DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A top Al-Jazeera official on Friday denounced demands to shut down the network by countries involved in a dispute with its host nation Qatar as an attempt to suppress free expression.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke ties with Qatar and restricted access to land, sea and air routes earlier this month over allegations it funds terrorism — an accusation Doha rejects but that President Donald Trump has echoed. The move has left Qatar, whose only land border is shared with Saudi Arabia, under a de facto blockade by its neighbors.
The countries delivered a list of demands to end the embargo Thursday and gave Qatar 10 days to comply with the ultimatum. The 13-point list calls for Al-Jazeera and all its affiliates to be shut down.
"Any call to close down or curtail Al-Jazeera is nothing but an attempt to muzzle a voice of democracy in the region and suppress freedom of expression," Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al-Jazeera English, told The Associated Press by phone from its Doha headquarters.
He reiterated the position taken by the Qatari government that shuttering the network is not an item up for negotiation.
"We stand firm in our commitment in providing our usual comprehensive and impartial coverage of events around the world," he said.
Launched in 1996 with financial support from Qatar's rulers, Al-Jazeera has over the years grown into one of the Middle East's most influential and controversial media outlets.
It quickly became one of the most widely watched Arabic channels, but it has long drawn the ire of Mideast governments for airing alternative viewpoints, including hosting Israeli officials.
The network's critics say the Arabic-language services in particular advance Qatar's goals by promoting Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that pose a populist threat to rulers in other Arab countries.
Qatar supported the calls for change resulting from the 2011 Arab Spring protests that led to upheaval in Egypt, Syria and other Middle East nations, and the network intensively covered those protests.
In Egypt, it was seen as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi, who came to power in 2012. After the Egyptian military ousted Morsi, Egypt revoked Al Jazeera's press credentials and imprisoned three of its employees for collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera sued Egypt in January 2016, saying many of its journalists were harassed after Morsi's overthrow.
The network's coverage reverberated among regional powers well prior to the Arab Spring uprising. In 2002, its coverage of a Saudi peace plan with Israel led Saudi Arabia to yank its ambassador from Qatar. That diplomatic rift lasted six years.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also recalled their ambassadors from Qatar in March 2014, upset about a perceived interference in their affairs through the network and Qatar's funding of Islamist movements. They returned eight months later after Qatar took some steps against Brotherhood members.
Asked how the newsroom was handling the latest demands for its closure, Trendle said it was "business as usual."
"We remain committed to doing journalism," he said. "Everyone here is at their desk and doing their work and on their normal shifts."
The ultimatum presented to Qatar also includes demands that the natural gas-rich state stop funding a host of other news outlets including Arabi21, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.
Associated Press writer Tali Arbel in New York contributed to this report.
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