Mar 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

DOJ pressed to enforce Al Jazeera foreign agent ruling

Illustration of a microphone wrapped up in warning tape.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Justice Department is being pressed to enforce its own demand that the U.S. arm of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera register as a foreign agent.

Why it matters: The launch of Al Jazeera's new right-of-center U.S. media venture, Rightly, has refocused attention on the media company's alleged links to Doha, and DOJ's efforts to crack down on media outlets viewed as foreign interest mouthpieces.

  • Al Jazeera has portrayed the DOJ's action against its U.S. subsidiary as a concession to regional rivals such as the United Arab Emirates, raising questions about whether the network might experience a reversal of fortune if the Biden administration shifts course in the Middle East.

What's new: The Lawfare Project, a legal advocacy group that combats anti-Semitism in the U.S., sent a letter to the DOJ last week flagging "a potential violation of federal law" by Rightly and Al Jazeera subsidiary AJ+.

  • In September, the DOJ determined AJ+ acts "at the direction and control” of the Qatari government and hence must register as a foreign agent.
  • Rightly is bound by the same registration requirements, Lawfare Project senior counsel Gerard Filitti argued.
  • "This new media platform is nothing more than the latest attempt by Qatar to subvert American law and orchestrate a non-transparent and pernicious influence operation to affect and influence American politics and society," he wrote.

Background: The DOJ's foreign agent determination required AJ+ to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act within 30 days. It has yet to do so.

  • The company maintains no such registration is required, and DOJ's decision was politically motivated.
  • "Al Jazeera Media Network is a Private Foundation for Public Benefit under Qatari law; it is not owned by Qatar, and its content is not directed or controlled by the Qatari government nor does it reflect any government viewpoint,” a spokesperson told Axios Tuesday in an emailed statement.
  • A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment on AJ+'s FARA registration status.

Between the lines: Al Jazeera has long been the target of Qatar's Gulf rivals, which portray the news outlet as a propaganda organ for the country's ruling family.

  • U.S. lawmakers have also targeted Al Jazeera, saying, in one bipartisan congressional letter to the DOJ, that its U.S. broadcasting "directly undermines American interests."
  • Such criticism has made the fight over Al Jazeera's FARA registration a proxy battle over larger geopolitical fights.
  • When the company received the DOJ's determination letter last year, it accused the department of doing the bidding of Qatar's adversaries in the UAE.

The bottom line: Unless the DOJ rescinds its registration demand, AJ+ is still obligated to begin filing the necessary foreign-agent disclosures.

  • The financial and operational information it would be required to disclose under FARA would likely subject the company to further scrutiny by its critics in the U.S. and abroad.
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