Trump is fueling censorship in the Middle East

It’s not enough to attack the press at home.

US President Donald Trump walks with Saudi King Salman, right, to attend the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump walks with Saudi King Salman, right, to attend the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Before and after becoming president, Donald Trump consistently attacked the press at home, considering it the enemy of the American people. Now, his policies are leading to a crackdown on media in the Middle East.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt — which have recently cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar over accusations that the country funds extremist groups — presented the Gulf country with a list of 13 demands that must be met, according to the Associated Press. That includes a demand that Qatar shut down its Al Jazeera media network and all its affiliates and stop providing funding to other news outlets, like Arabi21, Middle East Eye, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, and Rassd.

The demand wasn’t unexpected, but it is startling for the repercussions it would have for the press in the Middle East. After consistently attacking the press at home, U.S. President Donald Trump is now in many ways responsible for undermining it in a region where it is perhaps most critical.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and several other countries cut ties with Qatar earlier this month, after accusing Qatar of supporting extremism in the region. Trump then praised this development and accused Qatar of extremism in a series of tweets that ignored that the country is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. He pointed specifically to his speech in Saudi Arabia last month — which in many ways embraced Saudi Arabia’s vision for the Middle East — when praising the suspension of ties.

Relations between Qatar and other Gulf countries have become increasingly tense over the last few years, but the timing of this diplomatic crisis is notable: just six months into Trump’s presidency and less than a month after Trump’s visit to the region.

According to the list of demands given to Qatar on Thursday — delivered by Kuwait, who is working as a mediator in the crisis — Qatar will have 10 days to accept the full list of demands, or the list will become invalid. Qatar has not yet publicly commented on the list, but it has previously said that it would not shut down Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari state, has its flaws. But it is still vital in a region where authoritarian governments have control over the narrative within their countries — as well as, in many ways, control over what is shared outside their borders. Al Jazeera’s coverage of the so-called Arab Spring protests in 2011 was critical, and since then, it has continued to have an invaluable role in documenting human rights abuses in the region. Al Jazeera was blocked in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt last month.

On Wednesday, before the list of demands was shared, the New York Times’ editorial board criticized the countries’ attempts to shut down Al Jazeera. “In reality, by attacking Al Jazeera, the Saudis and their neighbors are trying to eliminate a voice that could lead citizens to question their rulers,” the editorial board wrote. “Al Jazeera is hardly a perfect news organization: Critical reporting on Qatar or members of Qatar’s royal family is not tolerated. But much of the rest of its reporting hews to international journalistic standards, provides a unique view on events in the Middle East and serves as a vital news source for millions who live under antidemocratic rule.”

The Trump administration’s incoherent policy on Qatar — often made even more confusing by contradictions between the president and the State Department — has fueled this crisis.

Of course, the press issue in the Middle East will likely not be high on Trump’s list of priorities. At home, Trump criticizes “fake news media” every chance he gets, his press secretary has criticized the press repeatedly, and his administration has given press credentials to conspiracy theorists. Earlier this week, the administration announced that the number of cameras at press briefings will be cut— but said that even that announcement can’t be reported on. Last month, a reporter was arrested for asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price whether it would be more difficult for domestic violence survivors to obtain health insurance under the Trump health care bill. Trump has singled out reporters and dubbed the entire media the “opposition party,” and in many ways, his rhetoric has fueled attacks on journalists.

Abroad, Trump has praised authoritarian leaders who have cracked down on their press, including but not limited to: Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Phillippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Other demands of Qatar on the list shared on Friday include: cutting diplomatic relations with Iran (with which Qatar shares the world’s largest natural gas field); cutting ties with “terrorist, sectarian, and ideological organisations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah; ending the Turkish military presence in Qatar; ending funding for organizations designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the United States and other countries; handing over wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain; paying a sum that will be later negotiated in compensation for Qatar’s policies; not offering citizenship to wanted individuals of the four countries; ending contact with political opposition in the four countries and sharing files on past support for and contact with this opposition; aligning with other Gulf and Arab countries on military, political, social, and economic matters; and consenting to audits into whether Qatar is complying with these demands over the next 10 years.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the demands given to Qatar must be “reasonable and actionable.” It’s not clear yet whether the administration considers these demands reasonable — but for now, the state of press in the Middle East is looking more precarious than before.