ANALYSIS: Has Qatar’s BeIN been used to spread Al Jazeera’s message of hate?

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Almost a week into the 2018 World Cup in Russia and, for many fans in the Middle East, the enjoyment of the action continues to come at a price.

Football supporters tuning into the BeIN Sport’s Arabic coverage of the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia in Moscow were shocked by the partisan tone that the broadcaster's presenters and commentators had taken.

In particular, viewers were taken aback by the anti-Saudi stance that the Doha-based channel’s team of pundits were taking, openly delighting in the team’s 5-0 loss to the hosts.

Traditionally, irrespective of socio-political circumstances, Arab studio guests and commentators have tended to throw their support behind teams from the Gulf, Middle East and North Africa.

BeIN’s pointed departure from that friendly stance on June 14 upset many Arab subscribers to the channel, with many taking to social media to vent their anger, and calling for politics to be separated from what for many is the greatest, and most supposedly joyous, sporting show on earth.

In a somber video posted on June 15, Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority, tweeted his displeasure at BeIN Sport’s disrespectful coverage.

“Necessary legal action will be taken in relation to BeIN wrongdoings against KSA, its sports and officials, and for exploiting sports to achieve political goals. This proves Saudi authorities' true stance when banning this network from airing on its soil”, the morning after the match.

As the debate raged on social media, the broadcaster drew further censure from figures in the Gulf, including UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Anwar Gargash.

“Sports are about wins and losses but the confused are those who politicize their sports channels. Your home is made of glass … this foolishness will not end your crisis,” Gargash tweeted.

Abu Dhabi Sports Council's General Secretary Aref Al Awani has also thrown his full support behind Saudi.

However, the backlash seemed to have no impact on BeIN’s anti-Saudi stance on the second day of the World Cup, with the political overtones continuing unchanged with little apparent remorse.

In fact, BeIN’s pundits for Saturday’s matches appeared to take further delight at the Saudi disappointment and Al-Sheikh’s comments.

By Sunday, June 17, the controversy had spread to established traditional media outlets, with support for Saudi and further condemnation of BeIN Sport coming from the Kingdom’s neighbors.

“After the opening match of the World Cup between Russia and Saudi, which the Green Falcons lost, BeIN showed its true, ugly colors," wrote Emirati columnist Mohamed Al Badae in an editorial for UAE daily newspaper Al Ittihad. “It turned the studio analysis into an excuse to insult the symbols of the Kingdom. The studio presenter overstepped every moral and sporting boundary.”

That day a petition was launched by some of the Arab world’s leading former athletes and sporting figures against BeIN Sports under the website, urging fans to demand that FIFA President Gianni Infantino investigate the channel’s World Cup coverage.

“Sports rises above politics. FIFA tried to keep politics away from game. As fans, we are saddened by BeIN using its permission to telecast sports to transmit political agenda, violating FIFA rules,” said the petition. “BeIN exploited its rights to aggravate dispute between Qatar and Saudi, insulting our nations during the opening match.”

Among the signatories were Saudi football legend Majed Abdullah, former Egypt internationals Ahmed Hassan and Khaled El Ghandour, and popular Emirati football commentator Fares Awad.

As of today, the petition, which included nine videos as evidence of BeIN’s biased coverage, has received over 114,000 messages of support.

As the controversy rumbled on into its fourth day, football fans continued to take to social media to air their displeasure at beIN Sport’s comments by using the petition’s online hashtag, “#SportsWithoutPolitics”, in particular pointing out what many see as the channel’s nebulous origins.

Critics have long maintained that the decision to rebrand Al Jazeera Sports as BeIN Sports was taken to distance the sports channels from their much-criticized parent company, which many accused of political interference and supporting terrorism in parts of the Middle East and Africa.

A video clip of an interview on Saudi channel Rotana Khalijia, in which a prominent former Al Jazeera and BeIN employee admits as much, quickly spread on social media.

Far from distancing themselves from the politicised, news arm of the media company, many viewers insist that BeIN Sports, with its barely veiled criticism of Saudi Arabia, was now being used as yet another outlet for Al Jazeera’s political message.

On June 18, the Saudi Football Federation filed a formal complaint with FIFA over BeIN’s continued targeting of Saudi Arabia and its leaders, accusing it of incitement and spreading hatred among football supporters in the region.

Viewers, meanwhile, await the coming broadcasts with apprehension.

On Wednesday night, Saudi Arabia take on Uruguay in their second Group A match at the 2018 World Cup. It remains to be seen whether BeIN Sports, which will screen the match, will heed the call to keep sports without politics.

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