Al Jazeera’s U.S. News Service ‘AJ+’ Ordered to Register as Foreign Agent by DOJ

Al Jazeera+, the English-language online news service of Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera, has been ordered by the Justice Department to register as a foreign agent operating in the United States.

In a Sept. 14 letter from the DOJ, the government says AJ+ should be subject to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), claiming the streaming video platform engages in political activities on behalf of the Qatar government.

“Journalism designed to influence American perceptions of a domestic policy issue or a foreign nation’s activities or its leadership qualifies as ‘political activities’ under the statutory definition,”  Jay Bratt, the counterintelligence chief at the DOJ, wrote in the letter.

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AJ+, which produces videos for social media in English, Arabic, French and Spanish, has offices in Doha and Washington, D.C. The FARA determination would only apply to the English-language AJ+ based in the U.S.

The letter came the day before the Trump Administration announced an accord between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Al Jazeera claims the DOJ action is a condition of the UAE/Israel agreement since it claims the UAE, together with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, has sought to impose an economic blockade on Qatar, alleging the country has ties with Iran — claims the country denies.

“The UAE has confirmed it presented the United States with preconditions prior to announcing the Abraham Accords, and we received DOJ’s letter the day before the UAE signed the Accords,” Al Jazeera said in a statement to The New York Times. “Hobbling Al Jazeera was one of the top conditions of the UAE’s blockade against Qatar and the Justice Department just gave the UAE what it wanted,” the statement said.

Patrick Toomey, senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, assailed the FARA designation on AJ+ as politics by the Trump Administration.

“This order is a threat to the freedom of the press,” Toomey said in a statement. “People in the United States rely on dedicated news organizations for reporting on world events and the human impact of our government’s policies around the globe. The government should not misuse a vague and overboard ‘foreign agent’ law to target news organizations for political purposes.”

Middle East OTT Video Market Expands as Saudi Arabia Ends Theatrical Ban

The over-the-top video market in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) topped 1.4 million subscribers in 2017, up 48% from 2016, according to new data from IHS Markit. Online video revenue grew 44%, exceeding $100 million for the first time. Subscriptions are forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 34.4%, reaching 5 million in 2022.

At the same time, pay-TV subs fell 21% to 4.2 million — driven by the politically-driven embargo of beIN Media pay-TV service in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain.

“There was a reversal in pay-TV growth in the MENA region at the end of 2017,” according to analysis provided by Constantinos Papavassilopoulos, principal research analyst at IHS Markit. “As Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain severed political ties with Qatar, the three nations subsequently also blocked beIN Media Group from their markets. A similar decision was taken in the United Arab Emirates, but the market was later reopened to beIN Media pay TV packages. While the precise amount of revenue damage to beIN Media from this blockade is unclear, IHS Markit estimates that it may have cost the company as much as $200 million in lost subscriptions last year, especially because Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the two largest markets for beIN Media satellite TV packages. If the beIN Media blockade continues, it could seriously affect the future growth prospects of pay-TV in the region.”

Even as pay TV subscriptions declined, there were other positive developments for entertainment markets in the MENA region. Saudi Arabia re-opened movie theaters in the country and is planning $64 billion investment of state and private funds in the country’s entertainment sector over the next 10 years.

Online video subscriptions in MENA exceeded 1 million in 2017 for the first time (1.38 million), up 48% over the previous year, according to IHS Markit. OTT video revenue is expected to reach $500 million in 2022, growing 36.6% annually. In 2017, the number of OTT subs were one-third of the number of pay-TV subscriptions. This share will increase to 50% in 2020 and 67% in 2022, Papavassilopoulos said.

Lionsgate-owned Starz Play remains the OTT video market leader, in both subscriptions and revenue, followed by local service Shahid Plus and Netflix.

Starz Play’s success is based in part on partnering with local telecoms and IPTV networks offering easier payment options to consumers. This policy aligned pricing in relation to the average disposable income in each country, while providing attractive content with high relevance to some MENA regions, according to Papavassilopoulos.

“The pattern of growth will be determined by the decisions of the main players — primarily by their strategies for content, localization, partnerships and pricing,” Papavassilopoulos wrote in the report.