Monday, January 31, 2005

Al Jazeera Going Private?

The Al Jazeera website reports,

The Qatari government is considering plans to privatize the Al Jazeera Satellite television network, a spokesman said.

The Al Jazeera spokesman, Jihad Ballout, said that the TV station has been discussing privatization for the past 15 months.

He added that a consultancy company is conducting a feasibility study for privatizing Al Jazeera.

The station, often criticized by the United States for its coverage of the Iraq war, has attracted the attention of the Arab world since it was launched in 1996.

Although U.S. officials frequently appear on the TV station to reach its huge audience, they claim that Al Jazeera’s coverage of Middle East issues is politically inflammatory.

In a report published on Sunday, The New York Times quoted unidentified senior Qatari officials as saying that pressures from U.S. officials forced the Qatari government, which bankrolls Al Jazeera, to speed up the privatization plan.

Ballout said that he heard of such reports but has no further details. He also said that he doesn’t know of any attempts to intervene with the station’s independence, adding that Qatar has always planned to privatize Al Jazeera.

The salient question, of course, is how will this affect the quality of Al Jazeera's reporting. Until now, the media company has not deviated from the anti-Western rhetoric espoused by so many Arab countries; as a mouth-piece of the Qatari government, this is to be expected. Were the company to be privatized - and run by a board of directors - would Al Jazeera adopt a more enlightened, moderate stance, or would it simply go the way of many (privately owned) Arab newspapers, making use of its media position to launch verbal attacks on the West from a (privately owned) soapbox?

Of course, it is too early to see the future of Al Jazeera journalism - the privatization hasn't even happened yet - but talk of such an occurrence does give cause to wonder.

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