Two staffers at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists argued in a lengthy essay published Monday that Al Jazeera should not be required to register as a foreign agent in the United States, without disclosing that an Al Jazeera host is a member of their organization's board of directors.
Alexandra Ellerbeck and Avi Asher-Schapiro wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that efforts to make Al Jazeera, the Qatari government's state-funded news organization, register as a foreign agent under the the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) are "deeply troubling."
In March, a bipartisan group of 19 members of Congress asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether Al Jazeera is operating as a foreign agent of the Qatari government, writing that the network has a record of "anti-American" coverage.
Critics have accused Al Jazeera of being a propaganda network for Qatar, which has been accused of financing Islamist terrorist groups and has close relationships with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ellerbeck and Asher-Schapiro argued against the lawmakers' request in their essay.
"In invoking FARA, Congress is relying on a notoriously opaque unit within the Department of Justice to draw an impossible line between propaganda and journalism," they wrote. "Source protection, media access, and the U.S. promotion of press freedom abroad may all be compromised."
The authors added that using FARA against press outlets like Al Jazeera would encourage authoritarian governments abroad to take similar action against critical media.
Ellerbeck and Asher-Schapiro, however, did not disclose a potential conflict of interest in their essay: Al Jazeera anchor and program host Mhamed Krichen is a member of their employer's board of directors. Krichen has sat on the Committee to Protect Journalists' board since 2011.
In their piece, Ellerbeck and Asher-Schapiro praise Al Jazeera's reporting but generally ignore or only touch on the network's controversial history. The Washington Free Beacon disclosed earlier this year that Al Jazeera carried out a secret, months-long spy operation on American Jews and supporters of Israel. In 2009, the media network broadcast a speech by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a radical Egyptian preacher and Muslim Brotherhood leader, in which he expressed hope for another Holocaust, calling Adolf Hitler's attempted genocide against the Jews "divine punishment" for their "corruption."
Commentary magazine pointed out the authors' failed disclosure to the Columbia Journalism Review, which describes itself as the "most respected voice on press criticism" and the "intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism."
CJR responded with a statement.
"This piece was written by two CPJ staffers, not by CJR folks, and was labeled as an analysis and not a news story," CJR editor Kyle Pope told Commentary in an email. "That said, you raise a fair point. While their board member is a program host, and not an executive, at Al Jazeera (and while a lot of media outlets CPJ writes about have some connection to the organization), we added a note of disclosure to the text."
The updated version of the essay includes the disclosure in the third paragraph and a line noting the update at the bottom of the piece.
This is not the first time that a staffer at the Committee to Protect Journalists has failed to disclose Krichen's board seat while writing about FARA. Early last month, Michael De Dora, the group's Washington advocacy manager, wrote an op-ed in the Hill in which he discussed the need to keep press freedom nonpartisan. In the article, he listed various examples of lawmakers from both political parties fighting for press freedom, before mentioning Al Jazeera.
"But this bipartisan spirit cuts both ways," De Dora wrote. "Last month, a group of [Democratic and Republican] lawmakers asked Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions to investigate Al Jazeera and consider forcing them to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Why? Al Jazeera, an international media organization funded by the government of Qatar, had a record of ‘anti-American' coverage. Nevermind that the act is intended to register lobbyists, not media outlets, and that registering media outlets has serious global repercussions."
After the Hill learned De Dora failed to disclose that an Al Jazeera host sits on his employer's board, the outlet removed the entire paragraph in an updated version without notifying readers.