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The Saudi demand for shutting down the channel must be resisted on principle

I wonder if you have noticed the strange silence with which the Saudi demand for shutting down Al Jazeera has been received by the rest of the world? This was one of the 13 demands made by the Saudis and their allies 10 days ago. At the least I would have thought it would be strongly criticised and opposed by journalists. After all, it affects them directly. Yet they seem to be largely silent. Not just in the Gulf. Not just in Delhi. But also, as far as I can tell, in London, Paris, Berlin and even Washington.

Had it been the BBC

I cannot believe this would be the case if the demand had been for closing down the BBC or CNN or any Indian channel. So perhaps the reluctance to speak out in support of Al Jazeera arises from of the fact that it is owned by the Qatari royal family. But does that really justify silence?

Al Jazeera has established itself as a credible and often outspoken source of news. Its coverage is different to that of the BBC and CNN and, therefore, irreplaceable. Its commentary provides a viewpoint that otherwise would not be heard. Its range covers not just the Arab world, but also countries in Africa and Latin America that are usually ignored. Surely that makes Al Jazeera an invaluable channel regardless of its ownership and any influence that might have on its management or editorial policy?

In fact, the truth is Al Jazeera is staffed with reputable Western journalists. Many seem to be from the BBC. They are people whose credentials have long been established. As far as I am concerned, their presence on the Al Jazeera screen affirms the channel’s credibility and reliability. How must they feel when their former colleagues in London keep quiet about the demand to close the channel?

Let me, however, go one step further. Once you rule out the ownership of the channel as grounds for keeping silent, then logically there can be only two other grounds for not speaking up in defence of Al Jazeera. First, that you believe the demand is only made rhetorically and not seriously. Second, that it’s not enforceable or, to be more precise, will not be accepted and acted upon by Qatar.

I’m afraid these are not credible grounds for silence. Even if the demand is made rhetorically, surely journalists — if no one else — should oppose a demand by any government to shut down a media organisation? Instead, we should riposte by asking, how dare the Saudis make this demand? How dare they try to throttle freedom of speech? How dare they try to restrict the right of the media to report, explore and expose as it thinks fit?

To let even a rhetorical demand go unchallenged, uncriticised and, therefore, not condemned is to accept the legitimacy of such rhetoric. Who knows when similar demands might be made in London or Washington, Delhi or Islamabad?

Much the same is true of the belief that the demand to shut down Al Jazeera is unenforceable or will not be accepted by the Qatari government. First, how can you be sure that is the case? And, second, why do you believe the Qataris don’t need international support to stiffen their spine? No doubt the Qatari royal family has the money, but who knows when or in what circumstances its political will might flag.

Al Jazeera needs and, more importantly, deserves the support of all journalists. Not just because it’s a good and credible news channel. Nor because journalists must stand by and support each other, because if they don’t they will discourage others from doing so. All of that should be taken as given. The real reason why Al Jazeera must be supported has to do with our principles and our values.

In a democracy, where free speech is cherished, every voice is valuable, particularly when it’s unpopular and even if it’s wrong. The media exists as a mirror to reflect the reality of our lives and our society. This gives it the right to expose, provoke, offend and disturb. If in the process it’s occasionally wrong, so be it. That might call for correction but never for closing down a channel.

The present journalistic silence in response to what’s happening to Al Jazeera is not just inexplicable but also unforgivable.