The Qatari hack cements the Middle East as the worst region in the world for fake news

If the Washington Post story is true, then the UAE planted fake news via a hack to engineer a crisis over Qatar. The Emirates needed a trigger to spark the crisis and this was it

Anthony Harwood
Tuesday 18 July 2017 09:55 BST

If the Washington Post story is true then the United Arab Emirates is guilty of extreme duplicity.

On the one hand, the country’s foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, talks about the importance of trust in resolving the row with Qatar.

On the other hand, if US intelligence sources are to be believed, his government carried out a massive deception of its own people.

For not only did it hack the Qatari news website and make up incendiary quotes that put the Emir of that country in a terrible light: it then ignored the pleas of the Qataris that the quotes were false – which of course it would do if it had originated them – continuing to bombard the news agency’s YouTube channel with the invented comments.

But what’s even worse is that, together with Saudi Arabia, the UAE then blocked transmission of the Al-Jazeera television network and other Qatar-owned sites to its country.

So if you were tuning into the news in downtown Abu Dhabi all you will have heard were some made-up quotes from the Emir of Qatar praising Iran and Hamas, the sort of stuff to make your blood boil.

UAE: Diplomacy will be given 'one or two more chances' before they 'part ways' with Qatar

But you will have missed the Qatari response which was to protest: “We’ve been hacked and he never said this.”

In the hacks the Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, is quoted saying that Hamas is the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

He is also quoted criticising US “hostility” towards Iran, the sworn enemy of Saudi and UAE, describing it as “an Islamic power that cannot be ignored”. Something that will have angered Donald Trump.

So it was no surprise that when less than two weeks later the Saudi-led alliance announced a diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar, most Emiratis thought the country had got its just desserts, as did The Donald who continued to trade insults in Doha’s direction.

So, if the Washington Post story is true, then the UAE planted fake news to engineer a crisis, as the hacking was effectively the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Emiraties needed a trigger to spark the crisis and this was it.

And yet Gargash comes to Britain this week and talks about trust.

Standing outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday he said: “The situation we want to move to is a neighbour who we can trust, a neighbour that is transparent, that we can do business with.”

Trust. Transparency. Tell that to the Emir of Qatar who, if US intelligence sources are to be believed, his country so cynically exploited.

A few hours earlier in a speech at Chatham House Gargash berated Qatar for not trying hard enough to mediate on the 13 onerous demands it was set by the Saudi-led alliance.

But at the time the Saudis went out of their way to say the demands were “non-negotiable” and had to be complied with in full.

Gargash also dismissed as fake the news reports that his country had threatened to bring in a boycott of any company that continued to do business with Qatar.

“This is not true,” he said, seemingly forgetting the remark was made actually by the UAE ambassador to Moscow, Omar Ghobash.

Ghobash had said: “One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say you want to work with us then you have to make a commercial choice.”

The misrepresentation of the Emir of Qatar was not the only report of fake news this weekend.

On Saturday it emerged that hackers had managed to plant a story claiming that six Arab nations had demanded Fifa strip Qatar of the 2022 World Cup.

The story appeared on Swiss news publication calling Qatar “the base of terrorism”.

The report, which even the respected international news agency, Reuters, fell for, was only dismissed as fake when Fifa denied ever receiving such a letter.

Latest indications suggested it originated on websites in the Middle East.

When you consider all the disinformation flying around, it’s no surprise therefore that in April a new report on international press freedom claimed the world had entered a new age of “post-truth, propaganda and suppression of freedoms.”

The 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, showed that the Middle East had become the worst region in this regard.

There was an international outcry when the Saudi-led alliance included closure of the Al-Jazeera TV network as one of its more ludicrous demands.

But if you consider what Ghobash said at the time it is even more chilling.

“We do not claim to have press freedom, we do not promote the idea of press freedom,” he said. “What we talk about is responsibility in speech.”

He said speech in the Gulf “has particular context, and that context can go from peaceful to violent in no time simply because of the words that are spoken.”

This move to a state control of the media has been apparent in the shifting positions over the future of Al Jazeera.

Faced with an outcry at the demand to close the television network, the Saudi-led alliance said it would instead agree to a “fundamental change and restructuring” of the Arabic-language news channel.

Now, I don’t know about you but if my government started talking to me about “fundamental change and structure” of the BBC I’d be very worried.

Qatar must resist any attempts to clamp down on the freedom of its press, something that sets it apart from its accusers, as this week’s revelations have shown.

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