Al-Arab TV closes in Qatar following censorship in Bahrain

The Al-Arab News Channel, owned by Saudi prince and philanthropist Al Waleed bin Talal Abudaliziz al Saud, has been permanently shut down before its first broadcast in Doha, a Saudi news site reported. The television channel had previously premiered in Manama, Bahrain in 2015. However, Bahraini authorities forced it to close after its first airing, which featured an interview with a leader of the opposition group Al-Wefaq. Al Waleed bin Talal had aimed for the channel to “[fill] a critical void…by delivering…an objective, fresh, and unbiased view of local and world events.” Instead, the station’s closure is representative of the Gulf countries’ growing restrictions on free expression.

Al Waleed bin Talal first announced his interest in creating centrist media programming compared to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya in 2010, later establishing a partnership with Bloomberg. Following the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Prince said the channel would have a specific focus on freedom of speech. Al-Arab debuted from Manama in February 2015. On its first day, newscasters interviewed Khalil al-Marzooq, a leading member of the largest opposition society in Bahrain, Al-Wefaq, and a former Parliament member who had resigned in protest on 14 February 2011, the start of the Arab Spring uprisings. On Al-Arab, al-Marzooq discussed how the Bahraini government had recently revoked the citizenship of 72 people, including Shia religious leaders, human rights activists, and journalists.

Within a day of the interview’s airing, Bahrain’s information ministry announced the channel’s suspension, which Al-Arab said was due to “technical and administrative reasons.” A few days later, Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said the shutdown would be permanent as the channel had not obtained the proper licensing. It went on to claim the network had “failed to match the standards of regional and international practice agreements, to take account of efforts aimed at stemming the tide of extremism and terrorism throughout the region and the wider world.” Rumors suggested that Al Waleed bin Talal had been promised the channel would have complete editorial independence and be free from political interference, but Bahrain’s king and prime minister had disagreed over the extent of freedom they would provide. Others believed that the Saudi king pressured the Bahraini government into suppressing the station.

After months seeking a new location for the channel’s headquarters, considering Istanbul, London, and Cyprus, Al Waleed bin Talal negotiated with Qatari authorities to base Al-Arab in Doha, where Al-Jazeera is also headquartered. Even though the general manager of the channel said in November 2016 that the station was preparing to open, the staff were told on 6 February 2017 that the channel would be permanently closed. No reasons were provided.

Al-Arab’s story fits into a history of media repression in both Bahrain and Qatar. In January 2017, Bahraini authorities temporarily suspended the online edition of Al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper. ADHRB has routinely documented the Bahraini government’s use of travel bans, denaturalization, arbitrary detention, torture, and imprisonment against journalists to suppress free press and expression. Similarly, since December 2016, the Qatari government has blocked the online version of Doha News in the country, claiming that the company was not “properly licensed.” The news organization has moved all operations outside of Qatar to evade the government’s legal requirements, but has not been allowed back online in the country.

Free press and expression have come under attack throughout the Gulf. Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017 highlighted growing concerns regarding restrictions on free expression in all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Governments are increasingly using counterterrorism efforts as a justification to arrest journalists and close news outlets that report stories critical of authorities. In 2017, Freedom House labeled the press freedom status of all GCC countries but Kuwait as “Not Free.” Gulf authorities are also prosecuting people for criticizing neighboring states, like Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who faces a lengthy prison term for criticizing Saudi-led coalition attacks in Yemen.

Officials have not clarified the reasons behind Al-Arab’s recent closure, but the channel appears to be another casualty of the GCC’s restrictive press environment. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of expression, which is fundamental to citizens’ political participation and right to information. The loss of Al-Arab, which ostensibly intended to bring new perspectives to Gulf television, signals another setback for free expression in the region.

Rachael Diniega is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.