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Under Pressure, Qatar May Sell Jazeera Station

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/international/middleeast/30jazeera.html?th Under Pressure, Qatar May Sell Jazeera Station By STEVEN R. WEISMAN Published:
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/international/middleeast/30jazeera.html?th

      Under Pressure, Qatar May Sell Jazeera Station
      By STEVEN R. WEISMAN

      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.

      Some American officials said that Mr. Mansour was
      subsequently removed from that assignment, but a
      spokesman for Al Jazeera in Qatar, Jihad Ballout, said
      that was "utterly false." He said Mr. Mansour's two
      public affairs shows were still on the air.

      Administration officials say debates within the
      American government over what to do about Al Jazeera
      have sometimes erupted into shouting matches.

      "One side is shouting, 'We have to shut them down!'
      and the other side is saying 'We have to work with
      them to make them better,' " said an administration
      official who has taken part in the confidential
      discussions. "It's an emotional issue. People can't
      think of it rationally."

      Part of the problem, that official said, is that much
      of what Al Jazeera does to inflame emotions over Iraq
      is standard fare on cable television, like endless
      repetition of scenes of civilian deaths. There have
      been occasions when Pentagon criticism focused on
      images that were also running on CNN and other
      stations at the same time, he said.

      American officials have also charged that Al Jazeera
      has shown up suspiciously quickly after bombing
      attacks in Iraq, and they have suggested that the
      network's correspondents may have been tipped off in
      advance. But the administration official said recently
      that there was no evidence for such a charge and that
      it was no longer repeated, though it had not been
      formally withdrawn.

      Al Jazeera officials denied that there had ever been
      any such collusion, noting that they have not had
      crews in Iraq since August in any case. They also said
      that they went out of their way to get American
      comment for stories and that they often broadcast
      briefings of Pentagon officials and Mr. Rumsfeld's
      news conferences.

      "We understand that Americans are not happy with our
      editorial policies," said Ahmed Sheikh, the network's
      news editor. "But if anyone wants us to become their
      mouthpiece, we will not do that. We are independent
      and impartial, and we have never gotten any pressure
      from the Qatari government to change our editorial
      approach."

      Leading the discussion with Al Jazeera, American
      officials said, was Ambassador Chase Untermeyer in
      Qatar and his press spokesman, but both declined to be
      interviewed. Mr. Sheikh said that he had heard
      complaints from them about incorrect information but
      that Al Jazeera "never puts anything on the air before
      we check it."

      A recent decree from the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad
      bin Khalifa al Thani, said Al Jazeera would be
      converted to a privately owned "company of
      participation," which Mr. Ballout, the station
      spokesman, said would most likely be owned by
      shareholders in the Arab world. But little has
      happened since then, and now new people have been put
      on the board to facilitate its sale.

      Mr. Sheikh said that Al Jazeera's budget last year was
      $120 million, including a subsidy of $40 million or
      $50 million from Qatar. Mr. Ballout said one reason
      for the shortfall was that businesses were afraid to
      advertise because of criticism they might get from
      Arab governments and the United States.

      "We feel aggrieved that Al Jazeera's popularity has
      not been rewarded with the advertising it deserves,"
      said Mr. Ballout. "The merchant families in control in
      the Persian Gulf feel they cannot sustain their
      position if they are not part of the status quo."

      An American official noted that Al Jazeera had not
      only alienated the United States but had also angered
      officials in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and many other
      countries by focusing on internal problems in those
      nations. "They must be doing something right," he said.
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