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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

New London connection to Islamists

A senior executive with Qatar’s TV network Al Jazeera was closely involved with setting up the London news website Middle East Eye, some of whose staff have links to organisations sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
David Hearst, Middle East Eye editor. YouTube video grab
David Hearst, Middle East Eye editor. YouTube video grab

A senior executive with Qatar’s TV network Al Jazeera was closely involved with setting up the London news website Middle East Eye, some of whose staff have links to organisations sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jonathan Powell, an Al Jazeera employee since 2009, spent several months in the UK working on Middle East Eye, which promised “independently produced news, analysis and opinion” at its launch in April. MEE claims to have “no political master, movement or country”.

David Hearst, editor of Middle East Eye and a former foreign correspondent for The Guardian, last week refused to give details about the site’s funding, saying only that his backers were “individual private donors” who were “interested in democracy in the Middle East”.

He also refused to provide any information about the nationalities of those behind Middle East Eye but confirmed he was headhunted for the post of editor.

The questions were put to him as part of an investigation by The National that revealed connections between the Muslim Brotherhood and media coverage in the UK critical of the UAE.

Mr Powell is understood to have spent up to six months in London between September last year and February 13 as a launch consultant for Middle East Eye.

The news organisation was created as a company in early December last year, registered to an address in North London.

Its website was registered by Adlin Adnan, a Middle East Eye employee, to a different address in Central London at the end of that month.

Mr Powell has since returned to Doha, assigned to special projects for Al Jazeera’s chairman’s office.

The chairman of Al Jazeera is Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, a cousin of the previous emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Mr Powell also registered separate websites for themiddleeasteye.com and themiddleeasteye.net in January this year. Both were registered to a Doha address but are not active.

Al Jazeera did not respond to several requests for comment about the extent of its involvement in Middle East Eye.

The Qatari broadcaster’s connection to Middle East Eye also includes Jamal Bassasso, a former director of planning and human resources at Al Jazeera.

Mr Bassasso, a Palestinian born in Kuwait and now living in London, is sole director of MEE Ltd, the company that owns Middle East Eye.

He is also a former director for Samalink TV in Lebanon, the registered agent for the website of the Hamas-controlled Al Quds TV.

Mr Hearst has denied that Mr Bassasso is the real owner of Middle East Eye, describing him only as “a colleague and the head of human resources and the legal director”.

Mr Bassasso had also worked for a Dubai property company with Anas Mekdad, another Palestinian with connections to Al Islah, the UAE wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, several of whose members are serving prison sentences for trying to overthrow the Government.

Now living in the UK, Mr Mekdad is the founder of the Islamist web forum AlMakeem Network, which has praised Hamas suicide bombers, and continues to use his Twitter stream in support of convicted UAE members of Al Islah.

Mr Bassasso has also contributed to AlMakeem Network.

A day after the publication of The National’s investigation, Mr Hearst posted an interview from the offices of Middle East Eye on YouTube, repeating that the company was not linked to any government or movement. Saying his staff came from varied backgrounds and that “some are activists”, he added: “The moment they come through this door they become journalists.”

The company employs about 20 full-time staff in its London offices and has a network of freelancers.

Mr Hearst said it was created with “start-up money” but that “the business plan was to become a provider of news”.

Among those employed by Middle East Eye is Rori Donaghy, former director of the Emirates Centre For Human Rights, based in London, which has attacked the UAE’s human rights record on the BBC and other leading news organisations.

It also offered to pay demonstrators to protest outside the UAE Embassy in London. The ECHR was set up with the assistance of Anas Altikriti, the founder of the Cordoba Foundation.

Cordoba this month placed an advertisement in a London newspaper claiming that the UAE was trying to pressure the UK government into banning Muslim Brotherhood activities there.

Mr Altikriti employed Mr Donaghy as the director of ECHR. After his departure to Middle East Eye, he was replaced by Mr Mekdad of the AlMakeem Network. Last week the website for ECHR was taken down, apparently by Mr Donaghy.

* After the publication of this story, Al Jazeera contacted The National with the following statements:

Jonathan Powell said: “I left Al Jazeera last year to pursue a new opportunity but later returned after being offered a new role. I have a lot of experience in launching media organisations and was brought on as a consultant by Middle East Eye. This was entirely separate to my work with Al Jazeera.”

An Al Jazeera spokesperson said: “Al Jazeera has no relationship with the Middle East Eye.”

jlangton@thenational.ae