The Independent’s mysterious new Saudi sultan shareholder raises eyebrows for the freedom of expression, writes SEAMUS DOOLEY
THE decision of a heretofore unknown Saudi Arabian investor to acquire an up to 50 per cent stake in the Independent website has raised concerns for those who have followed recent developments in the Gulf states. It’s a curious development which raises a number of questions.
Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel now controls up to 50 per cent of voting rights within Independent Digital News and Media Ltd, the company that controls the Independent website.
Little is known of Abuljadayel, other than that he comes from a wealthy Saudi family. He joins Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev as a “person of significant control” in the company and as such will have significant influence on the future direction of the Independent.
The company insists that the editorial independence of the website will not be undermined by the involvement of a businessman from a country with an appalling human rights record.
In an email to staff announcing the new investment, Independent editor Christian Broughton said the title “would remain truly independent of any shareholders or business interests.”
He added that he had been given “cast-iron, unequivocal reassurances that The Independent’s reporting on Saudi Arabia would be unaffected.”
Let’s hope that guarantee of editorial independence is honoured.
Editorial control takes many forms, including budgetary and investment decisions.
The Independent has been relentless and courageous in its coverage of the Middle East and of Saudi Arabia in particular. The decision of a Saudi Arabian investor to target the Independent is at best curious and it is difficult to comprehend what strategic interest is served by the move.
Now only available online, the Independent newspaper took a principled stand in opposing the Iraq war and deserves credit for consistent coverage of the Middle East, providing a platform for journalists such as Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Kim Sengupta.
There are perhaps parallels between Al-Jazeera and the Independent in that both have provided alternative narratives to geopolitical developments in the Middle East.
It is essential that the editorial integrity of the Independent is safeguarded. It may well be that Abuljadayel will be content to be a silent investor but any links to the House of Saud give rise for concern in the context of Saudi Arabia’s attitude to civil liberties, to media freedom and to Al-Jazeera in particular.
Saudi Arabia has been to the fore in promoting the blockade of Qatar, working with allies including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to impose a land, sea, and air blockade.
Last month I took part in an international conference on freedom of expression hosted by the Qatar Human Rights Committee in association with the International Federation of Journalists and the International Press Institute.
The purpose of the conference was to highlight the threatened blockage of Al-Jazeera and to express global solidarity with a news organisation which, over 21 years, has become a significant presence on the media landscape.
As a trade unionist I made it clear that the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) did not accept Qatar’s selective approach to human rights.
The right to freedom of expression cannot be viewed in isolation from other fundamental rights. Qatar’s attitude to women, to minorities, to trade unions and its record on migrant workers has been highlighted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow has been to the fore in highlighting the plight of workers from Bangladesh, India and Nepal, who struggle to cope with the hike in food prices as a result of the sealing of the Saudi border.
The NUJ delegation played a significant role in ensuring that the issue of workers’ rights was directly referenced in the declaration at the close of the conference, recognising both the UN Charter of Fundamental Rights and the International Labour Organisation Convention.
NUJ president Tim Dawson, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) president Jim Boumelha and IFJ senior vice-president Younes M’Jahed from Morocco were among those who, while defending Al-Jazeera, urged the Human Rights Committee and the Qatari government to embrace a global human rights agenda consistent with international norms.
It has been said that Al-Jazeera changed the landscape of the Arab world.
In visiting the headquarters last month I was reminded of a much earlier visited by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to the station in Doha when he reportedly dubbed the station “this little matchbox, making all that trouble.”
At the weekend the Israeli government announced the closure of the Al-Jazeera bureau in Jerusalem and to revoke press credentials for the organisation’s journalists.
Al-Jazeera is still making trouble. That’s the function of journalism.
The Independent, like Al-Jazeera, is a born troublemaker, holding power to account and asking awkward questions. The new ownership structure may provide financial stability but it must not be at the cost of editorial freedom.
It’s easy to forget that 21 years ago Al-Jazeera did not, and could not, exist in the Middle East.
Al-Jazeera must not become a bargaining chip in the dangerous political games being played in the Gulf.
There is certainly reform needed in Qatar, and in the neighbouring Gulf states.
Those reforms will not be hastened by turning off the light that is Al-Jazeera.
Seamus Dooley is acting general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.