WASHINGTON ― At least 14 members of the House want Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the Al Jazeera media network, a colossus that reaches more than 300 million people and is funded by the government of Qatar.
The request, in a letter being finalized this week and shared with HuffPost by a Hill source, comes amid a controversy over Al Jazeera’s filming of a documentary on the pro-Israel lobbying community in the U.S. The network used an undercover operative to secure months of footage in 2016, revealing private interactions with various advocacy groups, lawmakers and officials. But despite promising to release the film last year after British regulators OK’d a similar project in the U.K., Al Jazeera has yet to publish the documentary.
Meanwhile, Qatar has become embroiled in a fight with a group of its neighbors led by the United Arab Emirates and faced heavy criticism from pro-Israel groups for anti-Semitic content in Al Jazeera’s Arabic programming. (The network runs separate channels in English, Arabic and a host of other languages.)
Qatar has won international praise by saying it stands by the award-winning network’s right to publish content, including to release the documentary, and called some of its opponents anti-democratic. But the new pressure from Capitol Hill suggests the issue remains hot ― even as President Donald Trump prioritizes an end to the regional Qatar spat and Qatar’s ruler prepares for a trip to the U.S. in April.
“Al Jazeera’s record of radical anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel broadcasts warrants scrutiny from regulators to determine whether this network is in violation of U.S. law,” the congressional letter reads. “Such an investigation should cover the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States, including reports that it infiltrated American 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) nonprofit organizations.”
The message to lawmakers and staff being asked to co-sign the letter specifically talks about the Israel lobbying documentary. The letter notes that the Justice Department directed RT, a Russian government-funded news organization, to register as a foreign agent last year and asks Sessions to explain whether Al Jazeera should do so as well. Only a handful of the many state-backed news organizations operating in the U.S. have done so. Outlets like the BBC and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle have not. The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the order.
Lawmakers pushing the measure include those who have signed a number of letters seeking to boost pressure on Qatar in recent months, such as Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), and others who have not previously been very vocal on the issue, including Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.). It appears most signatories are Republicans. The conservative outlet Washington Free Beacon reported last week on initial efforts to organize the letter by Gottheimer and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.).
The question of the documentary has become especially important for pro-Israel groups and donors, complicating Qatari outreach to American Jewish leaders. Qatar had reportedly previously assured the groups that the film would not be released. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations he does not believe they should engage with Qatar.
U.S. officials have expressed concern about Al Jazeera’s content in the past, but have also said Qatar should remain a top partner and warned that too much pressure on it might push it closer to Iran or Russia. The country currently hosts more than 10,000 American troops.