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 network spokesman said.
Details of the plan are yet to be worked out and await a feasibility report that should be completed in coming months, said Jihad Ballout, a spokesman in the Qatari capital of Doha. Al-Jazeera is highly popular in the Arab world but has repeatedly drawn criticism from the Bush administration about its coverage of the war in Iraq and other hot-button issues in the Middle East.
Pressure from U.S. officials has caused the government of Qatar, which bankrolls al-Jazeera, to accelerate the spinoff, according to a report yesterday in the New York Times, which quoted an unnamed senior Qatari official.
Ballout said he has heard reports about such pressure but has no first-hand 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 commercial or political pressure.
Ballout and a senior al-Jazeera journalist added that Qatar had always planned to privatize al-Jazeera. When the network was set up in 1996, the rough model was the BBC, which is bankrolled by the British government. The plan was for al-Jazeera to rely, after five years, on advertising dollars -- a model closer to CNN.
Although the network has succeeded in gaining viewers -- as many as 40 million 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, said Ballout and the senior al-Jazeera journalist.
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 are supposed to come from Ballout.
Calls yesterday afternoon to the embassy of Qatar were not returned. State Department spokesman Noel Clay said yesterday that then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had made the administration's position on al-Jazeera clear.
Although U.S. officials have appeared occasionally 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. As The Washington Post reported, after Powell had "very intense" discussions about the network with the Qatari foreign minister, Hamad Bin Jasim Thani, the minister said: "I heard with great attention what the U.S. administration had to say about it. I am not directly involved, but I will certainly deliver it to the right people in Qatar."
Ballout said that 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 from the Arab media.
"The vast majority of the criticism of al-Jazeera has been politically motivated," he said.