Under Pressure, Qatar May Sell Jazeera Station
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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.