You never know who you’re going to spot at the Doha Four Seasons in Qatar. So I was only somewhat surprised when I found myself standing next to Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz in the omelet line last Saturday.
It was a fortuitous meeting. Dershowitz had recently played a small role in an episode that was threatening the reputation of my long-time employer, Al Jazeera. So naturally, I leapt at the opportunity to defend it.
The circumstances of the threat were these: In 2016, the award-winning Investigative Unit I directed sent an undercover reporter to look into how Israel wields influence in America through the pro-Israel American community. But when some right wing American supporters of Israel found out about the documentary, there was a massive backlash. It was even labeled as anti-Semitic in a spate of articles.
This uproar came at a time when due to an arbitrary blockade on Qatar imposed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Qatar had been pursuing an end to its siege by appealing to the U.S. According to reports, Qatar sought to offer its own side of the narrative in this conflict by hosting thought leaders, including from the American Jewish community. From reports in the Israeli press, I learned that Dershowitz had been brought to meet with the Qatari emir, and that the American Jews had brought up what they saw as Al Jazeera’s “anti-Semitism” in those meetings.
Of course, our documentary is not anti-Semitic. It is an exploration of how Israel, a foreign government, influences U.S. foreign policy.
But I decided to show it to Dershowitz to get his point of view, and I was pleased when he obliged.
“I have no problem with any of the secret filming,” Mr. Dershowitz told me after watching nearly half of the documentary. “And I can even see this being broadcast on PBS. What I do take issue with is the lack of balance this program has, for example, not having a voice like me.” [Editor’s note: When asked about this by The Forward, Dershowitz said he did not specifically ask to be in the documentary himself, and that he brought up PBS for its use of undercover reporters.]
I understood Dershowitz’s remarks as a qualified seal of approval, which heartened me. And yet, our documentary has now been elevated to the center of an international scandal, with Al Jazeera’s reputation in America seemingly hanging in the balance.
Indeed, if the documentary doesn’t air soon, it might prove to be the ammunition sought by a group of zealous U.S. politicians who wish to declare Al Jazeera a foreign entity, and label us journalists as “spies.”
Since moving to Qatar in 2007, my professional life has been devoted to creating Al Jazeera’s first professional investigative unit, leading a team of committed journalists striving to challenge conventional wisdom rather than report the obvious. I am proud of how in such a short span of time, since our 2011 establishment, we have broken several important stories that have dominated the global news agenda, and even changed the course of history. You might recall our “Palestine Papers” leak of confidential meeting minutes from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under Bush and Obama, or the investigation I led into Yasser Arafat’s death, resulting in his exhumation and the discovery of Polonium 210 in his corpse.
We have tackled a breadth of subjects and controversies, from exposing the depth of the Boeing 787’s battery problems to genocide in Myanmar to presidential corruption in the Maldives to a recent exposé on pedophilia in British youth football.
And we’ve won awards, including the Foreign Press Association, CINE Golden Eagle, One World Media, and the New York Film Festival, as well as prestigious nominations in Europe’s top contests, including BAFTA, Monte Carlo, and the Royal Television Society.
Even though our network is a private company funded by the government of Qatar, my unit operates independently and without government interference. If that weren’t the case, I have every confidence our staff — comprised of mostly British and American journalists — would walk. And rightfully so.
From time to time, when other investigative tactics won’t work, we escalate our efforts to include undercover reporters and secret filming. This practice is used by many international broadcasters, including BBC and CNN, and is carefully managed, through multiple layers of legal and editorial review, to ensure it is performed consistently with local laws, industry regulations, and our own Code of Ethics.
This tactic helped us to uncover sports doping at the highest levels of American professional athletics and, more dangerously, to expose South Africa’s illegal and gruesome rhino horn trade, which implicated the country’s own minister of state security.
It was under these auspices that our Investigative Unit placed concurrent undercover journalists in both Washington DC and London to expose the clandestine efforts of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs to counter the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.
The UK Edition of “The Lobby” aired in January 2017. We captured on hidden camera an Israeli official, Shai Masot, manipulating domestic British NGO’s and threatening to target pro-Palestinian MP’s. Masot, whose business card read “Senior Political Officer” with the Israeli Embassy in London, threatened to “take down” the Foreign Office’s number two, Sir Alan Duncan, a critic of Israeli settlements. A British civil servant entertaining the plot, who we secretly recorded, was summarily dismissed.
The UK edition of “The Lobby” was of such public importance that it resulted in a formal apology from Ambassador Mark Regev. Masot resigned. Most significantly, a parliamentary inquiry was launched into foreign interference in UK foreign policy.
Frustratingly, despite all these proofs of the importance of our work, we were met with accusations of anti-Semitism. The Jewish Chronicle anonymously quoted a “communal figure” saying “the documentary revealed an ‘anti-Semitic’ mindset among those who made it.” A number of pro-Israeli activists brought complaints against us, leading to an extensive regulatory investigation by Britain’s top broadcast regulator, Ofcom. But even that investigation cleared Al Jazeera of any foul play, including anti-Semitism. The lengthy verdict, issued last October, found that our work yielded “a serious investigative documentary” that was in the public interest. “Surreptitious filming,” Ofcom confirmed, “was necessary to the credibility and authenticity of the program because without it, the program makers would have had to rely on second-hand accounts.”
We could not have agreed more. Our journalism got at the heart of the crucial question of foreign interference in the UK government, and it was of vital public interest.
It was this same question — whether the Israeli government was funding or involved in lobbying efforts in the U.S. under the guise of a domestic lobbying group — that we sought to answer in the American edition of “The Lobby.”
Nowhere are these lobbying efforts more prominent than in Washington DC, where we had a second undercover concurrently embedded to report on how the groups in America really work. We explored American pro-Israel lobbyists and their relationships with Israeli entities, like the Israeli Embassy or Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Given the high volume of footage we obtained, it took us until early autumn 2017 to carefully ready the US edition for broadcast.
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, as I said in a series of interviews at the time. It was to be made available in the U.S. on YouTube.
There was a final step to the process. As a UK-regulated entity, we are obliged to send formal “right to reply” letters to anyone caught on our secret cameras, which I proceeded to do in January. This late stage formality is done in every project to notify unwitting people of our intention to broadcast. These letters clearly state the essence of our findings, providing the subjects the opportunity to respond. I duly instructed our reporter to proceed with sending the letters, which he did. More than 70 letters went out.
To this day, our letters yielded only a paltry three replies. Instead we faced a spate of articles by right-wing pro-Israel news sites in America, harshly attacking our work. They joined a chorus of attacks against Al Jazeera, from the likes of the “Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,” whose staff was included in our secret filming, and who, according to earlier leaked emails, has aligned its pro-Israeli advocates with the United Arab Emirates government to smear Al Jazeera’s work as “an instrument of regional instability.”
Others, like Noah Pollak from the Committee for Israel, impugned our journalism as a “professional espionage operation carried out by Qatar on American soil.”
Rather than reply to our letter inviting him to challenge our findings about him, Pollak and other “leaders of Jewish American organizations” 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.”
Muzin, it seems, told them he could. In February, Muzin told Haaretz that “he was discussing the issue with the Qataris and didn’t think the film would broadcast in the near future.” One anonymous source even boasted to Haaretz that “the Qatari emir himself helped make the decision” to spike our film.
These same zealots are now lobbying Congress to pressure the Department of Justice to require our network to register as “foreign agents” under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (or “FARA”). In a letter circulated on Capitol Hill last week, some lawmakers even raised alarm over “reports” that our undercover had “infiltrated American 501 (c)(3) and (c)(4) nonprofit organizations” in the course of our journalism.
I was outraged. When the network launched in 1996, it was set up to shine the light of transparency across the Arab and Muslim world. Established powers hated us, and on any given day, still do. Even the Bush administration contemplated bombing our headquarters during the second Iraq war. It was incredible to hear just a few years later then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defending Al Jazeera as “real news” in testimony before Congress. I defy any journalist who truly values her or his craft to say that Al Jazeera has not been a force for good in our troubled planet. Al Jazeera has without question expanded press freedoms throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
And yet, I have to admit that someone has been hard at work putting the kibosh on our film.
For since October, 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. Then, as now, I took my senior management at its word. To my own specially trained ears, “wait” did not constitute “stop.”
In fact, it must not constitute “stop.” For if our documentary does not air, it may well lend credibility to the claim these 14 U.S. politicians have used and defamed us with — that Al Jazeera is indeed a foreign agent, at the direction and control of Qatar’s government.
I confess my own disappointment with Al Jazeera’s non-response to these attacks. In part because of this deep frustration and my inability to get any real transparency about the decision to delay our broadcast, I asked for and received a sabbatical, which I began this week. Meanwhile, the attacks against us continue. Although Al Jazeera is a world class media organization that wins awards and has changed history and the Arab world so much for the better, our shortcomings remain being way too shy (and late) to tell our own story. Worse, we often let others who have an agenda against us to tell it for us.
I am distressed to find that our investigation into America’s pro-Israel lobbyists may represent the most important test yet of Al Jazeera’s independence, and whether our network still has space to thrive amidst the unjust blockade against our Qatari host. I pray those outside our network do not seek short term political expediency and inappropriately interfere with our professional work, which we have zealously guarded and worked long term to preserve and uphold.
Nothing less than free speech and democratic values are at stake here.
Clayton Swisher is a Doha-based investigative journalist on sabbatical leave from Al Jazeera Media Network and author of “The Truth About Camp David” and “The Palestine Papers.” The author speaks for himself and not for Al Jazeera. Follow him on Twitter @claytonswisher.