Al Jazeera on the Block?


The Qatari government is reportedly trying to unload Al Jazeera, allegedly due to myriad outside pressures, particularly from the U.S. and Gulf Arab regimes. As one Qatari official put it:

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… We really have a headache, not just from the United States but from advertisers and from other countries as well.

A decree from Qatar's Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani "said that Al Jazeera would be converted to a privately owned 'company of participation,' which one source said meant it would probably "be owned by shareholders in the Arab world."

Al Jazeera's budget last year was $120 million, including a subsidy of $40-50 million from the Qatari government. An Al-Jazeera spokesman said a reason for the deficit "was that businesses were afraid to advertise because of criticism they might get from Arab governments and the United States."

Advertisement has indeed been a problem, and there is some legitimacy in lamenting the closed advertisement markets in the Gulf, which are often linked, or controlled by, members of the ruling families, or their acolytes.

If there is a moral here, however, it is not necessarily one of freedom of speech being curbed; Al Jazeera is, in many respects, an official station that serves the interests of the Qatari regime, particularly, it seems, the more Islamist-oriented branch of the ruling Al Thani family. To lament the privatization of the station is to also claim that its freedom is somehow linked to its being permanently subsidized by a regime whose democratic credentials and self-interest hardly suggest a genuinely free medium.

Ultimately, for the station to be truly independent in the long term, privatization seems a necessity. If Al Jazeera has a big audience, as it surely does, than it should be able to find intrepid investors willing to wager on a pan-Arab message that retains much popularity in the region. At the least, the investors will be able to control a powerful and influential mouthpiece that they might be able to leverage elsewhere.

But is outside pressure the real reason why the station is being sold off? Indeed, is it truly being sold off, since we don't know who the shareholders will be? One can only guess, but I would be surprised if Emir Hamad and his family give up control of the station for nothing. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if this isn't a tactic to lower pressure on the station (since all previous efforts to "temper" its politics went nowhere), while an indirect means will be found for the Al Thani to retain control over its editorial policy.

This is, of course, pure speculation. However, Emir Hamad is too shrewd to give up something big for nothing. That said, if the sale is bona fide, he may be doing so for domestic Qatari reasons. Whatever the explanation, I would read the fine print before presuming this is a case of outrageously enforced silence.