x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

Al Jazeera debate descends into chaos as protesters demand network is taken off the air

Just hours after BBC correspondent pulls out of the debate over neutrality, demonstrators chant 'Ban Al Jazeera' outside the venue

Protesters accused the network of promoting terrorism at the event
Protesters accused the network of promoting terrorism at the event

It was billed as a debate on the future of Al Jazeera in light of the Gulf crisis. But an event held at the Frontline Club in London descended into farce on Monday night as protesters demanded that the network be banned for its alleged support of terrorism.

The event at the journalists' club was already under a cloud after the BBC's Frank Gardner, the original chair of the debate, pulled out after falling fouling of his employer's impartially rules. When it did take place, the two panellists with a direct relationship to Al Jazeera were openly criticised by former and current staff members. The anger inside and outside, where a number of protesters waving banners accusing the network of links to terrorism gathered.

The first warning sign was when Mr Gardner, a respected security correspondent, pulled out. A 22-year veteran of the British network, he had initially been lined up to moderate a panel discussion set to consider potential threats to the future of Al Jazeera.

Read more:

> How Al Jazeera panel in London went off-script for the network

> BBC correspondent pulls out of Jazeera debate over neutrality

> Al Jazeera debate descends into chaos as protesters demand network is taken off the air

A BBC spokesperson confirmed to The National that Gardner, a 55-year-old, who was shot and paralysed from the waist down in Saudi Arabia in 2004 by Al Qaeda sympathisers, would not be appearing at the event. "Unfortunately we are not always able to take part in events we are invited to," he said.

Laura Gane of the Frontline Club, said: “As discussed with Frank and the BBC, they had some reservations in being involved in an event that they weren't in control of, that concerned a debate around another network.

“We therefore decided to go with Safar Al Ahmad, who is a freelance journalist and therefore not affiliated with a news station."

Al Ahmad is a Saudi Arabian journalist and filmmaker who worked for PBS and the BBC making films about uprisings in the Middle East including The Fight for Yemen (2015) and Saudi’s Secret Uprising from 2014.

The other panellists were Wadah Khanfar, ex director general of the Al Jazeera Media Network; Giles Trendle, managing director of Al Jazeera English; David Hearst, a former leader writer for The Guardian who now edits the online news organisation Middle East Eye, which was also on the Quartet list of pro-Qatari media; and Dr Marc Jones from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University.

“Because of the sensitivity of this talk, we have turned the discussion into predominately a Q&A discussion whereby members of the audience can ask questions to the panelists, who are at the heart of this controversy.”

The demonstration outside and the internal criticisms levelled at Al Jazeera during the meeting meant that an event which had been seemingly been organised to burnish the credentials of Qatar and the network may have resulted in a few red faces.

The two dozen or so protesters kept up a steady refrain throughout the 90-minute-long meeting, demanding 'Ban Al Jazeera' and bringing attention to how the network has allegedly promoted ISIL, a reference to an online poll that Al Jazeera ran in May 2015 which resulted in 80 per cent of the vote saying the terror group were doing good things in the Middle East.