[Media-watch] US pressure may accelerate Al-Jazeera privitisation - ContraCostaTimes - 31 Jan 2005 - NYTimes - 30 Jan 2005

Julie-ann Davies jadavies2004 at yahoo.co.uk
Mon Jan 31 11:35:54 GMT 2005

I've pasted the original article from the NYT at the bottom as the site requires registration:
Posted on Mon, Jan. 31, 2005
Qatar seeks to privatize al-Jazeera
By Shankar Vedantam


WASHINGTON - The government of Qatar is pushing forward with plans to privatize al-Jazeera, the popular and controversial Arab television network that has often drawn the ire of U.S. administration officials, a spokesman said.

Details of the plan are yet to be worked out and await a feasibility report that should be completed shortly, said Jihad Ballout, a spokesman in Doha, Qatar.

Al-Jazeera is highly popular in the Arab world but has repeatedly drawn criticism from the Bush administration over its coverage of the war in Iraq and other hot-button issues in the Middle East.

Pressure from American officials has caused the government of Qatar, which bankrolls al-Jazeera, to accelerate the spin-off, according to a story Sunday in the New York Times, which quoted an unnamed senior Qatari official.

Ballout said he has heard reports about such pressure but has no firsthand knowledge of it. He said he knew of no attempts to interfere with the network's independence and emphasized that al-Jazeera's code of ethics forbade it from succumbing to any commercial or political pressure.

Ballout and a senior al-Jazeera journalist added that Qatar had always planned to privatize the network.

When the network was set up in 1996, the rough model was the BBC, which is bankrolled by the United Kingdom. After five years, the plan was for al-Jazeera to rely on advertising dollars -- a model closer to that of CNN.

Although the network has been successful in gaining viewers, as high as 40 million people daily, it has had limited success in obtaining advertising, largely because private corporations in many Arab countries were unwilling to bankroll a media company that frequently drew the ire of Arab governments, Ballout and the senior al-Jazeera journalist said.

Still, in late 2003, Qatar announced it would begin exploring ways to privatize the network. Pressure from the U.S. government, the journalist said, was the final straw, but ironic, given the Bush administration's stated desire to support democracy and free media in the Middle East.

"The same administration that is spending millions of dollars to have independent or free media in the region is participating in the potential silencing of media in the process," said the journalist, who requested anonymity because all public comments from the network were supposed to come from Ballout.

Calls on Sunday afternoon to the embassy of Qatar were not returned. State Department spokesman Noel Clay said Sunday that former Secretary of State Colin Powell had made the administration's position on al-Jazeera clear.

While U.S. officials have, occasionally, appeared on the network to reach its vast audience, they have long complained that al-Jazeera's coverage is politically inflammatory and, at times, factually flawed.

Powell publicly complained about al-Jazeera to the government of Qatar in April.

Ballout said the criticism of the network by senior U.S. officials was "unprecedented," and that far from being biased, al-Jazeera had explored taboo topics and provided an independent platform for diverse views that had been missing in the Arab media.

"The vast majority of the criticism of al-Jazeera has been politically motivated," he said.


NYTimes piece

Under Pressure, Qatar May Sell Jazeera Station

Published: January 30, 2005

WASHINGTON - The tiny state of Qatar is a crucial American ally in the Persian Gulf, where it provides a military base and warm support for American policies. Yet relations with Qatar are also strained over an awkward issue: Qatar's sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the provocative television station that is a big source of news in the Arab world.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other Bush administration officials have complained heatedly to Qatari leaders that Al Jazeera's broadcasts have been inflammatory, misleading and occasionally false, especially on Iraq.

The pressure has been so intense, a senior Qatari official said, that the government is accelerating plans to put Al Jazeera on the market, though Bush administration officials counter that a privately owned station in the region may be no better from their point of view. 

"We have recently added new members to the Al Jazeera editorial board, and one of their tasks is to explore the best way to sell it," said the Qatari official, who said he could be more candid about the situation if he was not identified. "We really have a headache, not just from the United States but from advertisers and from other countries as well." Asked if the sale might dilute Al Jazeera's content, the official said, "I hope not."

Estimates of Al Jazeera's audience range from 30 million to 50 million, putting it well ahead of its competitors. But that success does not translate into profitability, and the station relies on a big subsidy from the Qatari government, which in the past has explored ways to sell it. The official said Qatar hoped to find a buyer within a year.

Its coverage has disturbed not only Washington, but also Arab governments from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. With such a big audience, but a lack of profitability, it is not clear who might be in the pool of potential buyers, or how a new owner might change the editorial content. 

Administration officials have been nervous to talk about the station, being sensitive to charges that they are trying to suppress free expression. Officials at the State and Defense Departments and at the embassy in Qatar were reluctant to comment. However, some administration officials acknowledged that the well-publicized American pressure on the station - highlighted when Qatar was not invited to a summit meeting on the future of democracy in the Middle East last summer in Georgia - has drawn charges of hypocrisy, especially in light of President Bush's repeated calls for greater freedoms and democracy in the region.

"It's completely two-faced for the United States to try to muzzle the one network with the most credibility in the Middle East, even if it does sometimes say things that are wrong," said an Arab diplomat. "The administration should be working with Al Jazeera and putting people on the air."

In fact, since the Iraq war, Mr. Powell and even Mr. Rumsfeld have been interviewed by Al Jazeera, though Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush have not. But when the interim government of Iraq kicked Al Jazeera out of the country last August, the Bush administration uttered little criticism.

The administration's pressure thus encapsulates the problems of "public diplomacy," the term for the uphill efforts by Washington to sell American policies in the region. 

Some administration officials acknowledge that their "public diplomacy" system is fundamentally broken, but there is disagreement on how to fix it. Two years ago, the United States launched its own Arab television network, Al Hurra, but administration officials say it has yet to gain much of a following. 

Among the broadcasts criticized by the United States were repeated showings of taped messages by Osama bin Laden, and, more specifically, the reporting early last year, before Al Jazeera was kicked out of Iraq, of the journalist Ahmed Mansour, that emphasized civilian casualties during an assault on Falluja. The network also reports passionately about the Palestinian conflict. 

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