U.S. relations with Qatar are strained over Qatar's sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the television station that is a big source of news in the Arab world.
WASHINGTON — The tiny state of Qatar is a crucial U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, where it provides a military base and warm support of U.S. policies. Yet relations with Qatar are also strained over an awkward issue: Qatar’s sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the television station that is a big source of news in the Arab world.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and other Bush administration officials have complained heatedly to Qatari leaders that Al Jazeera broadcasts have been inflammatory, misleading and occasionally false, especially concerning Iraq.
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 by the Iraqi interim government, of the journalist Ahmed Mansour, that stressed civilian casualties during an assault on Fallujah. The network also reports passionately about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
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Some U.S. officials said Mansour was subsequently removed from that assignment, but a spokesman for Al Jazeera in Qatar, Jihad Ballout, said that was “utterly false.” He said Mansour’s two public-affairs shows remained on the air.
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.”
Estimates of Al Jazeera’s audience range from 30 million to 50 million, putting it well ahead of competitors. But that success does not translate into profitability, and the station relies on a big subsidy from the Qatari government, which has explored ways to sell it previously. The official said Qatar hoped to find a buyer within a year.
With such a big audience — and 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.
Asked if the sale might dilute Al Jazeera’s content, the station official said, “I hope not.”
Some Bush administration officials acknowledged that the well-publicized U.S. pressure on the station — highlighted when Qatar was not invited to a 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,” an Arab diplomat said. “The administration should be working with Al Jazeera and putting [administration] people on the air.”
Powell and Rumsfeld have been interviewed by Al Jazeera since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, though Cheney and Bush have not. And 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 the Bush administration to sell U.S. policies in the region.
Two years ago, the United States launched its own Arab television network, Al Hurra, but administration officials said it hasn’t gained much of a following.
Administration officials said debates within the U.S. government over what to do about Al Jazeera 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, this official said, is that much of what Al Jazeera does to inflame emotions over Iraq is standard fare on cable television, such as endless repetition of scenes of civilian deaths. There have been occasions when Pentagon criticism focused on footage that was also running on CNN and other stations at the same time, he said.
U.S. officials have charged that Al Jazeera has shown up suspiciously quickly after bombings 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 the charge and it is no longer repeated but has not been formally withdrawn.
Al Jazeera officials denied there had been any such collusion, noting they have not had crews in Iraq since August in any case. They also said that they go out of their way to get U.S. comment for stories and that they often broadcast briefings of Pentagon officials and 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.”
A U.S. official said that Al Jazeera had alienated the United States and 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.