America and its key ally Saudi Arabia are being accused of
quietly seeking to muzzle al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite news station
that has often incurred Washington's ire for its coverage of Iraq and
President George Bush's "war on terror".
According to reports in the US and the Gulf, the Qatari government,
owner of al-Jazeera since its foundation in 1996, has ordered
privatisation plans for the station to be speeded up. Many al-Jazeera
employees fear this could lead to a loss of editorial freedom. A set of
proposals is already said to have been presented to al-Jazeera's board
US officials reject all charges of meddling. Nonetheless, such
suspicions are inevitable. Senior US officials, among them the
Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary,
have fiercely criticised al-Jazeera for what they say is biased and
Washington has been particularly irritated by the station's coverage
of civilian casualties and destruction caused by US troops in Iraq, and
by its airing of messages from Osama bin Laden, the al-Qa'ida leader.
In Iraq and some other Arab countries, al-Jazeera offices have been
At the same time the Qatari government's ownership of the station
has strained diplomatic ties between Washington and one of its
traditional allies in the Gulf. In what was seen as a sign of US
displeasure, the emirate was conspicuously not invited to a summit on
Middle East democracy last summer. Though Qatar has pledged to defend
the station's independence (not least as proof of its sincerity in
promising greater democracy at home), its diplomats in Washington have
reportedly been asked to tone down the station's coverage.
With a regular audience of between 35 and 50 million, al-Jazeera is
the most popular source of news in the Arab world. It is a rare beacon
of uninhibited reporting and free expression in a region where strict
state control of the media is the norm.
But it has rarely been profitable and relies on an estimated $100m
(£53m) annual funding from its government sponsor. Assuming
privatisation goes ahead, the station is likely to be listed on Qatar's
stock market, where most of its shares would be available only to
citizens of member countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).
This could allow Saudi Arabia, the richest GCC member and a prime
source of media funding across the region, to gain a major stake in
al-Jazeera. The Saudi regime has also been a vigorous critic of
al-Jazeera's coverage of opponents of the regime. It has already
suspended advertising on the station - adding to its financial problems.
But the quandary is deepest for Washington. Officials maintain that
slanted reporting by the station has contributed to the surge of
anti-Americanism across the Arab world. But an attempt to silence this
inconvenient voice would run contrary to the proclaimed US intention of
fostering free speech and democracy in the region.
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