UK, and “Tony” in the US – were working at around the same time in 2016.

Some of the pro-Israel operatives depicted in the UK film complained to Ofcom, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, claiming it was unfairly edited and anti-Semitic. But in October 2017, the regulator vindicated the film, exonerating it on all counts.

Al Jazeera’s independence?

In his 8 March 2018 article for The Forward, Swisher explained that “After our journalism was validated and upheld by Ofcom in October, we assumed that the US edition of The Lobby would be aired in just a matter of weeks.”

He wrote that the final formality, in January 2018, was to approach the subjects of the undercover filming to give them a chance to reply to their findings – “More than 70 letters went out. To this day, our letters yielded only a paltry three replies.”

The film, seen in its entirety by The Electronic Intifada, bears this out, with none of the pro-Israel groups or individuals even replying to requests for comment.

As Swisher recounts, quoting Israeli newspaper Haaretz, these people “instead took meetings with the State of Qatar’s registered agent and lobbyist, a former aide to US Senator Ted Cruz named Nick Muzin, to ‘see if he could use his ties with the Qataris to stop the airing.’”

Speaking at the press club last week, Souag also claimed that “Al Jazeera is completely independent. We have no government control whatsoever.”

“Our reporters have no right to be contacted by anybody from the government,” he added.

Swisher’s account in The Forward calls this into question: “if our documentary does not air, it may well lend credibility to the claim … that Al Jazeera is indeed a foreign agent, at the direction and control of Qatar’s government.”

Souag is a former adviser to Al Jazeera’s chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani – who is in turn a senior member of the ruling royal family of Qatar.

Clearly, the lines of division between Al Jazeera and the Qatari government are nowhere near as clear as Souag claims.

The Israel lobby

It is not hard to see the reasons Qatar has to suppress the film.

Since the start of the Saudi-United Arab Emirates blockade of Qatar in June 2017, Qatar has poured tens of millions of dollars into lobbying in Washington, in an attempt to persuade the Trump administration to reverse its policies of de facto support for the blockade.

Since Trump and other Republican politicians are staunchly pro-Israel, the Qataris have increasingly sought to cosy up to Israel as a way to ingratiate themselves in Washington.

Since the infiltration by Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter became known to Israel lobby groups in Washington in 2017, Qatar has played host to an ever-growing roster of hardline anti-Palestinian politicians and other right-wing public figures from the US.

These have included the Zionist Organization of America’s openly racist president Morton Klein, Trump fan and “Israel’s lawyer” Alan Dershowitz and Christian Zionist former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee.

Qatar even donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-Palestinian groups – including the Zionist Organization of America.

Senior Al Jazeera sources declined to comment, citing the the sensitivity of the situation.

Al Jazeera’s press office did not reply to a request for comment.

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Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist and associate editor with The Electronic Intifada. He lives in London. Biography here.